A Lost Opportunity On Digital Television And Campaign Finance Reform

[ Posted Thursday, June 11th, 2009 – 15:16 UTC ]

Tomorrow marks the end of analog television in the United States. All analog broadcasting signals will go permanently dark some time tomorrow (times vary by station). But while others are hailing the dawn of the digital television age, I have to say that this is the end of a long road which ultimately led nowhere. The opportunity lost was a big one, too -- nothing more than a complete and far-reaching reform of the way we conduct political campaigns in this country. This was a bipartisan failure, I should add -- Democrats and Republicans both bear the blame for caving to the media conglomerates' interests over the public interest.

When the digital television switchover was being proposed in Washington (back in the 1990s), there was a simple and brilliant idea attached to it -- as a condition of the sale of the new bandwidths, make it a requirement that campaign ads run for free. After all, in this country "the public owns the airwaves." Although this simple principle has been bent (if not broken) at times -- such as making radar detectors illegal -- it has stood since the very beginning of commercial radio and television broadcasting.

Leveraging this public ownership into free campaign ads would have changed campaigning in astounding ways. The lion's share of money spent during any campaign is on advertising. Without this heavy financial burden, campaigns would cost a lot less. As an added benefit, all political parties would be treated on an equal basis -- meaning you would see television ads for Green candidates, Libertarian candidates, and other third parties. This would be a giant step forward towards leveling the playing field for all ideas to be heard by the public.

But, unfortunately, it didn't work out this way. First, the proposal was watered down a bit, and would only have given "free or reduced rates" to candidates that agreed to abide by campaign spending limits. Here is Bill Clinton, in his 1998 State Of The Union speech:

I will formally request that the Federal Communications Commission act to provide free or reduced-cost television time for candidates who observe spending limits voluntarily. The airwaves are a public trust, and broadcasters also have to help us in this effort to strengthen our democracy.

What followed was a long string of continuing to punt the ball down the road over and over again, until the media conglomerates finally killed the idea outright. There is an excellent timeline of the death of this idea (at least up until 2007) up at the Benton Foundation's website, if you really want to review the whole sordid and painful history of spinelessness and failure from our elected officials.

Of course, one change in campaigning wouldn't have solved all the problems our election system has, but it sure would have been an earthshaking shift in the mechanics of how money is spent on electing people to office. But, sadly, we will never get to see the results of this experiment, due to craven officials deciding that big campaign contributions from media conglomerates were the way to go.

So while others are lauding the era of "TV 2.0" I have to say I'm just wistful at "what might have been" instead. Chalk one up for the status quo, over innovative ideas to improve American democracy.


-- Chris Weigant


One Comment on “A Lost Opportunity On Digital Television And Campaign Finance Reform”

  1. [1] 
    Michale wrote:

    I can see the one down side of free campaign ads..

    If all campaign ads were free, then that is all we would ever see...

    How would you prioritize all the ads from all the different parties?? What would constitute a political party that would allow them to qualify for free ads??

    Don't get me wrong.. I agree with the idea in theory..

    But I can see how it might run in practice where we were bombarded 24/7 with nothing but political ads for every crackpot group with every crackpot idea.. And the LEGIT groups/ideas would get lost in the morass...


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