The TV networks have lined up, reluctantly, behind giving free air time in some form to presidential candidates. The idea is to help the politicians reach the electorate directly with position statements that have enough length to get ideas across. But on the local level, free time doesn't appear to be an idea whose time is coming soon.
The reform is seen as an antidote to what its backers call the deluge of "30-second spots and eight-second sound bites." It is touted as one potential answer to the obscenely high costs of running for office. Record sums were spent on the 1992 elections, and the current campaign shapes up as the most costly ever, mostly for TV exposure.If the free-time idea does catch fire in Utah Richard Eyre will find it satisfying and perhaps will even be vindicated. He was a lone voice pushing the proposal when he ran for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 1992. Eyre said then and still believes, though he is no longer in politics, that money and manipulation decide elections because candidates find it so expensive to get their ideas across. To meet this need, Eyre bought several half-hour infomercials, but only in the low-cost, little-watched Ch. 13 Saturday morning broadcasting ghetto.
- EYRE SAW THE FREE-TIME system in London, where he spent three years as an LDS mission president. As in many other countries, Britain allows no paid broadcast commercials. Instead, during the brief British campaigns the parties get blocks of free time.
Eyre proposed that the four network TV stations in Utah donate one to three five-minute spots, after the late evening news shows, to each Republican and Democratic federal and gubernatorial candidate in the summer between the state conventions and the primaries.
The silence that greeted his proposal was deafening. One response did come from a KSL-TV executive, no longer at the station, who was dimwitted enough to ask, "What's in it for us?" It was the worst possible comment from an institution that uses a priceless public resource, our air waves, free and has public service obligations.
The broadcaster might have wondered whether the stations had been giving too little time to the debate and town meeting formats and how they, and the news shows, might be improved. He might have asked how the free time was going to be used and even whether it was going to have any audience-pleasing "production values." At least he should have been willing to explore the proposal rather than reject it out of hand.
- A COMMON QUESTION is whether anyone really will tune out of any entertainment program, not to speak of "Home Improvement," in order to watch a politician.
Comedians and cartoonists have had a field day with this one. An Atlanta Constitution cartoon, for example, shows a couple sitting in front of a television set, the husband saying, "Finally the networks are providing free air time for the presidential candidates to explain their positions so we can make an informed choice. Let's see what's on cable."
Eyre says one answer is to make the free time concurrent on all the stations, an option the networks have rejected.
Though he quit pushing the idea after the blunt response from the now-departed KSL executive, Eyre still thinks it's workable and needed, and he is convinced that people, and not just the claques for the two major parties, will be watching.
Don Gale, vice president for news and information at Bonneville International, KSL's parent, is open to the notion, though he has mixed feelings. "It would be a wonderful idea to get some community again by getting all the people to watch the candidates. But we're not in the good old days when there were three networks and people watched only those networks." He said KSL would not put the message into a newscast (as CBS is planning to do) because the station "protects it from political partisanship; it does not, for example, accept political ads in the news."
- SOME OF THE PRINT MEDIA have praised the free-time idea on the national level but have been quiet about it as applied to their own bailiwicks. They are not so crazy about it when it is coupled with a suggestion that the newspapers and magazines also offer unpaid space to candidates to use as they wish.
In 1992 Eyre also proposed that the newspapers print free 2,000-word articles written by each candidate for major office. That's enough to send some newspaper people right up the wall. The trade magazine Editor and Publisher complained simplistically last month that "we don't think that just because politicians or anyone else opens his or her mouth or puts pen to paper that it is their right to have those words broadcast or printed verbatim."
E&P said the networks caved in to the pols "and others who say the airwaves belong to the people and therefore TV stations as common carriers should be available to the public on demand." But the magazine overstates. No one, of course, is going that far.
- THE DRIVING FORCE behind free time is not an office holder but Paul Taylor, recently a political writer for the Washington Post and now a professional campaign reformer as consultant to the Pew Charitable Trusts. Taylor cites free time as one of several needed and practical campaign alterations in his book on the 1988 presidential election, "See How They Run" (Knopf, 1990). He is joined in a coalition called Free TV for Straight Talk by luminaries like Walter Cronkite and John Chancellor.
Taylor says effective campaign reform lies not in restricting 30-second attack ads but in adding substance to political communication. "We need to create a new forum of communication on tele-vi-sion . . . in a format partial to words over images, reason over demagoguery, substance over trivia . . .. The trick is to transform television into an ally of reasoned debate, not an enemy."
Election analysts tell us that in the babble that has become our campaigns we have to put up with the ideological and negative when what we should do is pay attention to serious issues. Nationally and locally, the free-time idea is worth a trial, despite all the riddles, because it just might be one promising avenue to this goal.