The stage is set for Vice President Al Gore. There's a lectern at center stage with the vice presidential seal. Off to the left is an antique television, which Gore will later tell us is a vintage 1946 model. This is in the auditorium of the Herbert C. Hoover Building, which houses the United States Department of Commerce as well as the National Aquarium.
Gore's subject today is the future of television. The subtext is what television should do for America, for the political system, and for politicians who wish to address large audiences without having to pay millions of dollars to do it. After all, much has been given to the broadcasting industry: free use of the public airwaves, by which TV networks and stations extract significant private profit. Shouldn't the public get something in return other than mindless entertainment and snippets of news?
Every so often in Washington the idea surfaces that television should be used in better ways, that it should play a role, for example, in improving the way elections are conducted. This is one of those moments. It is a Wednesday morning, October 22, 1997. It's almost one year since Clinton and Gore were re-elected, and more than a year and a half since the president signed what is always described as the "sweeping" Telecommunications Act of 1996. Gore has been the administration's lead man on telecommunications. The mission here at the Hoover auditorium is to launch a high-level study group on how the public interest ought to be better served as technology leads to changes no one is quite sure about. The group will be named "The Advisory Committee on Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters." But it will come to be known as "the Gore commission."
"We are here today to begin a serious study of one of the most important questions of our time," Gore begins. How should America's broadcasters use the airwaves to create "a forum not just for entertainment, but for education, enlightenment, and civic debate as well"? He talks about how many hours Americans spend watching television and the particular need to improve children's programming. Soon television will go through "the biggest transformation in its history." And with all the changes, he says, "we also hope and expect to see free TV time for candidates for public office."
With that, Gore turns to a large screen on his left, and the image appears, in black and white, of John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon in their 1960 televised debate. The film loop of Kennedy and Nixon plays silently in the background.
"Some of you may know that I don't come new to this issue; I introduced the very first free TV legislation in the Senate, exactly nine years ago this past Saturday, October 18, 1988," Gore continues. "Sadly, nine years later, little has changed in our system for financing campaigns. Candidates still raise and spend too much money--mostly to buy those 30-second slivers of TV time to air their views." Gore's speech has a little bit of Kennedy: He wants broadcasters to ask themselves what they can do for the country. But it has a little bit of Nixon, too: While it is true Gore isn't new to this issue, his bill to mandate free television time for candidates was not, as he claims, "the very first" such legislation. In fact, there have been 163 bills for free or reduced-cost TV time introduced in Congress since 1960, according to the Congressional Research Service. Oddly enough, one of these bills, proposed in the 90th Congress (1967-1968), was sponsored by Albert Gore, Sr., the vice president's late father.
Fortunately for the vice president, the mass media pay little attention to the subject of reforming television. His dubious claim (for once) goes unreported, as does the larger message of his speech. For that matter, the work of the Gore commission in the following months doesn't make a ripple in the news media, either. Which is too bad, because how we determine "the public-interest obligations of broadcasters" turns out to be one of those multibillion-dollar questions--the kind of question the most powerful people in Washington fight tenaciously about, out of earshot of the American public. It does indeed have something to do with "the survival of our democracy," as Gore put it. Freeing up the airwaves for candidates is not the only way broadcasters might improve democratic prospects, nor is it even the most important to most activists. But it could help reduce the cost of running for office, advocates say. And if candidates could somehow get out of the 30- and 60-second formats, perhaps viewers would hear political discussions that rise above the inanity of most paid political ads.
So Gore didn't exactly start the discussion. But he keeps trying to jump-start it. His current plan for campaign finance reform includes a proposal for free airtime. Acknowledging that he is an "imperfect messenger" for campaign reform, he nonetheless pledges to make it his top domestic priority if he's elected president.
