Commercial Campaigns?

While revenue from political TV ads is skyrocketing, television news programs are devoting less and less time to campaign news, according to two studies released today.

TV stations in the top 75 media markets took in a record $114 million for over 151,000 campaign commercials during the first four months of this year, according to a report from the Alliance for Better Campaigns, a Washington advocacy group, in conjunction with the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania and the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California.

The study was funded by the Ford Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts, which also underwrites the NewsHour’s media unit.

In it, the Alliance said broadcasters stand to make $600 million from the 2000 election season — six times the amount they made from political ads a generation ago.

But, the study says, local and national news programs are devoting less and less time to the election itself. The typical news broadcast — local and national — averaged fewer than 40 seconds of candidate discourse per night during the height of the presidential primaries, researchers found.

That number falls far short of the 5-minute per night standard recommended by a White House panel of broadcasters and public interest advocates.

In another study, the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California’s Norman Lear Center analyzed political coverage in the 30 days before a primary on 19 top-rated stations in 11 cities.

According to researchers, 16 local stations studied averaged 39 seconds of candidate-centered discourse — candidates discussing political issues — per evening in the period before the March 7 presidential primaries. Only three of the stations approached the White House 5-minute standard — they averaged four minutes nightly.

National newscasts fared no better, with ABC, CBS and NBC devoting just 36 seconds nightly to campaign issues before Super Tuesday.

The study shows that substantive discussion of crucial issues is disappearing from the airwaves, said Paul Taylor, executive director for the Alliance for Better Campaigns.

“Citizens are trapped in a system controlled by big-money candidates, special-interest donors and profit-hungry broadcasters,” Taylor said. “Increasingly, political campaigns have become a transfer of income from wealthy donors to wealthy broadcasters.”

But Dennis Wharton, a spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters, told The New York Times filling five minutes with candidate voices isn’t a simple task.

“One of the recurring problems faced by broadcasters is that when we offer free air time to candidates, we get rejected,” Wharton said. “When incumbents with a 95 percent name recognition are given the option of debating an opponent with 5 percent name recognition they turn broadcasters down routinely.”