In a year when local television stations are expected to reap an estimated $1 billion nationally in political advertising revenues—double the amount earned during the 1996 presidential race—the Montana Alliance for Better Campaign (MABC) has called most local and network political news coverage “paltry” and urged Montana’s 19 commercial television stations to devote more air time to substantive coverage of the candidates and issues.
MABC, a diverse alliance of about a dozen groups such as the Montana League of Women Voters, Common Cause and the Montana Association of Churches, has called on television stations to air at least “five minutes of fresh air time” of candidate-centered discourse each night for 30 days leading up to the election. The campaign is part of a national effort to reverse the trend toward dwindling political news coverage, which is where most Americans say they learn about candidates and issues. During the 2000 primaries, the typical network and local news broadcast aired fewer than 40 seconds each night of political coverage, according to a study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, in the first seven months of 2000, local TV stations in the top 75 media markets took in $211.6 million in advertising revenues, with two Montana stations alone collecting $400,000.
However, MABC Public Relations Director Sarah Busey offered high praise for Missoula’s KECI-TV and its affiliates, KCFW-TV in Kalispell and KTVM-TV in Butte/Bozeman for leading the nation in airing an average of more than seven minutes of in-depth political coverage each night. In contrast, national network news stations (ABC, NBC, CBS and FOX ) averaged just 39 seconds each night for the 30 days leading up to each local primary, with most local news stations airing only slightly more.
“Broadcasters are fiercely independent. Newsrooms don’t like to be told what to do,” says KECI News Director Jim Harmon, who tried to explain last week why only 42 of the nation’s 1,300 local commercial TV stations—or 3 percent, and none in Montana—have signed on to the Alliance for Better Campaigns recommendations.
“We really believe it’s time to end the stranglehold of the 30-second sound bite and the 60-second political ad on Montana elections,” says Diane Sands of the Montana Association of University Women, an MABC member. “When was the last you heard everything you need to know about a candidate’s position on tax policy, or school funding, or reducing poverty in Montana in less than one minute?”