People have been arguing about the public-interest standard in broadcasting for a long time--since the early days of radio. When Herbert Hoover was Secretary of Commerce in the 1920s, he declared, "The ether is a public medium, and its use must be for a public benefit." That idea was written into law in the Communications Act of 1934, which requires broadcasters to operate in the "public interest, convenience, and necessity." As the concept took hold that the "ether"--the airwaves through which broadcast signals travel--is owned by the public, it therefore made sense to allow the government to regulate the use of the airwaves. As a practical matter, someone had to step in to prevent competing signals from jamming each other. The 1934 law set up the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which grants licenses to broadcast at an assigned frequency. The rules of the air stayed in place without much change until the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
That new law mainly had to do with telephone and cable companies. They are now allowed to move into each other's business. But the law also anticipated technical transformation, as analog gives way to digital. TV stations will be sending out a new digital signal (some already are) that will require a new kind of TV to receive it. Meanwhile they will continue, for the next several years, to send out the old-fashioned analog signal to the millions of sets that are already so last century.
The original promise of the digital transformation was that viewers would be able to receive pictures of superior clarity--the much ballyhooed High-Definition TV. The more far-reaching commercial implication, though, is that the same broadcaster could offer viewers multiple channels. Because the digital signals can be "compressed," broadcasters might squeeze six or more channels out of the six megahertz of space they've been allotted. HDTV is a spectrum hog; its signal would take up the whole six megahertz. Thus, a station could broadcast one super-sharp movie or sports event in HDTV--or it could split up the channel and offer several options. The latter approach, broadcasters have noticed, may offer more potential advertising revenue.
When Congress cleared the way for the digital transformation, it largely ignored the broadcast industry's public-interest obligations. Nor did the Telecommunications Act of 1996 require the nation's broadcasters to cough up any money for its new spectrum windfall. By contrast, in 1993 the FCC was authorized to hold auctions for licenses that went to mobile phone companies. Billions of dollars have been raised from spectrum auctions as the wireless communication companies have grown.
But television is different: It's vastly more powerful in Washington, for one thing. So the licenses for digital broadcasting were granted to television companies without charge. As this gift of digital spectrum turns into a bonanza, what will the public get in return? More sitcoms, more game shows, more hair-pulling freak shows, and ads and ads and ads? Will new technology make free candidate access to television more likely, or less?
The Gore commission was asked to come up with answers. As with any appointed panel, the hand dealt in the end has a lot to do with how the cards are stacked in the beginning. The administration wanted broadcasters to participate but not to dominate. Leslie Moonves, president of CBS Television, was chosen as co-chairman, along with Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. In addition to Moonves, 10 of the 22 members came from the broadcast business--which gave the industry an effective veto since the commission operated by consensus. For counterbalance, the administration chose two of the strongest advocates in the publicinterest community (Peggy Charren, the founder of Action for Children's Television, and Gigi Sohn of the Media Access Project) and two respected legal specialists (Newton Minow, a former FCC chairman and longtime critic of television's standards, and Cass Sunstein, a University of Chicago law professor).
The group's report, released in December 1998, contained 10 recommendations, mostly of the lukewarm quality one might expect when divergent interests are required to come to consensus. Still, on how television might enrich politics, the committee's report reflected the vision Vice President Gore had laid out in that inaugural meeting. "The quality of political discourse is declining," the report stated, and television was part of the problem. The committee called on broadcasters to strike a bargain with Congress: "If Congress passes comprehensive campaign finance reform, broadcasters will commit firmly and clearly to do their part to reform the role of television in campaigns." The committee also recommended that broadcasters experiment with reform in the meantime, by voluntarily agreeing "to provide five minutes each night for candidate-centered discourse in the 30 days before an election." (This, as it turned out, was the recommendation Gore included in his campaign reform proposal announced this spring.)
Of course, the key word was "voluntarily." A majority of the committee wanted stronger language. In a dissenting statement, 13 members supported a government requirement for free airtime for local and national public office candidates. "We believe that exclusive reliance on voluntary standards in this area will be ineffective," they wrote.
For his part, Ornstein defends the consensus approach. "There wasn't a chance in the world we were going to get broadcasters' agreement on mandated free time," he says in an interview. For something to spark action in Washington it needs to be seen as having some support on both sides, he says. But Ornstein, who has long supported free TV time, also had hoped for a stronger statement on what broadcasters should do to improve electoral politics. Recalling how the work of the Gore commission unfolded, he says, "At the early stages, broadcasters showed willingness to find some sort of compromise on free TV time." Then, in the early part of 1998, President Clinton mentioned the idea in his State of the Union address and shortly afterward sent a letter urging the FCC "to act to require media outlets to provide free and discounted airtime for campaign advertising." FCC Chairman William Kennard said he favored the idea.
