No denying it: Political commercials aired in advance of elections bring in plenty of revenue for television outlets. But to earn this income, TV types must leap through more flaming hoops than a circus dog. After outlining the paperwork challenges, governmental requirements and unwanted refereeing that are part of the procedure, Channel 4 general manager Walt DeHaven says, "It's not the boon that people think it is."
Business-siders at other Denver signals agree. "Nearly every time somebody changes a spot, we'll get complaints from the other side that we have to deal with," notes Channel 2 director of sales Matt Mansi. Adds Channel 31 vice president and general sales manager Steve Wilkerson, "We have to exercise caution and pay attention to a lot of details that we don't have to worry about with our regular advertisers."
Political ads are a ticklish topic for broadcast executives, which explains why Channel 7 general manager Darrell Brown and Channel 9 president and general manager Mark Cornetta each declined to discuss the subject here. As for those who chose to talk, they emphasize that they follow the law to the letter and let others decide if anyone has crossed the line. In Wilkerson's words, "We're not in the business of policing ads."
Attorneys are, however, and Denver affiliates follow their advice closely in order to stay out of dangerous territory. At Channel 2, for instance, the campaign-spot bible is Political Advertising Handbook for the Television Sales Executive, a 2004 guide penned by Erwin G. Krasnow and John Wells King of Garvey Schubert Barer, a Washington, D.C.-based law firm, for an industry trade association known as the Television Bureau of Advertising. Many of the document's 32 pages are devoted to Federal Communications Commission rules governing this form of advertising, as well as extracts from the venerable Communications Act of 1934, which still governs many of the actions in the field. Comparatively contemporary legislation such as the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, or BCRA, comes into play, too.
The "Facilities for Candidates for Public Office" section of the 1934 law states that a licensee "shall have no power of censorship over the material" submitted by qualified candidates. This means that FCC-approved operators can't be sued for libel or defamation simply for broadcasting a spot by individuals targeting federal gigs -- folks like Republican representative Marilyn Musgrave and Democrat Angie Paccione, who are competing for a congressional seat. But things get trickier in regard to state candidates such as Democrat Bill Ritter and Republican Bob Beauprez, who have their eyes on the governorship. A Colorado statute declares that false statements "designed to affect the vote on any issue submitted to the electors at any election or relating to any candidate for election to public office" cannot be made, published, broadcast or circulated. This law puts local stations on the hook for any outright fabrications they air regarding non-federal matters, and while such cases are notoriously difficult to prove, execs prefer to take no chances -- and use paperwork to protect themselves.
Political advertisers must fill out a form known as a "BCRA Political Record," which lists the candidate named in the message, the office being sought, the election or issue at stake, as well as the names of the sponsor, treasurer and/or person ordering the advertising. In addition, federal hopefuls are asked to complete a "Certification of Federal Candidate Responsibility for Television Advertising" sheet, which requires that an ad not mention a rival candidate or, if it does, that it display a photo of the politico behind the spot for at least four seconds and note that he or she approved the broadcast. These forms have to be maintained in a "political file" along with a slew of other data delineated in the Handbook. For instance, stations must save all requests for airtime submitted by candidates and non-candidates (i.e., tax-exempt organizations known as 527 groups) that wish to advertise on someone else's behalf.
A spot's arrival at a station begins what Channel 4's DeHaven calls "the first round." After checking to make sure that sourcing is provided for pertinent claims, he says, "our traffic-continuity people view the commercial, along with someone we've selected from our human-resources department -- and they look to see if something jumps out as being patently false. That's the first red flag that would come up, and if anyone is uncomfortable with anything in any way, it comes to me." If DeHaven sees possible problems, the campaign is contacted and given an opportunity to present further evidence in the ad's favor. If not, the commercial is approved for broadcast, and that's the end of the process unless representatives from the opposing campaign have a gripe -- which, this year, they almost always do. "It's happening more in this election than any I've ever been involved in," DeHaven says. "The other side will already be aware of a spot before it even goes on the air, and they'll shoot us a letter saying 'This is false.' And that's when we'll send it to our lawyers in New York and let them decide."
The complain-about-everything strategy is intended to keep challengers off balance -- but it can also limit the damage of attack ads by preventing them from hitting all at once. Take a recent commercial sponsored by a pro-Beauprez/anti-Ritter outfit dubbed Coloradans for Justice -- a spinoff from the Trailhead Group, an especially active 527. The spot featured September Dixon, a woman whose daughter was killed by a driver thought to be drunk at the time; she insisted that Ritter, the former Denver district attorney, had struck a too-lenient plea bargain, then lied about getting her permission beforehand. Turns out there were numerous reasons to question Dixon's credibility. She's got a sizable criminal record, and as noted in a recent Westword column by Patricia Calhoun, she used most of a $30,000 sum that KHOW's Peter Boyles raised for her daughter's funeral to buy a TV and a car for her boyfriend. Nevertheless, the commercial was hard-hitting and potentially damaging enough to prompt a stealthy attack on the people behind it. According to the website Colorado Confidential, John Willard, a staffer with a Democratic 527 called Clear Peak, reserved the name Coloradans for Justice, which Trailhead had reportedly registered in Delaware but not here -- and shortly thereafter, TV stations were contacted by a lawyer who demanded that the Dixon commercial be pulled as a result of the moniker dispute.
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Although most Denver outlets didn't hold the spot for this reason, one did. Channel 2's Mansi confirms that the commercial was left off the schedule for one weekend in September while lawyers with Tribune, the station's owner, sorted out the mess. Score one for the nitpickers.
The stations that aired the Dixon commercial were compensated for their decision, but not as well as they might have been if a business had purchased the time. "During the 45 days prior to a primary and the sixty days prior to a general election, all candidates to whom time is sold are entitled to the lowest unit charge for the class and amount of time they wish to purchase," the Handbook states. Moreover, "candidates are entitled to the benefits of a package or volume discount without having to purchase a package." Because of this directive, Channel 31's Wilkerson says, "a candidate who wants to buy in our nine o'clock news would get our lowest rate for that hour. And we have to make sure it's the lowest unit rate, or otherwise, we'll have to refund the money."
Even taking into account the increased monitoring and bookkeeping chores, not to mention the back-and-forths with corporate lawyers, stations do well during election seasons. If only the same was true of viewers who are subjected to often-vile political commercials for weeks or months on end. Channel 4's DeHaven says that in 2006, no ads have gotten yanked for passing blatant lies, "but there have been a lot that have perhaps been unfair. They'll pull things to one direction, or make definitive statements about things that aren't definitive. But it's not our place to decide whether something is fair or unfair."
Spoken like a real politician.