Free TV time for candidates: a modest beginning


WASHINGTON -- Like horses brought to water who can't be made to drink, voters can't be forced to exercise the franchise if they don't want to. In last year's presidential election, more didn't vote than did -- only 49 percent of those eligible.

The figure, according to Curtis Gans of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, resumed a 36-year decline in voter turnout, broken only in 1992.

The regression after the 55.2 percent voter participation in the Clinton-Bush race in 1992 came in spite of a new experiment in the communication of candidate views: free television time on five networks: NBC, CBS, CNN, Fox and PBS.

The campaign for free time was spearheaded by a former Washington Post political reporter, Paul Taylor, and the retired CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite. While they did not achieve what could have been the most effective reform -- getting the networks to ''roadblock'' candidate appearances on all of them simultaneously, there are indications that free TV time did raise the tone of the campaign.

The Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, concluded that when the candidates talked directly to the camera, the discourse was more civil and informative and less negative than that conveyed in paid television ads. The study found that when a candidate did criticize his opponent, he frequently compared his own positions with those of his opponent, rather than launch a pure attack. Such free-time attacks were found to be considerably less frequent than in the presidential debates, in ads and in news accounts of campaign speeches and other events.

The candidates in free-time presentations also, on the whole, offered more evidence of their claims than did other communications to the voters, and in some cases were more accurate than information conveyed in debates and ads, as well as less inflammatory and alarmist in phrasing.

All this was to the good, but there was a distinct downside in the free time: Its audience, the report said, ''paled in comparison to the audiences for debates and ads.'' Although free-time segments were presented on five to 12 days, depending on the network, and sometimes repeated, only 22.3 percent of the registered voters surveyed said they had watched at least one free-time appearance by a candidate. By comparison, 71.8 percent said they had watched or listened to at least one debate, and 83.5 percent said they had seen or heard at least one paid campaign commercial.

Reaching the informed

Most voters who said they had seen a free-time segment said they usually watched television for news and information anyway and already considered themselves interested and informed. Also, the study noted, the free-time segments were not very well promoted in advance.

Mr. Taylor, who pushed the roadblock idea as a way to force-feed voters who watched television, acknowledges it was too hard a sell to the networks in 1996, but says he will attempt in this year's gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia to get local television stations to try the experiment.

He is encouraged by Mr. Clinton's recent call for the Federal Communications Commission to require broadcasters to give free time to candidates as a condition of continued licensing, but says Congress is likely to balk. The networks reported $500 million spent for ads in 1995-96. Mr. Taylor suggests that if that amount were made available in free time, it could ''drive out'' paid commercials.

Mr. Gans argues, though, that ''grants of free time are a nice thing, but they won't begin to compete with paid ads.'' What's needed, he says, is regulation of campaign advertising, to require ''talking heads'' -- candidates speaking directly to camera, as in the free-time format -- to make the pitch themselves.

While the free-time presentations in 1996 didn't snap voters out of their lethargy, they apparently did raise the quality of the discourse somewhat -- a result that warrants further efforts to advance the idea.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 3/21/97

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