On the afternoon of October 15, viewers in Colorado's 5th District with their televisions tuned to Channel 4 saw someone plenty of them had probably never eyeballed before -- the Democrat wishing to represent them in Congress.
Why is Curtis Imrie an unknown to so many voters? Even in this state, after all, Democrats usually regard themselves as part of a major party. But the fifth, an area anchored by Colorado Springs, is as solidly Republican as Trent Lott. Consider that current GOP incumbent Joel Hefley, who's held the seat since 1986, was re-elected in 2000 with a mere 83 percent of the ballots cast -- a landslide aided by the Democrats, who didn't even bother fielding a candidate to face him. No use sending a fellow donkey to slaughter.
Despite the certainty of his fate, Imrie is willingly strolling into the Hefley buzz saw this time around -- not that many folks have noticed. But toward the end of its 5 p.m. newscast, Channel 4 -- which is endowing candidates who wish to speak directly to the electorate with two minutes of airtime -- gave him a platform. Sitting in a small space he referred to as a "box" and wearing a garish jacket covered with logos and patches, Imrie said, "You may never have given a nickel to a political campaign, but believe me, they're costing you a fortune. When you have 99.8 percent of all Americans giving less than $200 to political campaigns, where do you think the rest of the billions come from? That .2 percent, which is organized special interests, give the billions of dollars in these campaigns.... Politicians should wear jackets like this on CNN, so they can indicate who's buying them."
At that point, Imrie clumsily removed his jacket in a failed attempt at political theater that may have lost him any votes his opening remarks won. But the moment was refreshing anyway, if only because examples of unfettered political speech seldom turn up on newscasts these days.
At the same time, there's hardly a shortage of political commercials. Denver-area television stations are collecting loads of dough for broadcasting the most noxious array of campaign advertisements in recent memory; Derek Dalton, vice president and general manager for Channel 2, estimates that between $17 million and $20 million will be spent locally on such spots this election season. Profits like these inspired legislation that was put forward last week by a trio of senators led by Arizona Republican John McCain; it would require stations to funnel as much as 1 percent of their annual revenue into a fund candidates and parties could draw upon to buy ads every two years. The National Association of Broadcasters has already come out against the proposal: In an Electronic Media report, NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton implied that the bill was unnecessary because outlets are already giving politicians so much free air.
Debates sponsored by local stations such as channels 4 and 9 back up Wharton's contention. But in recent weeks, most Denver outlets have devoted relatively little of their newscasts to covering the candidates and issues that are generating so many ads. Indeed, the signal that's produced more election-oriented programming than any other in Denver -- Channel 12 -- is a public-TV outlet that can't legally cash in on the advertising bonanza.
This phenomenon is hardly unique to Colorado. Last week, the Lear Center Local News Archive, a newly formed project affiliated with the University of Southern California and left-slanted television producer Norman Lear, issued a study that analyzed news programming between September 18 and October 4 in Denver and the other top fifty markets. Of the 2,454 newscasts scrutinized, over half -- 1,311, to be precise -- were entirely free of campaign coverage. Moreover, fewer than 20 percent of the campaign packages that were broadcast incorporated direct quotes from candidates.
Obviously, the Channel 4 newscast co- starring Imrie was a happy exception -- and the same can almost be said of Channel 9's news program at 5 p.m. on October 18. The report featured a lengthy (by TV standards) look at the 4th District showdown between Republican Marilyn Musgrave and Democrat Stan Matsunaka during which the station's Roger Wolfe took the time to quote both candidates on several major issues. Too bad he repeatedly mispronounced Matsunaka's name as "Matzo-nooo-kah."
Such gaffes were absent from several Denver news broadcasts screened at random on October 15 and 16. But this achievement was aided immeasurably by a dearth of in-depth campaign coverage that echoed the Lear Center survey's conclusions. For example, Channel 31 aired only one campaign-related story during its hour-long 9 p.m. newscast on October 15, and it had nothing to do with a specific contest or issue. Instead, it briefly noted that Jefferson County had purchased a slew of "touch-screen" voting machines. "There'll be no hanging chads," anchor Ron Zappolo quipped.
On Channel 9 at 10 p.m., campaign reporting was limited to a single story as well. The succinct item dealt with poll results regarding the gubernatorial campaign -- typical of TV's preference for covering the horse-race aspects of politics, as opposed to more substantive matters. To that end, quotes from Governor Bill Owens and his Democratic challenger, Rollie Heath, were eschewed in favor of comments from pollster Floyd Ciruli. From 6 a.m. to 7 a.m. the following morning, Channel 2 squeezed in just one similar snippet, comparing the amount of money raised by senatorial opponents Wayne Allard and Tom Strickland; the report was read by co-anchor Natalie Tysdal and wasn't supplemented by quotes from the candidates. And between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. on Channel 7, the two local-news breaks that followed segments of Good Morning America left politics out of the mix entirely.
