TV and politics: anyone listening?

Martin Smith

May 13, 1991|By Martin Smith

SINCE TELEVISION advertising has done more to debase American politics than any other single force during the last 30 years, it was cheering to hear the dean of California pollsters, Mervin Field, suggest that campaign managers would be wise to spend less on broadcasting political commercials and to look for better ways of winning over voters.

In a speech to a League of Women Voters meeting last week in Sacramento, Field declared: "The efficiency of television advertising is now overstated and on the decline."

Field recognizes that television remains a powerful force in politics. But even as the cost of broadcast time continues to escalate, the ability of campaign managers to influence potential voters through political commercials is becoming more difficult.

One of the chief reasons that the 30-second commercials so dear to the heart of campaign consultants have become less effective is that the electorate is shrinking. In California, for example, with almost every election a smaller percentage of adults who are eligible to vote choose to exercise that right.

In the 1938 gubernatorial election, fully 67 percent of eligible adults cast ballots. It's been declining steadily since then to the point where only 40 percent of adult Californians voted in last year's election. That means that in the 1990 gubernatorial race, three-fifths of their dollars were immediately wasted on non-voters.

But that's far from the end of it. The proliferation of viewing choices made possible by cable television and videotapes has greatly fractured the television audience. Each broadcast commercial reaches a smaller share of the overall viewers.

Remote control devices also enable couch potatoes to zap out the sound or change channels whenever a station begins to air a commercial. Given their usual shrillness, nasty tones and sloganeering -- all of which contribute to the public's disenchantment with politics and help explain why voting turnout continues to decline -- campaign commercials are inviting targets for such zapping.

Field's observations are particularly important in big, so-called "media states" like California, where television advertising has long been considered the only effective means of conducting statewide campaigns. Candidates now spend relatively little time seeing the voters; instead, they keep busy trying to squeeze campaign contributors for the cash with which to feed the television monster.

When a couple of campaign consultants were later asked what they thought of Field's views, they quickly agreed. They were emphatic in expressing their increasing frustrations in using television commercials effectively in a political campaign. But the problem, they say, is that no one has yet found a better alternative.

Most aren't even trying. There's nothing new about the ineffective use of campaign dollars. It once was said that 90 percent of what a candidate spends on campaigns is wasted; the trouble is that not even the professionals really understand identifying the 10 percent that works.

But Field also offers some ideas for revamping elections that might encourage a greater dependence on old-fashioned grass-roots organization and reduce the costs of campaigns. One big change would be to hold elections over a two-day period. This would increase voter participation and force candidates to make better use of volunteer supporters. Each campaign would be able to comb the registration lists after the first day of voting and make better efforts to get their likely supporters to cast ballots on the second day.

Same-day voting registration also would lead to a higher turnout. Field estimates that 10 percent of last year's non-voters would have liked to cast ballots but had moved recently or had forgotten to register and weren't eligible.

Forcing broadcasters to give a certain amount of free prime time to candidates and parties might be the most useful reform. "The free licenses [broadcasters] get from the federal government amount to a license to print money," Field said.

His last recommendation needs refinement, however. It would not advance the quality of the political dialogue simply to provide free air time for more of the same 30-second commercials already polluting the process. The time should be allocated in segments of no less than five minutes. That would de-emphasize the slogans and also permit candidates to demonstrate that they can hold a train of thought for more than a half-minute.

Martin Smith is political editor of McClatchy News Service.

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