In honor of election day here in the United States, we could not pass up the opportunity to revisit a well-documented problem with broadcast television.
Over the past month, we’ve been inundated with political TV advertising. In the final weeks before election, according to The Lear Center, TV stations air four times as many political ads as campaign stories and devote twice as much time to advertising as to news.
Martin Kaplan, associate dean of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and director of the Norman Lear Center, sums it up well: “Many station managers feel that putting political news on their airwaves would be ratings poison for their news broadcasts. It looks like that fear doesn’t apply to airing paid political ads during those same shows.”
Election time is like Christmas for TV stations. This year national spending on TV political ads could reach $1 billion, more than double the $498 million spent in 1998, the last mid-term election. (In Texas, the gubernatorial underdog, Tony Sanchez, spent more that $53 million.) It’s no wonder being rich is has become a prerequisite for campaigning.
Yet, increased TV ad rates during election time are not a result of growing viewership. Audiences continue to shrink but, thanks to increased political spending, TV revenues grow. According to a recent FCC report (MS Word 880kb), the profit margins of broadcast properties routinely outperform those of Fortune 500 companies by four or five-fold.
While every MBA would cheer at such news, there is a terrible downside. We, the American public, gave the TV stations airwaves for free, in return for their commitment to serve the public interest and democratic good. But when election time comes around, the industry sells that airtime at outrageous rates fueling the money chase and special interest groups, while zapping public confidence and undermining much needed political discourse.
Update: 11.06.02 - “The Web also offers a much wider spectrum of political opinion than is available on advertising-driven radio or television.”
(Voters surf Web to prepare for election day - CNN.com)