Predictably, political ads were in much greater supply during these time blocks. Here's the scorecard.
Channel 4: Eight campaign commercials aired in thirty minutes, with only one of them, a spot featuring 7th District Republican candidate Bob Beauprez touting prescription drug coverage, steering entirely clear of slams. The others included an ad laying into Mike Feeley, Beauprez's 7th District Democratic rival, with accusations like "Mike Feeley doesn't understand Colorado families," "Opposed cutting the income tax -- Twice!" and so on; an abortion-oriented whack at Beauprez, who, a graphic claimed, "has vowed to take away a woman's right to choose, even for victims of rape and incest"; and two blows aimed at Strickland, who was described alternately as a "Washington D.C. Lobbyist" and a "Millionaire Lobbyist." Expect him to be characterized as a "Mustachioed Lobbyist" in the near future.
Also in the hopper was a factually suspect and inexcusably vicious assault on Matsunaka -- the on-screen juxtaposition of a Matsunaka photo and the command "Tell Him Real Coloradans Pay Their Taxes" cynically flirts with racism -- along with two pro-Strickland efforts. The first couples complimentary remarks from assorted police and fire representatives with the ominous phrase "They know something Wayne Allard doesn't"; the second features one Betsy Markey calling Allard "too extreme." Since Markey is chair of the Larimer County Democratic Party (a position not mentioned in the ad), this opinion doesn't exactly come as a shock.
Channel 31: Eight political advertisements in an hour, all nasty. Among the highlights were one of two commercials attempting to undermine Amendment 31, the English-immersion measure, via stark, black-and-white images that seem straight out of a Sally Struthers-hosted plea for "Save the Children"; two Strickland's-a-bum ads ("Fighting for us? Who's he kidding?") separated by nothing more than a commercial for Cricket cell phones; and a self-consciously hip strike against Allard that's modeled on a series of Federal Express commercials starring onetime Daily Show regular Steve Carell. In this last production, two dudes engage in forced comic banter while painting Allard as a guy who thinks arsenic is a yummy additive for drinking water:
"Once again, you've lost focus. Start over. Colorado elects a man named Wayne Allard..."
"My cousin's named Wayne."
"Yes, I've met him once. But pay attention."
Channel 9: Six election-inspired offerings between 10 p.m. and 10:35 p.m. A Bill Owens valentine, in which the governor takes the controversial stance of saying kids should learn to read, is wholly positive -- but since Heath couldn't win if he were the reincarnation of Franklin Roosevelt, Owens can afford to be nice. Other spots took the low road, arguing, respectively, that Matsunaka is a jerk, Feeley is a jerk, and that even some Republicans think Beauprez plays "loose with the truth and with ethics."
Channel 2: Seven paid-political forays in an hour. Most of the greatest hits alluded to above are on hand, but they're accompanied by an unexpected entrant. Words such as "Promises?" "Trust?" "Your Interests?" and "Hobnobbing Bigwigs" appear against a black backdrop, as someone who sounds an awful lot like Bill Clinton makes his pitch. Turns out it's a commercial for Rocky's Autos. What a relief.
Channel 7: Six local-campaign ads -- a genuine accomplishment, because a sizable percentage of the commercial space for shows such as Good Morning America is reserved for national spots. The last segment before 8 a.m. was the most tightly packed -- two political commercials (one anti-Strickland, the other pro-Owens) sandwiched around a public-service announcement.
There's debate over whether the volume of commercials in 2002 is unprecedented. Ray Dowdle, vice president and general sales manager for Channel 31, doesn't see a huge increase over previous election cycles. "Years when there's a senatorial campaign are typically the busiest -- much more so than if there's a presidential election but no Senate campaign," he says. "That's especially true in years like this one, where it's such a hotly contested race. But I don't know if this is the most ever. Perhaps there'll be a little bit more, but we won't know that until it's all over with."
A highly placed source at a local station, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, is less cautious. In his view, we may be seeing as many as 60 percent more political commercials this year than any other.
Unfortunately, quantity hasn't led to quality, and that's left many viewers uncertain about who or what to believe -- which may be part of the strategy in some cases. To her credit, Rocky Mountain News reporter Karen Abbott has attempted to clarify things through her AdWatch column and accompanying analyses of the commercials. These pieces provide a useful counterpoint to the Rocky's election reporting, which has been much more abundant, thorough, varied and lively than that managed to date by the Denver Post. Sure, the Post made a splash with Susan Greene's controversial profile of Allard ("What's Left?" October 3), but too many other articles have been dry and uninvolving. Contrast the Rocky's October 17 coverage of an Allard-Strickland debate sponsored by the Post. In the News, reporter Charlie Brennan led with the candidates' comical inability to remember how much a postage stamp or a gallon of gas costs; in the Post, Ryan Morgan buried this info in the final paragraph, and had no fun with it whatsoever.
