McCain tweaks broadcasters on political ads as Congress leaves town

Few things irritate the National Association of Broadcasters more than continued attempts to force television stations to provide free political advertising. It appears that there are few things Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., enjoys more than irritating the NAB.

So, as a parting shot last week as Congress left Washington to campaign for re-election, McCain led a bipartisan group of lawmakers to introduce a new bill calling for broadcasters to pay spectrum fees to underwrite advertisements for national political candidates.

McCain has long suggested that since television broadcasters have been allowed to use their publicly owned spectrum free of charge, they have an obligation to provide free or low-cost advertising to candidates as a public service. Since political advertising provides significant income to stations, the NAB has long opposed any such move.

However, with broadcasters now being accused of “spectrum squatting” on both analog and digital channel space due to missed deadlines to convert to digital transmission, the issue won’t go away. The new legislation, co-sponsored with McCain by Senators Russell Feingold, D-Wis., and Richard Durbin, D-Ill., would require TV and radio broadcasters to pay up to one percent of their gross annual revenue to create a $750 million fund that candidates and their parties could access to buy political spots every two years. The bill would require that broadcasters give candidates the same favorable ad rates they give their best commercial advertisers.

The new law would also require broadcasters to air at least two hours a week of “candidate-centered or issue-centered” programming before elections. “By increasing the flow of political information, free air time can better inform the public about candidates,” McCain said.

The legislation has virtually no chance of passage during the current Congress, but will be reintroduced in January when a new Congress convenes, McCain said. Broadcasters say they will continue to oppose it.

In previous battles over the political ad issue, members of Congress have been reluctant to vote for legislation that might be costly to their local broadcast stations. There’s also been a perception that free ads might be a benefit to political challengers rather than incumbents.

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