What if nets followed the style of political attack ads?

With the midterm congressional elections around the corner, TV viewers are awash in political discourse and mudslinging — provided, that is, they watch the commercials and skip their local news.

Television stations happily gobble up money from congressional races and various causes, with most 30-second spots constituting hit pieces against the opposition. Yet those seeking more expansive coverage had better not blink or they’re apt to miss whatever actual news content is devoted to the candidates.

Additional evidence of this trend comes from a study by the U. of Wisconsin’s NewsLab, which examined election coverage in nine major Midwest markets during September. The average allotment to campaigns within each half-hour newscast: 36 seconds. By way of comparison, crime received four times as much time.

Newspapers remain a more thorough source for election news, but a majority of the public still gleans most of its information from television, and ads eagerly fill the void, labeling rivals lying, rat-fink bastards. Small wonder the entire process is caked with cynicism.

Granted, “going negative” is hardly new. Just think back to the famous 1964 spot where a little girl disappeared within a nuclear mushroom cloud — a warning against voting for Barry Goldwater, contributing to Lyndon Johnson’s landslide win.

In the past, though, negative commercials were balanced by news content that elaborated on issues and candidates’ stances — an increasingly rare commodity today. The result is a plethora of nasty stuff demonizing the candidates with scant context, positive imagery or position statements to explain why anyone should support them.

Nevertheless, the prevailing system is good for stations, which reap extra cash because the political season absorbs excess advertising inventory. Recent estimates say independent orgs known as 527 groups alone will spray more than $300 million worth of negative ads into this election cycle, a substantial increase vs. 2002.

The lack of coverage also favors established candidates, who can more easily shape their TV image, since nobody’s doing much reporting in that medium.

The only real loser is the electorate, which gets shortchanged in terms of analysis other than the standard horseracing metaphors regarding who’s up, who’s down and whoops, is it time for weather and sports already?

“Campaigns and candidates want to control message and dislike coverage they cannot control,” says Wisconsin political science prof and NewsLab director Ken Goldstein, who suggests that even with politicians stage-managing their appearances and limiting access, “there are still stories to cover and news to discover.”

Or, in the case of most TV newscasts, not.

* * *

Observing those political attack ads, one wonders why the broadcast networks haven’t adopted a similar strategy of “going negative,” which obviously yields dividends for candidates. Why plug your own show when it’s so much easier to trash a timeslot competitor?

“ABC promised that ‘Six Degrees’ would be a stirring drama from the creator of ‘Lost,'” one spot might begin. “But the record shows it’s weak. Weak on story. Weak on character. Weak on the drama you want.

“You’ve given ‘Six Degrees’ a chance. Isn’t it time for a different new drama?

“Brought to you by ‘Shark,’ Thursdays on CBS.”

Or:

“NBC didn’t try to feed you just one new backstage series about a ‘Saturday Night Live’-type show this fall. They trotted out two of them — ‘Studio 60′ and ’30 Rock.’ Confused? We’re not surprised. And besides, haven’t we all seen enough walking and talking on TV?

“Tell NBC that its numbers just don’t add up. Do it … for the children.

“Paid for by ABC’s ‘What About Brian.'”

* * *

If the political season has become a circus, California residents enjoy a front-row seat for what’s transpiring inside the center ring.

Beyond Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s campaign — which often feels like an extended movie premiere and left Democratic challenger Phil Angelides fuming about not being invited on “The Tonight Show” — there are plenty of sideshows. Take Ben Stein, he of “Win Ben Stein’s Money” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” who can be heard endorsing the GOP’s Chuck Poochigian as a “darn fine” attorney general.

California is also home to Prop 89, a “clean elections” initiative supported by a TV ad that decries the sliminess of political TV ads.

The Golden State might be a cultural wasteland in the eyes of the Eastern establishment, but that’s not really true — unless you happen to visit during election years.

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