April 25, 2016
By Joe Rothstein
“It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS, that’s all I got to say...the money’s rolling in, and this is fun.”
The speaker was CBS CEO Les Moonves. The forum, the Morgan Stanley Technology Media and Telecom Conference in San Francisco. The subject, all the money broadcasters are making from presidential campaign advertising.
You may not have heard much about it. Broadcast media is reluctant to discuss their bonanza outside trade and investor channels, since their gain is not “good for America.” We know about Moonves’ comments only because a reporter at the forum recorded his words. Here’s more.
“They’re not even talking about issues. They’re throwing bombs at each other, and I think the advertising reflects that. Most of the ads are not about issues; they’re sort of like the debates. They’re saying, he did this or he did that...I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say, but bring it on, Donald, go ahead, keep it going.”
Much has been written about Trump’s dominance of media coverage, which has given him enormous advantage as he piles up delegates for the Republican Party nomination. MediaQuant, a firm that tracks media coverage and computes its dollar value based on advertising rates, estimated that by March Trump had received nearly $2 billion of media attention. Compare that with $313 million for Ted Cruz and $38 million for John Kasich.
Trump’s racist, misogamist, bullying and totalitarian outbursts have been catnip for the media. Reporters, editors and TV producers can’t seem to get enough. And that free coverage has wildly distorted all other aspects of the campaign, including the debates and the paid media. Candidates unable to keep up with the free media blitz have tried to compete by buying exposure. Lots and lots of exposure. And really nasty stuff, down and dirty, at the garbage level where Trump drove the campaign from the day he announced.
For most of us the Republican presidential campaign spectacle has been shocking, depressing and occasionally so pornographic that we’ve been embarrassed for ourselves, our country and our children. Most of us. But not the broadcast industry.
As Moonves said, obviously speaking for the entire industry, “It’s a terrible thing to say, but bring it on, Donald, go ahead, keep going.”
Many decades ago, broadcast TV and radio operators would charge premium rates for political candidates, just like all profiteers who control needed commodities at times of scarcity. The greed was so outrageous that Congress enacted a law requiring stations to sell political advertising at the lowest rate stations offer to its largest advertisers for comparable time periods. I was producing and buying political media at the time and was an eye witness to how quickly the industry managed to corrupt the intent of the lowest unit rate law.
Stations would raise rates before the political ad season so that the lowest rate would be a lot higher for candidates. Then they would wink at their commercial advertisers and let them know they would make it up to them after election day by offering sweetheart packages or other softeners. Another tactic was to offer rates that could be pre-empted by advertisers offering more money. Elections occur on specific dates. Candidates cannot risk that their ads will be preempted, so they pay the higher rate.
The broadcasters had every intention of milking candidates for all they could get, law or no law. They still do. Estimates are that about $6 to 7 billion will be spent on political ads this year in the presidential campaign and for state and local contests.
Let’s hit the pause button here to reflect on a clause in all broadcast licenses: “The licensee shall, during the term of this license, render such broadcasting service as will serve the public interest, convenience or necessity to the full extent of the privileges herein conferred.”
The law of the land says that the broadcast spectrum belongs to the public and that commercial entities may license it for use under certain conditions, one of which is in service to “public interest, convenience or necessity.” But in actual practice you would never know it.
Somehow, we’ve accepted as gospel the notion that shoe-horning campaign information into slots designed for commercial advertising fulfills the public interest and necessity condition. Really? Seeing candidates and campaign messages in 30 second segments (25 seconds if you remove the end of the ad disclaimers) is a rational way to communicate candidate assets, intentions and beliefs?
Thirty seconds is just time enough to say your opponent is a crook, a bum, or worse, which is what nearly all political advertising does these days. So before the year is over more than $6 billion will be spent mostly on one candidate bashing another. Any wonder why we get so many candidates from the dregs pool, or why most reasonable people are turned off by political campaigns? An endless barrage of school yard taunts is not a useful way to promote democracy or to inform voter decisions.
Simply stated, the FCC should ban 30 second political spots. It has that authority under its mandate, just by declaring that 30 second spots aren’t in the public interest.
The law actually gives candidates the right to buy advertising of any length and requires stations to comply. But good luck to any campaign that tries to place a four or seven minute ad in a prime time segment, asking a station to disrupt the hallowed 30 minute program format. Stations will adjust programming to fit football games in overtime, or movies of extraordinary length or award shows where stars take too long to thank their production team. But they will fight to kill to avoid adjusting formats for political messages.
Imagine a political campaign without 30 second commercials. Just well produced longer length advertising and less of it. Messages with more substance and better insight. Is there anything more important to “public interest and necessity” than the public’s decision about who to trust with the levers of government and a better understanding of the issues and character behind that choice?
A lot has been written this year about what a free ride Donald Trump has been getting in the media. It’s not free. The cost has been the further corruption of the democratic process. Yes, Mr. Moonves, what you said is terrible. What you and your industry continues to do is worse.