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U.S. backs ad caps

Senate endorses cut-rate commercial time

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate on Wednesday voted 70-30 to tighten federal rules so that broadcasters would always have to offer discounted ad rates to political candidates — no exceptions allowed.

If the National Assn. of Broadcasters, which generally wields great weight on Capitol Hill, was hoping to avoid getting caught in the middle of the high-profile debate over campaign finance reform, such hopes are now gone. The ad-rate measure approved Wednesday is attached to the overall reform bill being considered by Congress.

Measure would require broadcasters to adhere strictly to discounted rates, as well as directing the FCC to monitor nets and stations.

Lawmakers, including frosh Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), said broadcasters are prime culprits in driving up the cost of campaigns.

“It goes to the heart of what the money chase is all about,” Clinton said, who herself raised more than $30 million in the 2000 election. She and other colleagues said the vast majority of money raised goes to media buys.

While the Federal Communications Commission mandates that broadcasters offer discounted rates to political contenders, nets and stations have gotten around the rule by attaching unworkable conditions, such as the right to preempt, senators said.

Hence, candidates pay higher rates in order to ensure their ad will run. And the higher the rates go, the more candidates have to raise, resulting in frenetic fundraising and multimillion-dollar campaigns, according to Clinton and other lawmakers.

B’caster broadside

NAB prexy-CEO Edward Fritts shot back with harsh words, saying the measure will not reduce the high cost of running for office. Rather, it will “unleash a torrent” of negative attack ads. The cheaper the airtime, the more ads.

“The Senate has voted itself a multimillion-dollar windfall,” Fritts said. “Only in Washington can this be called reform.”

Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) said it is unfair to target the broadcasting industry. “How many other industries are we asking to lower their rates for the sake of political activities?”

Broadcasting execs say any restrictions could prove unconstitutional, since commercial speech is protected under the First Amendment.

Sen. Jon Corzine (D-N.J.), one of the amendment’s authors, said broadcasters should count their blessings that they’re not being asked to provide free airtime to candidates, as do broadcasters in most of Europe.

He said broadcasters are required to serve the public interest in exchange for using free airwaves. Part of that public trust includes serving the democratic process — a trust jeopardized by the increasing cost of political ads.

“This simple, but powerful, reform would bring sanity to the cost of 21st-century campaigns,” Corzine said.

He and other lawmakers said campaign seasons have become one of the most profitable windows for broadcasters.

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