Advocates of free time for candidates are many — those who try it are few

By Karen Everhart Bedford

Though the 1988 campaign prompted many calls for television networks to let candidates talk directly to the voters, candidates again this season have to buy time or squeeze through the media filter to get on the air.

That’s not to say that some producers aren’t trying the idea; the ones who do, however, are finding that their success in presenting candidates in an unedited, nonconfrontational format hinges on the political considerations of candidates, networks and viewers.

Voices of the Electorate, the two-part series produced by Alvin Perlmutter’s Independent Production Fund (IPF) and two minority citizens’ groups, is the most visible recent example (Current, Sept. 21). The series aired last month after PBS and the American Program Service ordered last-minute cuts to eliminate Democratic candidate Bill Clinton’s unedited comments, which both distributors deemed ”inappropriate.” APS said Clinton’s remarks didn’t respond to the minority issue discussed in the program.

The national programs separately reported on town meetings for African- and Hispanic-Americans held this summer in 10 cities. Discussions at the local forums primarily focused on jobs, education, health care, empowerment and crime and drugs. IPF and its collaborators, the National Coalition on Black Voter Participation and the Hispanic Policy Development Project, invited both presidential candidates to respond to the concerns raised in the minority speak-outs. Clinton accepted the offer, but both President Bush and Vice President Quayle declined.

IPF is not the only producer to encounter obstacles in experiments with free time — especially the reluctance of incumbents, like Bush and Quayle, to try an unfamiliar format with their challengers. Nebraska ETV, for example, has invited the contestants in the state’s three congressional districts to speak during Freetime, a series of proposed two-minute, unedited candidate statements that would ”get beyond sound-bite journalism,” according to Bill Ganzel, senior producer for public affairs. Only one of the three incumbents had accepted at Current press time. And because of FCC equal time requirements, if the incumbent doesn’t speak, the state network won’t air the challenger, either.

”Absolutely worth doing”

Free time is by no means a new idea. The concept was first proposed in a speech to a radio industry convention in the late 1930s. For decades, commissions, citizens’ groups and scholars advocated free time as a way to improve election coverage and reduce the cost of campaigning. But it did not become a widely discussed alternative until broadcast and print journalists assessed their own failures in covering the 1988 presidential campaign.

The Voter’s Channel proposal that Perlmutter developed for the Markle Foundation in 1990 also helped propel the idea from working papers into a few limited experiments.

”It’s really a way to help illuminate campaign issues and give the audience insight into the abilities and personal qualities of the candidates,” said Perlmutter. In developing the proposal and working with PBS and Markle on implementing it, he found ”a lot of support” for candidate time within the PTV system, but ”we never got to the point where it became a subject for elaborate discussion.”

”I don’t think it’s a debate that’s been exhausted,” said David Othmer, station manager of WHYY-TV, Philadelphia. Discussions within public TV about the proposed “Voter’s Channel” on public TV focused on relationships with Markle and ”process” questions much more than the substance of the proposal, he said.

WHYY last year produced and scheduled unedited free time, three to five minutes each, for mayoral and city council candidates. ”It was terrific — absolutely worth doing,” Othmer said.

While he questions whether unedited time for presidential candidates ever would be as colorful as for Philadelphia politicians, Othmer supports testing the idea for national elections. ”It’s just a shame we haven’t started that process.”

During the primaries, the Discovery Channel did try the idea, in the experimental cablecast ”The Presidential Candidates: Address to the Nation.” The program was not subject to the equal-time requirements that broadcasters must observe. It went forward despite President Bush’s decision to decline 20 minutes of free cable time.

Why Clinton was edited out

For public television, candidates’ nonacceptance and use of free airtime have been the biggest stumbling blocks to experiments. Jennifer Lawson, PBS executive v.p. for programming, described free time as an ”interesting concept” but said it had nothing to do with her decision to require edits in both Voices programs. Bush’s absence was not the determining factor in her decision, she said.

PBS’s interest in distributing the series was based on her staff’s ”understanding” that ”Voices of the Electorate would cover the views of African-American and Hispanic-Americans,” she said. The programs ”would have been given different consideration” had they been ”presented as a project offering free time for candidates.”

Lawson declined to say whether PBS’s misunderstanding and subsequent disagreement with Voices’ producers dooms free time as a regular component of future campaign coverage. ”That’s something candidates and political pundits have to answer.”

