D.C. Broadcasters Less Generous When It Comes To Political Ads

WASHINGTON, D.C.-Broadcasters in the Washington, D.C., market are heavily curtailing the discounted airtime normally offered to state and local political candidates.
In the midst of an intense national debate over whether broadcasters have a public interest mandate to provide free airtime for candidates, it is becoming clear that politicians are having a hard time buying airtime in D.C.
Last week, network affiliates inside the Beltway told Virginia’s gubernatorial candidates, James Gilmore III (R) and Donald Beyer Jr. (D), that broadcast buys will be limited by about 40 percent until election day. WJLA-TV, the local ABC affiliate, will not sell more time to candidates for lieutenant governor and attorney general at the usual discounted rate.
“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,” he said.
Traditionally, political candidates pay 40 percent, or the lowest unit rate, of the premium charge for airtime. “Any market where a lot of the airtime is sold, broadcasters are forced to make a decision: Budweiser or Gilmore,” Leggitt said.
Under federal law, broadcasters are required to offer discounted airtime and “reasonable access” to those running for federal offices. Local and state candidates, however, are not afforded the same protection, said communications lawyer Jan Baran. “If this was the U.S. Senate, what the broadcasters are doing would be illegal,” Baran said.
“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 FCC. It depends how you define what’s in the public interest.”
Consultants who have created some of the ads for the governor and attorney general races said they are compensating for the lost airtime by using the Internet, direct mail and buys in other markets. As a result, Roanoke and Richmond, Va., TV audiences are seeing three times more political ads than D.C. viewers.