As Ornstein recounts, those events set off "an almost unbelievable fire storm on the Hill." There were threats to "eviscerate the FCC if they moved forward to do this," he recalls. It became clear the FCC would not move anytime soon. At that point, Ornstein perceived a "clear change of attitude among broadcasters on the committee." It was as if they concluded, he says,"we don't need to do any of this."
It's a Washington story as old as TV itself. For decades the rule has been don't mess with television. Even a step as modest as requiring coverage of electoral politics in the short period before an election bumps up against the organized opposition of the major networks and the 1,600 television stations (and more than 12,600 radio stations) across the land. And they are organized. Their lobby group, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), is in the heavyweight class of influencers that stalk the Capitol. In 1998 the NAB and its Political Action Committee gave almost $658,000 in campaign contributions to federal campaigns and parties--65 percent to Republicans and 35 percent to Democrats, according to research by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics (CRP). More important, the NAB spent $5.2 million on lobbying that year, placing it 35th among the top 100 special interests ranked by the CRP. New York Times columnist William Safire, in blasting the 1996 spectrum giveaway, noted that the NAB and major broadcasters had 174 registered lobbyists on duty, ranging from former Republican Party Chairman Haley Barbour to former Texas Democratic Governor Ann Richards.
As for the work of the Gore commission, Ornstein says, members got no help from the NAB. "The NAB as an institution was totally resistant to anything, anything. And this is an institution that has enormous power. They use what I call the sumo wrestler approach: You just use your bulk to bounce anyone out of the ring."
Who's Afraid of the NAB?
To meet Paul Taylor is not an experience that brings sumo wrestling to mind. He is trim in his middle age, compact, and tends to wear the kind of clothes that journalists wear: nothing stylish, the shirt making the shoulders look less broad than they should. Yet Taylor has been in the ring for several years with the NAB. He quit The Washington Post in 1995 to launch something he called the Free TV for Straight Talk Coalition. With funding from the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Open Society Institute, that effort grew into the Alliance for Better Campaigns in 1998. Taylor enlisted Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, and Walter Cronkite to serve as co-chairmen. The ambitious mission of the alliance is "to improve elections by promoting campaigns in which the most useful information reaches the greatest number of people in the most engaging way." The keystone idea is that television networks ought to commit to at least five minutes a night of free airtime for candidates during election seasons.
Taylor works out of a crowded corner of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, on the third floor of the National Press Building in Washington. More than anyone else, he is identified with the "five minutes per night" idea. (Al Gore even referred to it this spring as "the Paul Taylor proposal.") Taylor makes it clear he doesn't see free TV time as a panacea. He'd like a more comprehensive approach to campaign reform. But in talks, op-ed articles, and magazine pieces, he hits relentlessly on the theme that broadcasters, because they use the public airwaves, have an obligation to better serve the polity. The other tack taken by the Alliance for Better Campaigns is to goad broadcasters into voluntarily setting higher journalistic standards. Working with the Annenberg center, the alliance keeps track of the ever-shrinking political coverage on TV newscasts.
"It's a good idea whose time is not likely to come anytime soon," Taylor says of free time for candidates. A major part of the explanation for that, he says, has to do with the lobbying power of the NAB. He's seen the effect of the NAB "lobby days" in Congress, when local broadcasters swarm the Capitol. He knows that NAB President Eddie Fritts can get more done with one phone call than most influencers can do with a season's worth of wining and dining. He saw Senator John McCain, who once called the broadcast industry "the most powerful lobby I have encountered in Washington," withdraw the free-TV-time plank early in 1997 from the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill. Everyone assumed at the time it was the only way Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott would let the bill be debated in the Senate. And everyone who paid close attention knew that Lott and Fritts were college classmates at Ole Miss and that they remain close friends.
