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Clean up campaigns by cutting high cost of political air time

SHARE Clean up campaigns by cutting high cost of political air time

THERE'S A SOLUTION to our campaign finance crisis. It won't be painless. It would cause real hardship for dozens of media and political consultants, with a ripple effect that could wreak havoc on pundits and quote-starved reporters.

Back in the 1970s, dewy-eyed reformers came up with a solution they thought would make the political airwaves more accessible and affordable. Candidates for office could buy air time at the "lowest unit rate" - the cheapest price for broadcast time available, including any discount offered by stations to their best customers.Sounds great - but then a loophole opened that could be called the "consultants protection act." If a commercial advertiser, or another candidate, is willing to pay the regular rate, you and your puny political rate get bumped. To avoid getting "pre-empted" in this manner, candidates are forced to pay five or time times as much as the "lowest unit rate." This means millions to a swarm of advertising agencies, media buyers and campaign consultants.

Media consultants make money not just from thinking up ads but from fees they tack on to buying the film stock, hiring the film crew, paying for the crew's lunch, duplicating the campaign commercials, and, most especially, placing the advertising on the air.

Professional "media buyers" and ad agencies make commissions, usually 15 percent, for placing orders with TV stations and networks. If a Senate candidate spends $2 million purchasing air time, his consultants are getting at least $250,000 for making phone calls and sending faxes and tapes to stations.

The 1996 presidential candidates spent $130 million on air time, which amounts to a $20 million cash flow for media wizards just on the "buy." In 1992, Bill Clinton's media consultants made so much from buying TV time that lowly interns were each given $3,000 bonuses when it was all over. I wonder what the partners got?

Make all political time cheap and non-pre-emptible, and two things will happen: Campaign costs will fall, and consultants will drop like flies.