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The government's heavy-handed attempt to assure that politicians can buy airtime during a campaign has screwed up the marketplace.

Federal Communications Commission regulations compel the nation's broadcasting stations to provide ad time for political candidates during election campaigns. Stations must estimate what the candidates will buy and then block out time. This might create a shortage for commercial advertisers, but because of the regulations, advertisers most likely to be affected are the biggest spenders. That's because the biggest spenders usually get the lowest rate, and FCC says pols must also get the lowest rates. As a result, stations have been known to raise the rate floor during the period the FCC chooses to use in establishing the lowest rates.

Right now, some major advertisers buying spot in the third and fourth quarters are finding they can't get the low rate they thought they had earned. That's what we mean when we say the government has screwed up the marketplace.

An FCC official says stations that "temporarily" raise rates for commercial advertisers during that period are somehow in "violation." Obviously, he doesn't realize a station's rates go up and down daily-sometimes hourly-depending on a number of factors. And of course, if a station clears time for the candidates, and a potentially hot contest turns into a runaway, the station could wind up with unsold inventory.

It's the old issue of unintended consequences, worth keeping in mind as the federal government prepares to cast its net over the information superhighway. With our broadcasting stations serving as bargain basement communications channels for politicians, the time to change the rules for their commercials is now-before the arrival of the infobahn.

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