Network Affiliates Air Just 9 Seconds of Candidates Talking Each Night

Local TV Newscasts Shunned April Election, Study Finds

April 19, 2000

Madison - Local television stations devoted an average of 9 seconds a night to statements by candidates for national, state and local office in the month before Wisconsin’s April 4 primary election, an analysis of evening newscasts in the Madison market shows.

"Voters were out of luck if they wanted to see candidates discussing issues in their own words. There were dozens of candidates on the ballot vying for 9 seconds of air time," said Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and state project director of the Alliance for Better Campaigns-Wisconsin, a coalition of 16 public interest organizations promoting a national standard that calls on broadcasters to air five minutes a night of candidate discourse in the 30 days before each election.

"They’ve decided democracy is not newsworthy," McCabe said of the TV stations. He noted that the spring ballot in the Madison area included the presidential primary, the state Supreme Court race, county board contests and school board races.

In its analysis of evening newscasts from March 5 through April 3, the Alliance found that:

  • The four network affiliates in Madison - WKOW 27 (ABC), WISC 3 (CBS), WMTV 15 (NBC) and WMSN 47 (Fox) - averaged 9.4 seconds of candidate discourse over the 30-day period.
  • WKOW aired an average of 13.7 seconds of candidate discourse, while WMTV averaged 13.5 seconds, WMSN averaged 5.5 seconds and WISC averaged 4.9 seconds.
  • The average amount of air time devoted to overall campaign coverage each night was 1 minute, 34 seconds on WMTV, 1 minute, 30 seconds on WKOW, 49 seconds on WISC and 42 seconds on WMSN.
  • The majority of the election stories focused on the "horse race" aspects of the election and not on issues - nearly two-thirds focused exclusively on campaign strategy or the electoral process, while only one in 10 focused on issues.
  • In the week before the election, 127 paid political ads were run on the four stations. The 30-second spots ran from March 27 to April 3 and totaled 63 minutes, 30 seconds. On two stations - WISC and WMTV - candidates bought more air time in the last week than was devoted to candidate discourse during the entire month.

Chart: Air Time for Candidate Discourse

The local broadcasters did even worse than the three major national networks that were monitored by the national Alliance for Better Campaigns between the February 1 New Hampshire primary and the March 7 Super Tuesday primary. Over the 34-day period, the networks aired an average of 36 seconds a night of candidate discourse, still far short of the recommended five-minute-a-night standard. CBS aired an average of 42 seconds of candidate discourse, while ABC aired 39 seconds and NBC averaged 29 seconds.

The national standard the Alliance is promoting is the recommendation of a White House advisory panel that included broadcasters and was co-chaired by the president of CBS. It calls on television stations to meet their public interest obligations by voluntarily airing five minutes a night of "candidate-centered discourse" - issue forums, extended interviews or mini-debates - in the 30 days before the 2000 primary and general elections.

The Alliance for Better Campaigns-Wisconsin contacted 20 television stations in Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, La Crosse, Eau Claire, Wausau and Rhinelander in January and again in February to urge them to commit to the "5/30" standard, McCabe said. No Wisconsin television station pledged to meet the standard in the month before the April 4 primary, he noted.

McCabe said the Alliance will approach Wisconsin stations again to urge them to commit to meeting the 5/30 standard for the month before the September 12 primary and the November 7 general election.

"They have two more chances to redeem themselves," he said of the state’s broadcasters. "With legislative fund-raising for the fall campaigns up 60 percent over 1998, there will be a blizzard of ads. If TV news sits out the fall elections like they did this spring, the ads will be all voters have to go on."