Last week the American Program Service, which collaborated with PBS in distributing Voices and concurred with the requirement that IPF remove Clinton’s three- and five-minute unedited statements from the programs, issued a two-page explanatory memo.

”It was our understanding from the outset that whether one or two candidates participated, their comments should respond directly and specifically to the various concerns raised by the two minority voter groups,” wrote APS President John Porter. ”In our judgment (although the producers disagree), Mr. Clinton’s comments were overly general and disrupted the flow and power of the programs while doing nothing to advance their content.”

In the original programs, Clinton’s statements were placed after the report on the town meetings and an introductory explanation that President Bush had declined to participate. In Clinton’s responses to the town meeting speakers, he criticized the Bush Administration’s economic record and responsiveness to minorities’ needs.

He also outlined proposals to create jobs by raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans; expand education with apprenticeships and a national service program; reform health care and welfare; establish community development banks in poor areas; and send first-time offenders of nonviolent crimes to boot camps. In both statements he cited remarks by town meeting participants, and appealed directly to African- and Hispanic-Americans to register and vote.

”Seize the power of your vote to change this country,” he told Hispanic Americans. ”The American dream has not failed you; the policies of the current administration have,” he concluded in his message to blacks.

In an interview, Porter said if Bush had agreed to appear in the series and made similar statements, APS would have raised the same objections. ”This had nothing to do with fairness or equal time,” but with the ”nature of the materials and whether they were relevant to the program itself.” Bush’s absence, he acknowledged, ”more sharply defined” the contrast between the town meeting reports and Clinton’s appearance.

One is the loneliest number

From a legal viewpoint, said communications policy expert Henry Geller, Clinton’s appearance in the Voices programs would have qualified as ”incidental” appearances in documentary programs, and thus been exempt from FCC equal time requirements. The distributors’ edit requirements ”had nothing to do with the law,” he said. ”It was a pragmatic judgment.”

”I don’t blame them,” Geller added. ”It looks like hell if one candidate is on and not the other. They depend on Congress for 17 percent of their revenue.” Feeding the original programs would have made the Bush Administration and Republicans in Congress ”furious,” and provided ammunition for renewed attacks on public TV.

While some public TV station executives contacted by Current said they were surprised by the controversy over Voices, many were uncomfortable with presenting only one candidate.

To Dick Bowman, v.p. of broadcasting for WTTW, Chicago, whether a single candidate’s appearance is journalistically sound or not, ”the public simply doesn’t understand it.” He said some viewers would have reacted to Clinton’s appearance on Voices the same way they did to Tom Brokaw’s interview with Clinton during PBS coverage of the Republican convention. ”The public is watching with half an ear and one eye, and all of a sudden we’re putting on a candidate from the opposing party.”

Ron Hull, associate g.m. at Nebraska ETV, also questioned the planned Clinton appearance on Voices: ”I would feel much more comfortable if both candidates had taken advantage of the opportunity.” He acknowledged that incumbents have incentives not to embrace the idea because ”it allows their opponents to get exposure.”

Incumbent influence

In New York, WNYC-TV decided against proposed weekly free time for U.S. Senate candidates this year, though it had produced two free-time specials featuring candidates for New York City’s 14 congressional districts in 1990. Again, an incumbent influenced the decision. ”The Democratic primary became very complex, and we were not sure we could get [Republican Sen. Alfonse] D’Amato to participate,” said WNYC-TV Managing Director David Sit. Instead, WNYC produced a series of half-hour interviews with Senate candidates, and all but two chose to go on.

Having tried the idea locally, Sit has concluded that free time would be ”more effective on the national level.” Local candidates often are ”so unknown to the general population” that it ”undercuts the value” of the broadcast.

Nebraska ETV’s Bill Ganzel, however, is reserving judgment. ”I don’t know until we get through this.” He wants to see ”how serious … and enlightening the messages really are.”

Until then, Ganzel is coping with the logistical headaches of getting the candidates on air starting Oct. 18. Nebraska ETV is offering each congressional candidate five two-minute segments during station breaks — four to address specified issues and one on a topic chosen by the candidate.

Last week, Republican Rep. Doug Bereuter, who initially agreed to tape the segments, reneged. Rep. Bill Barrett, also a Republican, took up the offer. And at Current press time, Ganzel was awaiting final word from Democratic Rep. Peter Hoagland who, Ganzel said, ”seems to be leaning toward accepting.” Not surprisingly, their challengers snapped up the offer.

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