But Taylor says the NAB is only the second most important factor here. The primary roadblock is Congress's unwillingness to take measures to open up the democratic process. It's the incumbent-protection racket. Why would Congress do anything to make it easier for challengers to get free television exposure? The real problem, he says, is that there is "100 percent confluence" between the interests of incumbents and broadcasters--a united front against free airtime.
Taylor's analysis sounds plausible enough. But suppose Congress was won over and incumbents voted against their self-interest. The old Washington truism is that every member of Congress quivers to think what the TV station back home might do in the way of negative coverage. Have they good reason to tremble? Would television stations really succeed in manipulating their reporters to serve the industry's purposes? Or could it be that the NAB is a convenient bogeyman for Congress?
"I think that's right," Taylor says. "But listen: I've always been impressed by the ex-tent that politicians live in fear of real and imagined enemies."
Later, I try the question on some members of Congress. Representative Maurice Hinchey, who was one of only 16 House members to vote to stop the FCC from awarding free licenses to TV stations making the digital transition, says voting against the NAB line has not hurt him with local broadcasters. "I don't think the broadcasting industry would do that," he says. "I mean, if there was any indication of that, I would raise hell. I'd find ways to raise hell about it." Has he heard of any member of Congress taking heat in television news coverage because of anti-industry stands? "I could cite you no example of that," he says.
And neither can anyone else I speak with in Washington. Representative Barney Frank, the Massachusetts liberal who railed against the digital spectrum grab, says broadcasters' power doesn't work that way. "It is not the fear that they will keep you off the air," he says. "It is that they are a very powerful economic interest within your district. Everybody represents stations, TV and radio stations. And they are influential people, and they have a lot of people who work for them, and they come and lobby you just like any other group."
The NAB has a fabulous building on the corner of 17th and N streets that looks like a kind of giant Bose radio. NAB's spokesman Dennis Wharton, who covered the rewrite of the telecommunications law back in 1995 for Variety, is a source of extensive material on how much time television and radio stations already give to political coverage, to public-service ads, and to community-oriented events such as telethons. His point: Broadcasters are already meeting their public-service obligations.
And there is the entire arsenal of First Amendment arguments to draw on. A Nat Hentoff op-ed saying government should stay the hell out of broadcasters' editorial decisions makes its way into the packet. And there's this matter that is often overlooked: It turns out not to be true that the majority of federal candidates' spending is for television advertising. By examining federal candidates' spending records, the Virginia-based Campaign Study Group calculates that TV accounts for about 25 percent of spending, on the average, for House races and 40 percent for Senate. It can be more than half the money spent in presidential races.
Furthermore, Wharton argues, it wouldn't work to require television stations to give free time, especially in large media markets with many House districts in the viewing area. "What may work in Salt Lake City may not work in New York City," Wharton says. And on top of that, no one is sure how changing technology will affect the revenues of TV stations. Once the audience fragments even further, and we are far beyond the old, three-network world, will the free TV issue be moot?
Taylor and other activists have answers to these concerns. It's true that in a media market such as New York City, TV stations could be overwhelmed by requirements to give time to all eligible federal candidates. At least since the 1960s, there have been proposals to create a publicly financed solution: Give candidates, or parties, vouchers for a set amount of ad time, redeemable at any TV or radio station. That way, the candidate (or party) can decide how best to use the money. The vouchers have the potential of keeping a revenue stream coming to TV stations, though the stations would have to cooperate by making the time available in the schedule. Taylor likes this "broadcast bank" proposal, as did the Gore commission, which floated the idea that money could come from fees on broadcasters that create new revenue-producing digital channels. Taylor also notes that the fiveminutes-per-night idea is workable in major media markets, since it leaves the decision about how to use the time--i.e., which races to focus on--to broadcasters.
Taylor doesn't dispute evidence showing that TV is a smaller category of spending for congressional races than many people think. But, he says, "part of what this is measuring is the lack of competition." In races with no competition, incumbents may not have to go on the air at all. In competitive races, the amount spent on television advertising often goes well over 50 percent. Free TV time, Taylor says, "would relieve cost pressures; it would not remove cost pressures." Nor do the spending figures address activists' other motivation: to try to improve the quality of campaign discourse.
