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MURDOCH STUMPS FOR FREE AIR TIME

Stunning his TV brethren, Fox Chairman Rupert Mur-doch is calling for the industry to drop its longstanding opposition and provide free air time to political candidates.

Free air time would help "get rid of some of the influence of money in politics," Murdoch told several hundred broadcasting executives in a session at the National Association of Broadcasters convention on Monday. "We don't need the money."The response was not positive.

"Broadcasters already provide millions of dollars in free air time through their news coverage, public affairs programs and debate coverage," said NAB spokeswoman Lynn McReynolds.

Station executives, insisting on anonymity, greeted Murdoch's proposal with skepticism and called it an attempt to curry favor with Congress at a time when he has been taking a lot of heat on Capitol Hill.

According to the Television Bureau of Advertising, the cost of federal, state and local political advertising on television in 1994 totaled $355 million.

Murdoch said about 95 percent of the money raised by political candidates buys advertisements. "It's really a scandal, and we are the beneficiaries of it," he said.

He urged U.S. broadcasters to look at the systems of other countries that provide free air time to their candidates but said a decision has not yet been made to require Fox's own stations to provide free air time to candidates.

The broadcasting industry for years has fought campaign reform legislation in Congress that would require broadcasters to provide free air time. Under current law, stations must give qualified candidates their lowest rates.

The heat for Murdoch on Capitol Hill started with a book deal between his Harper-Collins publishing unit and House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga. The deal, since revised, would have given Gingrich a $4.5 million advance.

More recently, the company has been criticized over a tax break that allows Fox Television Stations Inc. to defer millions in federal taxes when it sells its Atlanta TV station to a minority-controlled group that includes the Tribune broadcasting company and is headed by musician Quincy Jones. It is the only pending deal to escape repeal of long-standing tax breaks designed to encourage minority ownership of broadcast outlets.

Murdoch said Monday that his company was not responsible for the provision and credited Tribune's chief lobbyist, Shaun Sheehan. "He got the tax break and I got the blame," Murdoch said.

Murdoch also said TV stations should be willing to provide additional public interest broadcasting, perhaps in educational and public affairs, in return for getting a second channel from the government for free. He admitted Fox has to do a better job of providing news and public affairs programs.