Milwaukee Station Aired Little Candidate Issue Discussion

WTMJ Fell Far Short of National 5-Minute Standard, Devoted Less Air Time to Candidates than Stations Nationwide

February 5, 2001

Madison - WTMJ Channel 4, the NBC affiliate in Milwaukee, aired just over a minute of candidates talking about issues each night in the final month of the 2000 campaign, according to a new national study released by the Alliance for Better Campaigns.

Channel 4’s average of one minute, seven seconds of candidate discourse in the 30 days before the November 7 election ranks WTMJ 31st among the 74 local stations in 58 markets across the country analyzed by the University of Southern California’s Norman Lear Center. And it falls far short of the five minutes a night recommended by a White House commission that included representatives of the broadcast industry and was co-chaired by CBS president Leslie Moonves.

The USC study, which monitored compliance with the White House advisory panel’s standard, shows:

  • WTMJ’s average of one minute, seven seconds of candidates discussing campaign issues over the 30-day period was slightly less than the overall average of one minute, 14 seconds for the 74 stations.
  • Stations that never made a public commitment to try to meet the White House panel’s "5/30" standard calling for five minutes a night of candidate discourse in the 30 days before an election aired an average of just 45 seconds a night of candidates talking about issues.
  • Stations included in the survey that had indicated they would try to meet the 5/30 standard averaged two minutes, 17 seconds a night of candidate discourse. While still well short of the commission’s goal, the average was three times more than that for stations that did not commit. The committed stations also aired more issue-oriented coverage, 60 percent longer sound bites and put somewhat more emphasis on state and local elections, according to the report’s author, USC Associate Dean Martin Kaplan.

WTMJ aired 3,022 political ads from January 1 to October 21, 2000 and took in at least $1,780,319 from the sale of those ads, according to national ad monitoring data. The nation’s broadcast industry took in between $770 million and $1 billion in political ad revenue in 2000, according to Alliance estimates. Even the low range of those estimates represents a five-fold increase over what stations took in from political ads in 1980, after adjusting for inflation.

"The 2000 campaign offered fresh evidence that the broadcast industry is treating elections as an opportunity to profiteer rather than to inform," said Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and state director of the Alliance for Better Campaigns-Wisconsin.

Chart: Nightly air time for candidate discourse in seconds

"The message from stations like WTMJ to candidates could not be more clear: If you want to be seen and heard on television, you have to pay your way on the air, 30 seconds at a time," McCabe said. "As a result, voters are getting most of their information about candidates from those paid ads, which is the worst place for them to get information."

The USC study comes on the heels of a recent Annenberg Public Policy Center survey which found that the national broadcast networks averaged one minute, four seconds a night of candidate discourse per network in the final month of the 2000 campaign.

In December, the Alliance for Better Campaigns-Wisconsin released an analysis of evening newscasts in the Madison market showing that the four local network affiliates averaged one minute, 32 seconds a night of candidate discourse during the 30-day period. While considerably short of the five-minute standard, it marked a ten-fold increase over the nine seconds a night the same stations averaged in the month leading up to the state’s April 4 election.

During the 2000 campaign season, three Wisconsin stations - WISN and WDJT in Milwaukee and WFRV in Green Bay - committed to try to meet the 5/30 standard. The stations were not included among the 5/30 stations monitored for the USC study, however.