Prez links free airtime, spectrum

WASHINGTON — President Clinton said Tuesday that broadcasters should be required to give free airtime to politicians as a condition of their digital TV licenses and, in an unusual move, publicly called on the FCC to make his wish come true.

“I believe broadcasters who receive digital licenses should provide free airtime to candidates, and I believe the FCC should act to require broadcasters to provide free airtime to candidates,” Clinton said, during a conference spon-sored by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, the Free TV for Straight Talk Coalition and the Pew Charitable Trust.

Clinton’s statement is the first time that the president has said that the extra airwaves broadcasters need for the digital TV transition should include additional public interest obligations.

“It is time to update broadcasters’ public interest obligations to meet the demands of the new time and technologi-cal realities,” Clinton said.

Washington is currently in the midst of a campaign finance scandal that comes with daily revelations of alleged improprieties involving fundraising both on Capitol Hill and at the White House.

Clinton continued his push for passage of a campaign finance reform package by July 4. The reform package, co-sponsored by Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), includes a proposal that would require stations to give each Senate candidate one half-hour of free time on the TV station or stations of their choice.

FCC Chairman Reed Hundt, who also supports using free airtime as a way of reducing financial pressure on politi-cal candidates, said he is not going to wait for the passage of legislation to begin the process of writing new rules.

Hundt heeds the call

“As the President communicated, the FCC has the power, the precedent and the procedures to issue a rule ordering free air time access by candidates and to assure free access to the airwaves for political candidates. I hear the call, and I agree with him,” Hundt said.

Although Hundt insisted Tuesday that there is legal precedent for requisitioning free airtime from broadcasters, the National Assn. of Broadcasters disagreed.

NAB prexy Eddie Fritts called the proposal “blatantly unconstitutional” and noted acidly that it “won’t prevent illegal campaign contributions.”

Fritts’ comment comes as Senate Republicans are preparing to launch an exhaustive investigation of campaign fundraising in the Clinton White House.

Fritts also said, “Broadcasters have a great tradition of voluntarily offering free airtime for debates and other forums. Politicians have an equally long tradition of refusing these offers.”

Even Silver King chairman Barry Diller got into the act Tuesday by enthusiastically embracing the free airtime proposal. Although Diller did not address the confab, he told reporters that broadcasters should provide politicians with 100% of their political advertising for free.

Diller champions reform

In a speech to industry execs at the annual NATPE meeting in January, Diller called on the industry to hand over free time to make good on their public-interest obligations. However, Diller added that the free time must be tied to meaningful campaign reform in other areas, such as reducing campaign donations to as little as $100 for individuals.

An Annenberg Public Policy Center study found that offers of free time during the 1996 presidential election re-sulted in limited returns.

Only 22.3% of TV viewers remember seeing one of the free spots that aired on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox and CNN. Annenberg director Kathleen Hall Jamieson called the results “disappointing.” Free air time “resulted in marginal but, we think, important improvements,” Jamieson said.

During one panel session, Dole campaign strategist Alex Castellanos was highly critical of the effort, saying free time contributed little to the campaign process. “In our campaign it was fairly inconsequential and was a distrac-tion,” Castellanos said.

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