Will changing technology make the whole debate irrelevant? Clearly, the Internet and cable television are making political information more readily available. Yet for now, broadcast television is still where the action is in election season. Candidates buy those 30-second spots because broadcast TV can deliver the largest audience. Ad revenues from political campaigns continue to escalate. Activists used to make the argument that the television industry wouldn't lose much by giving free time--several years ago, political ads amounted only to about 1 percent of the industry's total advertising revenue. Taylor has switched tacks. In even-numbered election years, he says, political ads are now the third-largest source of revenue for the average networkaffiliated TV station. The share has gone up from 3.8 percent of annual revenue in 1992, to 8.2 percent in 1998. In any event, it adds up to real money: Federal candidates spent about $500 million on TV advertising in 1998.
And yet activists are far from hammering their message home in a way that convinces the Washington establishment. And as long as most people get their political information from television, advocates find it difficult to take their case to the public.
One can't go around Washington talking to people about the reform of television, or about any kind of campaign reform, without beginning to absorb the kind of Washington wisdom that says there's not much chance of anything happening. The tidewater muck that used to define the topography has long since been replaced by a kind of status quo muck. The whole place is mired in it.
Time to pay a visit to Fred Wertheimer. Who knows better the winding roads that sometimes lead to reform, but usually don't? Wertheimer helped Common Cause push the 1974 campaign finance reforms that gave us publicly funded presidential elections. Then, as he led Common Cause through the 1980s and into the 1990s, he saw those reforms unravel. By the 1996 elections, when the Clinton-Gore team pioneered the use of massive amounts of unregulated "soft money" contributions, spending limits were out the window, as they will be in the Gore-Bush campaigns.
Wertheimer runs a new organization called Democracy 21. When I meet with him at his office on a floor of a building that houses the International Monetary Fund, he is full of upbeat scenarios for how to march out of the Washington muck. He sees the battle for free or low-cost TV time as "the next joinable issue in the campaign finance field."
How to get it through Congress? Wertheimer looks to the year ahead. After a presidential election, campaign finance reform is a more visible issue. The first necessity is "a president who is truly committed to it," he says. But even with that, I ask, if the Senate remains in the hands of Republicans, as almost everyone expects it will, how to get anything past Senator Lott (R-NAB)? "We could beat him," Wertheimer declares. "We've beat him before."
What Wertheimer and other activists want to see is an aggressive FCC willing to build the case for a strong public-service requirement for broadcasters. Though many in Congress, including Senator McCain, loudly object to a free-time requirement being created by the FCC, others argue that is the only way it will happen. During the Clinton-Gore years, the FCC didn't have the three (out of five) votes it would take to require free airtime. But the alignment has changed, and there will be a better chance under the current commissioners (three Democrats and two Republicans). Wertheimer's view is that the FCC should make the arguments but stop short of a ruling. If they tried to do it by rule, he worries, "that would last about an hour." Congress would undo it.
But having seen Congress act in the 1970s against the status quo forces, Wertheimer believes it could happen again--indeed that campaign reform work is never done. He seems to think it is natural that earlier reforms have lost their power. The problem is, he says, "we haven't been able to pass any serious change for 26 years."
Paul Taylor adds a wrinkle. Suppose there is an Al Gore administration, he says. And suppose Gore decides Congress will never pass a free-airtime bill. Then it makes sense to have the FCC push it. Many legal observers say that the FCC has clear authority to require political time on television as part of the public-interest obligation. Congress would certainly move to block such a rule, Taylor concedes. "Then the question is, does the White House play equally tough?" Right now, nobody knows whether a Gore administration would be willing to go to the mat with a group thought to have sumo wrestler status in Washington. But, says Taylor, "that's what it would take."
The FCC opened an official inquiry in December into the public-interest obligations of broadcasters and took public comments through the spring. The FCC was prompted by a letter from the vice president urging regulators to consider the recommendations of the Gore commission and to "provide clear guidance" to broadcasters on how to meet their public-interest obligations. But few observers expect the FCC to jump ahead of Congress in trying to improve the nation's campaign politics. Campaign reform, major and minor, awaits the outcome of this fall's election.
So the stage is set for Al Gore. First there will be an expensive television advertising war to get through. Coming soon to a television set near you. ¤