Broadcasters may get incentive to allow free political ads FCC may give them a second channel


WASHINGTON -- One road that could lead the U.S. government out of the swamp of campaign-finance corruption may begin with a single step this week at the Federal Communications Commission.

The name of the road is "free TV" for federal candidates.

Many believe it could curtail the feverish chase for money that candidates today cannot avoid, a demeaning process that appears to be poisoning both the nation's politics and the people's faith in government.

To its detractors however, the free TV highway leads to an unfair and unconstitutional federal seizure of power and property from the nation's 1,556 private TV broadcasters.

This week -- the exact date has not been set -- the FCC intends to give those broadcasters a big piece of bait on a tiny little hook. The bait will license each broadcaster to open a second TV channel free -- a giveaway of public airwaves ordered by Congress and estimated to be worth up to $70 billion -- in a step intended to speed installation of high-definition TV, the next generation of sharper, better TV pictures.

Here's the hook: The FCC will make clear that along with the licenses comes a new obligation for the broadcasters to "serve the public interest." The FCC won't spell out specifically what that public-interest obligation will entail -- yet.

But President Clinton believes it should be a requirement for broadcasters to give free TV air time to candidates for federal office. "Free time for candidates can help free our democracy from the grip of big money," Clinton proclaimed in a recent speech.

The president, who is engulfed in controversy over his relentless efforts to raise campaign money, noted that the major political parties spent more than three times as much money in the 1995-1996 election cycle as they had four years before.

"The biggest reason for this is the rise in the cost of television," Clinton said. "Presidential campaigns now routinely spend two-thirds or more of their money on paid ads; Senate candidates, 42 percent of their money on television; House races, about a third."

If political TV ads were free, politicians wouldn't have to raise so much money. Then their dependence upon donors seeking favors might be reduced enough to help restore public confidence in the impartiality of government. At least, that's Clinton's hope.

Broadcasters strongly disagree; after all, they sell TV air time for big money. If politicians' ads are shown for free, broadcasters lose money.

No sooner had Clinton spoken than Edward O. Fritts, president of the powerful National Association of Broadcasters, denounced the idea as ineffective, unworkable and unconstitutional. Maybe it is; NAB intends to test the strength of its arguments in both Congress and the courts.

Pub Date: 3/31/97

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