Monday, February 21, 2005

TV’S THIRD RAIL

By William Fisher

“If a local candidate wants to be on television, and cannot afford to advertise, his only hope may be to have a freak accident,” said U.S. Senator John McCain as he introduced legislation to compel local television stations to improve their coverage of local political campaigns.

“One of the most startling statistics from the study is the ratio of political advertisements to candidate news stories aired during a half-hour news cast. Reduced news coverage led candidates to spend over $1.6 billion on television ads in 2004 to introduce themselves to voters, double the amount spent in 2000,” he declared.

McCain, a Republican from Arizona, is the co-author of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform legislation. Most observers find this law had little effect on campaign contributions during the 2004 presidential campaign due to a loophole that allowed unlimited spending by so-called “527 groups” – not-for-profit organizations not connected to candidates’ organizations or party apparatus.

In an effort to encourage local television outlets to devote more time to coverage of local races, McCain introduced his “Localism in Broadcasting Reform Act of 2005.” The proposal would reduce the license term for broadcasters from eight years to three years, thereby requiring broadcasters to provide the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) with information every three years on why their license should be renewed.

The bill would also require the FCC to review five percent of all license and renewal applications, and would command broadcasters to post on their Internet sites information detailing their commitment to local public affairs programming.

McCain’s effort was triggered by a new study carried by the Lear Center Local News Archive (www.localnewsarchive.org) at the University of Southern California (USC) Annenberg School for Communication. Principal Investigators were Martin Kaplan, Associate Dean of the Annenberg School and Director of The Norman Lear Center; Ken Goldstein Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Director of the University’s Center for the Study of Politics; and Matthew Hale, Assistant Professor at the Center for Public Service at Seton Hall University.

Key study findings include:

Local stations devoted 12 times as much coverage to sports and weather than they did to coverage of local elections.

Eight times more news coverage went to stories about accidental injuries than local elections

Sixty-four percent of the 4,333 broadcasts captured contained at least one election story. A typical half-hour of news contained three minutes and 11 seconds of campaign coverage. An average campaign story was 86 seconds long, and an average candidate soundbite (which appeared in just 28 percent of the stories) was 12 seconds long.

Fifty-five percent of the broadcasts captured contained a presidential story. By contrast, just eight percent of those broadcasts contained a story about a local candidate race, which includes campaigns for the U.S. House, state senate or assembly, mayor or city council seat, judgeship, law enforcement posts, education-related offices, and regional and county offices. Eight times more coverage went to stories about accidental injuries, and 12 times more coverage to sports and weather, than to coverage of all local races combined.

Nineteen percent of the stories focused on voting issues such as the location of polling stations, absentee ballot information and reports on early voting efforts, as well as on national voting issues like potential voting irregularities. Just under five percent of the stories focused on local and statewide ballot initiatives.

More stories focused on campaign strategy and the horserace (44 percent of the stories captured) than on campaign issues (32 percent).

The amount of time given to presidential news coverage was in most cases roughly equivalent to the amount of presidential advertising time, even in markets where the presidential race was competitive. By contrast, in races for the U.S. Senate, ads outnumbered news by as much as 17-to-one, and in U.S. House races by as much as seven-to-one.

These findings are based on an analysis of evening news broadcasts aired between 5:00 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. by 44 affiliates of ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC in 11 markets during the 29-day period from October 4 to November 1, 2004. The markets are New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Dallas, Seattle, Miami, Denver, Orlando, Tampa, Dayton and Des Moines. Together, they account for 23 percent of all television viewers in the country.

The study also examined local political news on Spanish-language television stations in Los Angeles, New York City and Miami. On average, these stations did even worse than English-language stations. English-language stations averaged more campaign stories, longer campaign stories and contained more candidate soundbites than Spanish-language stations.

Election-focused news comprised 11.2 percent of all English-language news and 9.5 percent of all Spanish language news aired by local affiliates.

Sixty-four percent of the English-language campaign stories, and 67 percent of the Spanish-language campaign stories, focused on the presidential race. Only six percent of the English-language campaign stories, and just three percent of the campaign stories on the Spanish-language stations, focused on local races, such as those for the U.S. House, State Senate, State Assembly, mayor, courts, law enforcement, education-related offices, and other regional offices.

The average length of an English-language story was one minute 43 seconds. The average length of a Spanish-language story was one minute 18 seconds. The average length of a candidate soundbite on the English-language stations was 12 seconds, compared to 10 seconds for an average Spanish-language soundbite.

The Annenberg School’s Kaplan recalled, "Last summer, Senator McCain and (former) FCC Chairman Michael Powell challenged America’s broadcasters to live up to the promise in their licenses to provide significant coverage of local races. Based on our findings, it looks like that challenge pretty much fell on deaf ears. Coverage of local politics on local news is an endangered species."

He said, "There are stations that do a good job covering campaigns and local politics, but often they do it despite murderous pressures for ratings and the assumption that audiences are turned off by public affairs programming. It takes real leadership from news directors and station managers to overcome those odds."

McCain said: “To those broadcasters whose dismal performance is captured in this study or whose performance was as dismal as the broadcasters in the study, I question how you are meeting your obligation to use the Nation’s spectrum to serve the “public interest.” He added: “I refuse to believe that the ‘public interest’ is served by three minutes of campaign coverage and a 12 second sound bite from a candidate during a half-hour local news program. Citizens deserve more from their local broadcaster.”

A number of factors contribute to the poor showing of local television. Among them: Viewers seem to prefer accidents, fires and murders to politics; news staffs and budgets of local TV stations have been shrinking for the past few years; one of the reasons is that increased media concentration has made it possible for news to be fed to local stations from a central source, usually the owner of a chain of television stations.

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