Reps. Shimkus and Allen
June 11, 1997
in this forum:
Should soft money be banned? Is adultery in the military out of control? What is going on with the emergency relief bill? Shouldn't there simply be full public disclosure of campaign contributions? Would free air time reduce the need to raise money? Should there be a nonpartisan commission on campaign finance reform?
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A question from Chris Durney of Atascadero, CA:
Exchange Public Airwaves for Campaigns
Recently, a huge gift of publicly-owned TV frequency band-width was made to the Major networks so they could develop the next stage of electronic communication (combined cable and satelite transmissions, etc.). I think it would be a reasonable exchange for the major nets to provide plenty of air time to candidates for national offices several months prior to their elections at little cost to the candidates or the parties for the benefits the government has allowed them on behalf of the public. Shouldn't TV CEO's pony up for the favors our elected representatives have provided them?
Rep. Shimkus responds:
There is a very specific reason that the decision was made to not charge broadcasters for the spectrum they will be allotted to develop digital signals - - because broadcast TV (not cable or satellite) is FREE. Any person may receive broadcaster's signals at no charge. In addition, the government has decided that broadcasters must begin to phase-out the current analog signal and begin to phase in a digital format. For NBC, ABC, CBS or FOX, this transition will cost around $50 million. Which is quite a bit of money to ask them to invest when they currently have state-of-the-art systems. More importantly, local stations- - the majority of whom serve small markets, will have to make this transition also. Many of these stations provide vital services to the local community and now will have to pay upwards of $2 million to upgrade to digital capabilities. Additionally, once stations have invested in the new technology and are using their digital spectrum, the old analog spectrum will be taken back. This old spectrum will then be auctioned to the highest bidder and could be used for pagers, satellite or wireless services.
Although our television and radio broadcasters are already mandated to give the lowest rate in the market for campaign advertising, the issue of broadcasters giving up free air time for campaign has also been brought up recently. Several bills have been introduced on this topic of free air time in the 105th Congress. I would encourage you to follow these bills as they make their way through committees and through the House and Senate.
Rep. Allen responds:
This issue of free or reduced rate television time for candidates in exchange for digital spectrum licenses will be discussed in this Congress. A number of members of Congress have sent a letter to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regarding free television time. The letter asks that the FCC use its rule-making authority to require free television for political candidates.
The high cost of television is a hurdle facing many candidates attempting to get their message out to the voters. Incumbents, especially, often have more resources and can purchase television advertisements. Challengers often cannot raise the money needed for TV ads. Advocates argue that free television lets candidates be heard regardless of their ability to raise money. This, in turn, raises the level of the debate.
Advocates argue that the broadcasting industry should provide free television for candidates in return for the use of the new digital spectrum. Opponents respond that this approach unfairly singles out broadcasters and is contrary to free market principles. The public digital spectrum is estimated to be worth billions of dollars. As it stands now, the broadcasters will not have to pay for the use of the spectrum.
A Federal Advisory Commission is studying the issue of whether broadcasters should provide free air time. In June of 1998, the Commission will report its findings to the Vice President.