Editorial: Wrong in Calif.; sell the ad time

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The California special governor's election has panicked some of the state's TV and radio broadcasters. How else can we explain the decision by some big broadcast groups there to refuse or restrict the sale of ad time to Gov. Gray Davis and the 135 candidates on the ballot to replace him?

The broadcasters are within their rights to do this. But making it hard for the candidates to buy ad time is foolish-more than foolish, actually, since it plays into the hands of critics eager to paint media owners as profit-driven with no regard for civic responsibility or the needs of their local audiences.

Congress returns from its summer recess this week to consider whether it should reject a Federal Communications Commission plan to allow individual Big Media companies to own more TV stations, and to control TV stations and newspapers in the same markets. Waiting for the lawmakers will be tales of outrage from California, where voters face an unprecedented gubernatorial race and a crisis in state government. The lawmakers will then be told radio stations controlled by Viacom and Clear Channel Communications are either unwilling to carry campaign ads at all or are setting restrictions that would work hardships on some candidates. This is pouring gasoline into a fire.

Federal law doesn't require the California stations to sell time to the governor candidates, but it does demand "equal opportunity" be provided. Sell time to one governor candidate and you must be ready to sell time to all others. In a race with 135 potential advertisers, each guaranteed time at the station's lowest available rate, that's potentially disruptive to "business as usual." But the stakes are high here. Sell the ads. (There won't be as many candidates advertising as feared.) Promote the station's commitment to citizenship. And if September's ad revenue is a little less because of it-deal with it.

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