There's No “Free” Election


With the switch of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg from the Republican Party to undecided last week, the shadow-candidate field got decidedly more interesting. There are now at least three media types among the undeclared presidential hopefuls: ex-Law & Order cast member and Paul Harvey fill-in Fred Thompson, Current founder Al Gore, and Hizzoner.

We're not ready to endorse anybody, but we do endorse the idea of people with real-world business and management experience mixing it up in the political ring. Bloomberg is a guy who knows how to run both a successful media business—make that wildly successful—and the City of New York, which might as well be a small country. And by way of full disclosure, Bloomberg is also a B&C Hall of Famer.

Broadcast accountants should be rooting for the mayor, given the millions of dollars that would add to the anticipated record TV campaign-ad haul—we've heard $1.7 billion—for the 2008 election.

That enticing figure is also reason enough for broadcasters to be concerned about a bill introduced last week, the Free Elections Now Act (FENA), which would take a big bite out of that total by giving any candidate who limits outside funding a big break on the price of TV ad time.

While bills to require broadcasters to charge politicians less for ads have come and gone before, this one may have legs. Previous scandals were enough to help push through a lobbying-reform bill, and that same mood is helping fuel a push to make broadcasters subsidize some of the ad load. And it isn't just Democrats. Republican Senator Arlen Specter (Pa.) and powerful Democrat Dick Durbin (Ill.) are co-sponsoring the bill. Durbin opined at a hearing on the bill last week that he is tired of campaign money essentially going to pad a broadcaster trust fund.

At issue is the lowest-unit-rate rule, which says broadcasters must charge candidates for public office the lowest price they charge for a particular category of ad, primetime or news or whatever. Broadcasters charge more for non-preemptible spots than they do for preemptible ones, just as you pay more for a guarantee on most things.

The bill would require broadcasters to charge preemptible rates for non-preemptible spots, which is like getting filet mignon for the price of a Philly cheesesteak. It would require broadcasters to discount the spots another 20% in the run-up to the election.

Broadcasters would even be taxed 2% of their gross revenues for a fund to help candidates pay for that discounted time. The discount would also be extended to political parties so that broadcasters could help pay for the mud-slinging marathons.

We have no doubt that some TV stations treat the lowest-unit-rate rule the way most of us treat tax laws, which is, at the end of the day, to keep as much money as possible. This proposal would prioritize political speech. Using it to break the habit of spending like a drunken sailor to get elected is not an answer.