Still, the election coverage in the dailies is but a squeak compared with the roar of negative TV commercials, and assorted laws prevent stations from doing anything to alter the tone except under the most extreme circumstances. During the 1992 campaign, Matt Noah, who ran for the U.S. Senate as a pro-life candidate, submitted advertisements dominated by explicit shots of aborted fetuses, which generated uncounted complaints from upset citizens. But the anonymous source says outlets can legally decline to air advertisements for federal candidates only if the spots lack proper attribution or fail to cite sources for on-air claims -- sins the Noah commercials didn't commit. In the end, the station appealed to government agencies for permission to restrict the commercials to times when children were unlikely to be watching, a request that was granted. Noah eventually attracted just over 22,000 votes; victor Ben Nighthorse Campbell racked up 803,000.
This year, the source adds, numerous commercials have been initially rejected for minor technicalities. But once corrections were made, all of them were eventually approved, and many of them are airing now -- on a television near you.
Other regulations require that stations provide all federal candidates with "reasonable access" to their airwaves, which most broadcasters interpret as dictating that such folks can purchase spots during whatever programming they wish. According to the source, channels 4, 7 and 9 -- the most venerable network affiliates -- are attracting the most ads during local newscasts, network morning roundups such as Today and The Early Show, and the most popular prime-time entertainment fare: The West Wing, ER, CSI, CSI: Miami, My Wife and Kids, The Practice.
Dowdle, from Channel 31, has a similar tale to tell. "The number-one-most-desired program is the news, because politicians are typically looking for an older demographic," he says. "But they're really all over the place: early afternoon through the beginning of prime time, in prime time, late fringe and after the news."
It's just as difficult to avoid politicians on Channel 2 -- but they like some shows more than others. "They're targeting us most on the morning news with Tom Green, because we're local from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m., and they see that as a real benefit," general manager Dalton says. "And there's a lot of interest in 6 p.m. to 7 p.m., with Friends and Everybody Loves Raymond, because it targets a good cross-section of younger people as well as older people. And then there's the late news and a bunch of our prime-time shows, like 7th Heaven, Everwood and Smallville, because they attract families.
"Politicians used to only buy news and the older networks," he goes on, "but they're getting savvier, realizing that younger people are voting, too. And because we attract a younger audience, they see our programming as complementing the older networks. They're spending 80 percent of their money on the older networks, but it used to be 90 percent."
The inside source says increased demand among warring campaigns for commercial time during specific slots has created a ripple effect, with many conventional advertisers choosing to spend more heavily before and after October, when political dollars are flowing most freely. As a result, it's sometimes difficult for stations to put much distance between the ads of competing candidates.
"We try in best-case scenarios not to run them back to back," Dalton notes. "But with so many ads coming in, sometimes that's impossible, and we don't have a hard-set rule that says we definitely won't run back to back." Likewise, the evolving nature of the news means that it's possible that commercials for politicians will appear next to stories about them. As Dalton puts it, "Our first mission is to cover the news, and to cover it properly -- and due to the nature of how the station is set up, the commercials run where they run."
They'll continue to do so right up until November 5, Election Day, providing a gusher of cash to area outlets. Laws require that stations sell ads to candidates for federal office at the lowest available rate, but no such limit is placed on commercials for ballot initiatives or spots purchased with so-called "soft money" by political-action committees and the like. The latter can be sold for whatever the market will bear -- and right now, the market is much improved over 2001. While advertising revenues have been down in most of the media since even before 9/11, Channel 31's Dowdle says "it's been a good time for the business in general since the middle of the year, outside of anything political. There's been a strong market for local TV stations here, and really around the country."
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In other words, the windfall from campaign commercials isn't saving stations from debt's door, but it's certainly a nice bonus.
"If you don't count the political advertising, we estimate that the market would be up plus one, plus two percent," Dalton allows. "So the market was regaining its health as the year went on, and we're projecting a healthy 2003. But with the political in, we estimate that the market will probably be plus six percent."
Should these figures hold (and with the tightness of the Allard-Strickland, Beauprez-Feeley and Amendment 31 competitions, they most likely will), that means Denver stations can expect to triple their profits thanks to campaign commercials. In the meantime, candidates like Curtis Imrie can get their faces on television only when outlets like Channel 4 provide a free forum. Long live democracy.