Lowest rate lowdown


The Torricelli amendment the Senate passed last week would require broadcast, cable and satellite companies to give candidates or political parties the lowest rate for a particular time period.

For example, if a candidate wanted to buy an ad during the 5 o'clock news on Oct. 10, the media outlet would be required to give the candidate an ad at the lowest price it charged for a spot during that newscast over the previous year. If ad time were extremely inexpensive in July, when television has fewer viewers, it would remain that price during October, even though October tends to be a hot month, with World Series games and retailers ramping up for the holidays.

A key part of the bill, whose chief sponsor is Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.), also would prevent TV stations from bumping politicians' ads in favor of more expensive ads. Politicians complained bitterly last week that even though local TV stations offer lowest-unit rates, that offer comes with the warning that if ads are bought at that rate, they could get pre-empted by more expensive ads. The result is that for the most part, politicians end up buying their ads at exactly the same rate as carmakers and retailers, leading Torricelli and others to accuse broadcasters of "price-gouging." Last year, candidates spent $771 million on TV; Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) jokes ruefully that she's the broadcasters' modern-day Santa Claus.

Torricelli's amendment also would apply to satellite carriers, but not to radio. As it stands today, the law applies only to TV stations and cable operators.

Finally, the FCC would have the authority, and the mandate, to monitor broadcasters continually to make sure they were charging politicians their lowest-unit rates.