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10% of $3 billion can pay for a lot of news coverage

What should TV stations do with all that negative ad money?

COMMENTARY | December 18, 2011

2012 will be a boon for TV stations. Bill Wheatley suggests they set up ‘Windfall tithing’ operations, pumping 10 percent of their bounty into solid election-year reporting to counter some of the misleading and even false commercials they will be running.

By Bill Wheatley

The nation’s TV stations and broadcast and cable networks recently received an early holiday gift: a forecast that spending on televised political advertising will set a record during the 2012 presidential election.

The projection, by Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group, estimates that candidates, political parties and independent groups will shell out between $2.5 and $3.3 billion to buy TV ads during the election. That would be a big increase over the approximately $2.1 billion that was spent in the last presidential election in 2008. One key reason for the predicted surge: the U.S. Supreme Court’s controversial 2010 Citizens United decision permitting corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts on political advertising. 

While some of next year’s projected windfall will go to the big national networks, the overwhelming portion of it – more than 80 percent – is likely to flow to local stations. If you happen to operate a television station in a presidential battleground state that also has a key U.S. Senate race – a state like Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio or Michigan – it will be like winning the lottery.
While the barrage of TV ads will be a boon to station profits, it will come at a price for the millions of Americans who have little choice but to view them. Short of turning off the TV, there will be no escaping what so many viewers have come to loathe: a seemingly endless parade of political commercials, a majority of which will be negative or misleading or just plain false. From the top of the ticket on down, candidates will be vilified, their words twisted, their accomplishments belittled. Given all the mud that will be thrown, no one will be surprised if the public becomes even more cynical of a political status quo in which rancor rules and truth is often the first casualty.

Can anything be done to mitigate the effects of all of this? Campaigns and interest groups could practice self-restraint, but they’re bullish on these attack ads, believing that they are effective. Censorship is pretty much out of the question: federal law, mindful of freedom-of-speech guarantees, has long prohibited broadcasters from editing or refusing to run even demonstrably false or libelous candidate ads. (There’s an exception for third-party political ads, but broadcasters use it sparingly.)

But what if those same broadcasters, the ones who will profit so handsomely from the deluge of ads, were to use a portion of the money the ads generate to provide viewers with a disinformation antidote?
I offer a proposal that, with a bow to a traditional religious practice, might be called “windfall tithing.” Under it, stations would voluntarily take 10 percent of the gross revenues produced by 2012 election ads and apply the money to enhanced on-air and online political coverage by their stations. If Kantar’s forecast is correct, that would amount to a minimum of a couple of hundred million dollars nationally, money that would permit stations to move beyond traditional “horse race” coverage. With the added funds, they could develop in-depth candidate profiles and investigations, create town-hall meetings and candidate debates, and, yes, produce frequent “reality checks” that straighten out shaky claims made in campaign commercials and on the stump.
It’s no secret that, while some stations do a good job covering elections (the six Post-Newsweek stations, for example, recently announced a vigorous 2012 political-coverage plan), many stations do not. Part of this stems from a belief by numerous news directors that politics and government are boring, that viewers are just not interested. This notion has consequences: A study by USC’s Annenberg School revealed that, over 14 randomly selected days in 2009, Los Angeles television stations devoted an average of only 22 seconds to coverage of local government news in each half-hour newscast; crime received an average of seven times more play.

Despite such embarrassments, getting stations to underwrite more and better election coverage will be a big challenge. Some general managers will assert that their stations are entitled to have a really good year financially to help make up for the relatively weak years they experienced during the Great Recession; others can be expected to echo the claim that the public lacks a passion for politics.
They – and we – shouldn’t forget that in 2008 a record 132 million of our fellow citizens cared enough about the future of the country and their local communities to go to the polls and cast their ballots. This year, as then, persuading the electorate to vote in a particular way will be the mission of political ads. TV stations should have a mission, too: to make sure that viewers have the information they need to make smart choices on Election Day.

Windfall tithing can help accomplish that. By embracing it, stations have a chance to do good in 2012, while still doing very well.

Posted by taikan
12/20/2011, 12:45 PM

Asking a local television station to reveal when a campaign ad being aired on that same station contains statements that are misleading or false is like asking a dog to bite the hand that feeds it.

The fact that most television stations provide inadequate election coverage is the reason so few people who want "serious" or "in-depth" coverage of a campaign rely on television to provide that information. Instead, those people rely on the print media, NPR and/or the internet. Or, if they really prefer television, they rely on public television rather than for-profit stations.

Posted by Keith Long
12/27/2011, 06:18 PM

Bill, a quick thought.

Decentralizing the "reality checks" all the way down to the station general manager level seems to be inviting a dilution of the benefits that your suggestion seeks to develop.

How about centralizing the fair campaign practices goal implicit in your idea? Let's invite some leading institutions and personalitites from the media to set up a framework that uses modern information applications to carry the message of truth squads and reality checks throughout the country during election season.

Perhaps a national media election standards organization created and run by the media itself?

Please don't judge me too harshly. It is a quick idea and offered as a discussion starting point.

Posted by Bill Wheatley
12/29/2011, 10:40 AM

Keith, I certainly wouldn't judge you harshly; I'm delighted that you are sharing your ideas.

On the level of national politics, there already are a number of journalistic organizations and interest groups measuring the truthfulness of campaign ads and candidate remarks.

It's at the local level where there is a shortage of initiative in this area: as a result, local candidates often avoid full scrutiny.

Locally, I'd suggest a sharing of resources: partnerships between stations and local newspapers, perhaps including the local university's political science or journalism department. Each organization would benefit, with the public being the big winner.

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