Local stations give elections short shrift

WASHINGTON — Reality TV may still be thriving, but not when it comes to reality politics and local TV coverage of the crucial Nov. 5 elections.

Interested viewers are hard-pressed to find news stories on congressional, state and local elections when clicking on their sets, according to a study released Wednesday by the Norman Lear Center at USC’s Annenberg School and the political science department at the U. of Wisconsin-Madison.

An analysis of 2,454 newscasts aired across the country between Sept. 18 and Oct. 4 found that 1,311 shows carried no campaign coverage at all, according to the study.

Survey provides plenty of ammo for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), who say broadcasters aren’t fulfilling their obligation to inform the public.

Long ago, when first granted free use of the public airwaves, broadcasters promised to support the electoral process, McCain and Feingold reminded.

Instead, broadcasters are making millions from the proliferation of costly political TV ads, while at the same time offering less news coverage, they say.

McCain and Feingold are resurrecting their plan to force broadcasters to offer up free ad time, and are expected to introduce legislation to that effect before Congress adjourns this weekend for the election recess.

Earlier this year, McCain and Feingold were forced to drop a similar provision in order to secure passage of sweeping campaign finance reform legislation. Under that plan, broadcasters would have been required to offer across-the-board discounts to federal candidates.

The new proposal being pitched by McCain and Feingold would reportedly go even further and require TV stations to give free time.

Separately, the Senate on Wednesday passed legislation enacting nationwide election standards, hoping to rectify the disasterous 2000 presidential race.

The measure now goes to President Bush for signature. New standards include ID requirements and billions of dollars in voting equipment.

B’casters: Not our fault

Broadcasters say they aren’t to blame for the lack of interest in political debate. TV stations report that candidates rarely take advantage of free airtime offered in the weeks leading up to an election.

Almost all TV station groups have offered such time this year.

On top of that, the National Assn. of Broadcasters says TV stations do offer discounted ad rates in many instances. Rates do climb if a candidate wants to secure a non-preemptible, primetime slot.

Political ad revenues are at a record-high this election season, and are likely to exceed $400 million by the time all ballots are counted.

The Lear Center study released Wednesday examined news coverage carried by 122 stations in the country’s 50 largest markets.

Few soundbites

Of the 1,037 broadcasts carrying election coverage, stories averaged 80.5 seconds. Less than 20% of the stories carried soundbites from candidates.

The study noted that congressional candidates are having an especially difficult time getting coverage — even though control of both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate hang in the balance.

Many of the election stories studied focused on governor’s races, including those in California and New York.

The Lear Center study sympathized with the “murderous” ratings pressure felt by stations.

“It’s heartening that at least some stations are trying to do a better-than-average job of covering campaigns, informing voters, and fulfilling their public interest obligations. If more stations did a better job, maybe the public would reward them by watching them more,” Lear Center director Martin Kaplan said.

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