When Congress passed the Communications Act of 1934 and gave away an estimated 377 billion taxpayer dollars to for-profit broadcasting companies, its only expectation was that those broadcasters would use their free public airwaves to serve the common good. Since then, radio and TV networks have made fortunes off the government's free rent.
Increasingly, though, critics charge that broadcasters aren't fulfilling their public obligations. "`The system` hasn't worked well. The public hasn't gotten a return on `its investment`," says Paul Taylor, executive director of the Alliance for Better Campaigns.
Especially when it comes to political campaigns. In recent years, broadcasters have devoted less and less time to civic debates and robust election coverage. In 2000, fewer than one-fifth of congressional and gubernatorial debates were shown on network affiliates. The hoopla surrounding ABC's almost cancelled but then saved "Nightline" indicates that when the public interest hurts the bottom line, the public interest can go out the window.
Meanwhile, advertising rates dominate the high price of political campaigns. A full-blitz ad campaign can cost politicians as much as $200,000 a week in a major market. Two years ago, the four local network affiliates -- WESH, WFTV, WKMG and WOFL -- banked more than $11 million on campaign ads, roughly 20 percent of the $52.9 million Florida TV stations made from political ads.
Fresh off their long-fought campaign-finance reform victory, Sen. John McCain and Sen. Russ Feingold are introducing a bill to bring the costs down. Under their plan, the government would charge broadcasters an annual usage fee of less than one percent of their gross revenues and put that money into a fund that would pay for campaign ads. In 2000, broadcasters generated $44 billion, meaning that a one percent fee would create an ad fund of $440 million.
The fund could be used by "qualifying candidates and political parties" to place a "reasonable number" of spots on the stations of their choice, according to an Alliance newsletter. Whether independent candidates or smaller political parties like the Greens and the Libertarians would qualify was not immediately certain.
In theory, the idea is a logical extension of campaign-finance reform, and a more conservative spin on two ideas that Ralph Nader has pushed for years: publicly financed elections and making broadcasters pay for access to the airwaves. But like McCain and Feingold's last project, this proposal also will face hurdles. The powerful broadcasters' lobby has killed scores of similar proposals in the last 50 years, including one that was part of an early draft of the campaign-finance reform bill.
The staunch resistance will surely continue. Broadcasters say they're doing their part, both with the "record $9.9 billion in public service" the National Association of Broadcasters boasts of generating in 2001 and with the discounted advertising rates they give to politicians during the campaign season.
They see it as a free-speech issue: If the government forces radio stations to air free political ads, that's a slippery slope to state-controlled media.
In addition to the free ads, the new McCain-Feingold proposal would require broadcasters to have a minimum of two hours a week of "candidate-centered programming, such as debates, interviews, town-hall meetings and the like" in the month before general elections and two weeks before primaries, according to the Alliance. The bill would not dictate editorial content.
According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, 73 percent of Americans wanted free ad time for politicians. The poll also revealed just how little is known about who controls the airwaves: Only 31 percent knew that they are public property. Just 11 percent knew that broadcasters get their licenses for free.
The influx of wireless Internet and cellular-phone companies -- which, by the way, pay millions for their frequencies -- has made the airwaves an increasingly valuable commodity. But broadcasters are hoarding the best ones rent free, and even trying to auction off what they aren't using.
In 1996, Congress gave broadcasters additional airwaves so they could make the change from analog to digital signals, which take up less space. But the change has been slow, and broadcasters are currently lobbying Congress to let them sell the extra space it awarded them.