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TV Ad Measure Opposed

An amendment to the Senate’s version of the 527 Reform Act of 2005 has drawn the ire of television stations. And with the Senate in recess this week, they are mobilizing their grass-roots supporters around the country to carry their message to Senators on their home turf.

The amendment, sponsored by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), would require broadcast stations to charge federal candidates, as well as political parties placing ads on their behalf, the lowest ad rate available throughout the year.

It would also make the time slot a candidate purchases “non-pre-emptible” — meaning that another advertiser willing to pay the full rate couldn’t place an ad that bumps the candidate’s. And the amendment, which would also apply to cable and satellite broadcasters, would require the Federal Communications Commission to conduct checks during the pre-election period to make sure broadcasters are following the law.

If the amendment did pass, it “potentially could be a big deal,” said Dennis Wharton, a spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters, which is fighting the amendment.

“We’ve asked all the Senators where we have television stations to oppose it,” added Jerry Hadenfeldt, director of government relations for the Des Moines, Iowa-based Meredith Broadcasting Corp. “We’re asking everybody to contact their Senators in their home districts and tell them why this is a bad idea.”

One cable industry source said the cable sector was watching the amendment but not yet working actively against it.

There is no companion legislation in the House, and a similar measure several years ago championed by then-Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.) passed the Senate but didn’t make it any further. Both of these facts give broadcast lobbyists hope that the Durbin effort is ripe for picking off.

But Durbin said his amendment would give candidates more money to develop positions and win votes as opposed to TV ads.

“The current process is about feeding a beast with an insatiable appetite,” he said in a statement. “Broadcasters are hiking the rates of television air time for candidates. My amendment would put an end to this practice and require broadcasters to charge political candidates the lowest rate available and ensure that candidates are not bumped by other advertisers.”

The measure also has its supporters outside Congress.

Meredith McGehee, director of the Media Policy Program at the Campaign Legal Center, said her group has been supporting such efforts for years.

“The broadcasters obviously have done a scare campaign that this would raise all kinds of havoc,” she said. “Right now, the system is set up where broadcasters are able to gauge political candidates.”

However, Gregg Skall, a lawyer and lobbyist at Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice who specializes in communications clients, calls the Durbin amendment “dangerous.”

“It’s dangerous because broadcasters offer a variety of products,” said Skall, who represents several broadcast associations including the Missouri Broadcasters Association, the California Broadcasters Association and the Minnesota Broadcasters Association, among others.

He said that if one thinks of certain advertising times as Cadillacs and others as Chevrolets, “what this bill is saying is every qualified candidate gets a Cadillac despite that they’re actually paying for a Chevrolet.”

The amendment, Skall said, would also allow national party committees to place ads at the discounted rate.

“That would create a whole new wave of advertising for which they would have to provide the lowest charge,” he said. “It would go from a modest financial hardship to a severe financial hardship for a lot of broadcasters.”

Hadenfeldt said that by giving candidates non-pre-emptible time, it crowds “out your local grocery store and car dealer. It’s a disaster for local candidates, local business, as well as our stations. It really has a potential to hurt our local economies.”

Wharton of the NAB added that the discounted rates broadcasters already provide to federal candidates amount to about 30 percent off the rack rate.

But this amendment, Wharton said, could “do real damage to the bottom line of many local television stations.”

“The Durbin bill is a shot directly at the broadcasters,” Wharton said. “We’ve encouraged our members to educate their Members of Congress on the damage that this could do to local stations.”

Broadcast rates vary by season, with summer usually worth less money than fall, for example. Broadcast stations often sell advertising at bargain-basement rates in the down seasons. But since those yearly rate lows could now set the bar for the political rates, Skall said broadcasters will have to think twice about lowering their rates for any customer, in any season.

“As a broadcaster, in a difficult season where I might have a fire sale or sacrifice time just to get some cash in,” he said, “I can’t do it because that will then set my political rate in the more prosperous seasons.”

One point broadcast lobbyists make is that their clients would be happy to host debates and other moderated candidate forums at no charge to the candidates.

“Everybody likes to complain about the cost of television advertising, but broadcasters have offered free time to every candidate, [and] they choose to buy the time and put their message out, rather than appear in a moderated debate,” said a lobbyist who specializes in broadcast issues.

Dwight Morris, who runs his own media consulting company, Dwight L. Morris and Associates, collects data on expenditures for House, Senate and presidential races. He said that while television costs have gone up in real dollars, the percentage of campaign funds that candidates spend for ads has remained steady for the past decade.

For his part, Hadenfeldt said, “We’re hoping we can kill it in the Senate. Why should federal candidates get that preferred treatment? Simply because they pass a law that gives them that preferential treatment?”

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