The 5-minute message

Ex-president tells NAB that only 2% of broadcasters are giving time to candidates

Former President Jimmy Carter showed up at the NAB's Service to America Summit last week to accept an award and deliver a message broadcasters don't much want to hear. He asked that they dedicate five minutes of their airtime each night in the 30 nights leading up to an election to candidate-centered discourse.

It's a message broadcasters have heard again and again, and one they mostly ignore. That, in fact, was a central part of Carter's complaint: Just 2% of the nation's 1,300 commercial broadcasters have agreed to try the idea.

The initiative is one being pushed heavily by Paul Taylor's Alliance for Better Campaigns, of which Carter, along with former President Gerald Ford and former broadcaster Walter Cronkite, are honorary co-chairs. The triumvirate signed on to push the plan last October, but broadcaster participation is as slim as it was when the presidential advisory committee on the public-interest obligations of digital broadcasters-known informally as the Gore Commission-made a similar recommendation a year and a half ago.

The NAB could not confirm Carter's numbers, but there is still plenty of time before the fall elections for broadcasters to sign on, said NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton. But one of the problems with giving time to candidates is that they often don't accept offers to appear in debates and other issue-oriented programming, he said.

Among broadcasters who are participating are Hearst-Argyle, E. W. Scripps and Capitol Broadcasting. Hearst-Argyle's Boston station, WCVB-TV, has dedicated an average of four minutes and 19 seconds per night to candidate-centered discourse, the most of any station in the country but still short of the five minutes Taylor wants. Scripps' WEWS-TV Cleveland was second with an average of three minutes and 49 seconds each night.

Candidate-centered discourse, which is what Taylor is pushing stations to air, is coverage in which the candidate presents his or her own views either in a stand-alone piece or within a larger news story.

So far this year, "we have been distressed by the lack of a positive response," Carter said. He urged the approximately 200 broadcasters present at the NAB event to act soon, because "I have a feeling that if this is not done voluntarily, it might be mandated in the future."

Carter thinks free airtime is needed because, "in effect, election results in this country are bought" with advertising, he told the broadcasters. And those ads do not address the issues: They are used "to tear down the reputation of an opponent."

Making Carter's point abundantly clear were the results of the New Jersey Senate race, in which Democratic primary winner Jon Corzine spent approximately $36 million of his own money to secure the nomination. Corzine and his significantly less well-funded competitor, former New Jersey Gov. Jim Florio, spent a combined $21 million with the top four stations in New York City and Philadelphia to get their messages out. (None of the major TV stations covering New Jersey is located in the state.)

According to a study by the Alliance, viewers were 10 times more likely to see a paid campaign ad on one of those four stations than they were to see candidate discourse, which averaged about 13 seconds a night.