In a move that likely will be watched closely by broadcasters nationwide, TV stations in the Washington, D.C., market are heavily curtailing the amount of discounted airtime normally offered to state and local political candidates.
In the midst of a national debate over whether broadcasters have a public interest mandate to provide free airtime for candidates, it is becoming clear that pols are having a hard time even buying airtime in D.C. and other glutted markets.
Last week, the biggest network affiliates inside the Beltway told Virginia's gubernatorial candidates, Republican James Gilmore III and Democrat Donald Beyer Jr., that available airtime will be cut almost in half until Election Day. WJLA-TV, the local ABC affiliate, will not sell more time to lieutenant governor and attorney general candidates at discounted rates.
"This is getting more and more widespread," said Dick Leggitt, Gilmore's media consultant. "From an economic point of view, it's not hard to understand."
Under federal law, broadcasters are required to offer discounted airtime and "reasonable access" to those running for federal offices. Local and state candidates are not afforded the same protection.
"This is emblematic of an enormously tight market," said one advertising lobbyist on the Hill. "It will be interesting when the broadcasters try to renew their licenses if they will [face] any problem with the [Federal Communications Commission]. It depends how you define 'public interest.'"