New Lane Opens In Political Freeway

New Lane Opens In Political Freeway

Story from the News and Observer Web Site: March 31, 2000

TV stations try different format
By Rob Christensen
News and Observer Staff Writer

You won’t see any slick Madison Avenue ads conjured up by political consultants. Nor will you hear any personal attacks. Instead, coming into your living room will be the image of the next governor of North Carolina talking about his beliefs — free of charge. With politics increasingly being driven by big money and 30-second TV ads that are often criticized as synthetic and negative, a Raleigh TV company is beginning an experiment in providing free air time for candidates.

Capitol Broadcasting Co., which owns WRAL-TV in Raleigh and three other stations, will begin Saturday airing two-minute segments featuring the five major gubernatorial candidates talking about the issues. During April, viewers in the Triangle, Charlotte and Wilmington will be able to see Dennis Wicker talk about the lottery, Chuck Neely discuss Smart Start, or Leo Daughtry talk about an issue of his choice.

The driving force behind the free air time is Jim Goodmon, president and CEO of Capital Broadcasting, who has been worried about the corrosive effect on the political process of the domination of 30-second TV spots and candidates’ constant chase for money to pay for them. “I start with the idea that the whole system is out of whack,”

Goodmon said in an interview. “I think we, as broadcasters, should figure out what we can do about it.” Goodmon sees the experiment as part of the broader effort to reform politics. He said television is often accused, not always fairly, of contributing to the problems of the political system. “Here’s the rap we get,” Goodmon said. “Buying the TV time is the reason [candidates] have to raise so much money. News coverage is very brief and doesn’t give people the issues. I’m saying OK. I accept the fact that television advertising is expensive and effective and news broadcasts are not a good forum to discuss issues. I want to do something about it. I’m not sure what we are doing is the answer, but I think it’s a very good first step. I’d like to see everybody try to do something.”

Goodmon, a Republican, served on a 22-member White House commission that in 1998 recommended that TV stations donate five minutes of air time to candidates in the month before primaries and general elections. Most of the industry has ignored that proposal. WRAL’s experiment of offering six minutes per day to the candidates during periods of heavy viewership is already attracting notice around North Carolina and nationally.

“It is a tiny, but important, foothold,” said Paul Taylor, executive director of the Alliance for Better Campaigns, which is pushing for stations to provide free time. “Real stations in real markets with real ratings concerns we hope will start to do this and become pioneers,” Taylor said. “I couldn’t be more excited that WRAL, which has a lot of respect not only in North Carolina but around the country, is getting out in front on this.”

TV stations have long provided free air time to candidates in varying formats, such as debates. But debates often attract only highly committed voters, and reformers have been looking at ways to allow candidates to present their message in smaller, more consumer-friendly blocs of time.

This is how WRAL’s experiment will work. Each of the five major gubernatorial candidates has come to the station’s West Raleigh studio, where they sat in front of a camera and gave two-minute responses each on questions about the lottery, the Smart Start program for preschool children and a third subject of their choice. The only rule is that they can’t attack their opponents.

Starting Saturday, the spots will be broadcast as part of WRAL’s newscasts. Monday through Friday they will appear on the noon, 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. broadcasts, and on weekends they will be on the morning, 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. broadcasts. The free spots also will be shown on the other TV stations owned by Capitol Broadcasting — WRAZ in Durham, WILM in Wilmington and WJZY in Charlotte.

Goodmon hopes that other North Carolina TV stations will also consider providing free air time to candidates. Several other TV companies, including the parent companies of WXII in Winston-Salem and WCNC in Charlotte, have said they will provide some form of free time. WCNC plans to provide five minutes to gubernatorial and congressional candidates, while WXII is studying WRAL’s model.

Other stations are not offering free air time, but they are stepping up their campaign coverage. WBTV in Charlotte plans to devote a daily segment of the 6:30 news broadcast to political coverage during April. WTVD in Durham has aired interviews with major gubernatorial candidates, is conducting weekly flash polls and is participating with other stations and newspapers in the Your Voice, Your Vote project, which is designed to increase issue coverage of the campaign.

“This year will be a major change in the leadership of our state,” said Rob Elmore, WTVD’s news director. “We haven’t seen it in eight years. We feel like it’s our obligation to report on the issues and do as much in-depth coverage as we can.”

With polls showing that a majority of voters get their political information from television, there is a national effort to monitor TV political coverage during the 2000 elections by the Alliance for Better Campaigns and the Annenberg Public Policy Center. Their North Carolina partners in the project are the University of North Carolina journalism school and the Program on Southern Politics, Media and Public Life.

“The problem in this whole election has been to try to get your message out to people,” said Daughtry, a GOP gubernatorial candidate. “Anytime you are asked how you feel about the lottery or education or the size of government, it is a good thing.”

News and Observer staff writer Rob Christensen can be reached at 829-4532 or robc@nando.com

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