THIS year's midterm elections promise to be hotly contested, with both parties hoping to secure majorities in Congress. Voters need information about these races, and local TV network affiliates broadcasting on the public's airwaves could go a long way toward meeting that need by airing more candidate debates at reasonable hours.
The stations don't want to do that, of course, because debates typically don't draw high ratings and advertising dollars. But television's abysmal record on this score ought to improve. According to a recent report by the Center for the Study of the American Electorate, nearly two-thirds of the debates held in 2000 for governor's races, or for seats in the US Congress, were not televised at all.
If it weren't for public broadcasting, that number would be even worse. Only 18 percent of the debates were televised by commercial TV network affiliates. The study covered 10 states, including California, Florida, Massachusetts, and Oregon.
There's some evidence that citizens will watch these debates. Take Minnesota. In a rare exception to the rule, ABC, CBS, and NBC affiliates decided to air the last of three debates between two US Senate candidates in 2000. Seventy-four percent of Minnesotans viewing TV at the time chose to watch that debate.
For the past 30 years, the amount of television coverage of politics has spiraled downward. Even the 2000 presidential campaign received the second-smallest amount of network television attention ever. In the critical state of Florida, that may have made a difference in voter turnout.
The center's report recommends that Congress take a close look at regulating debate coverage, using a station's market share as a starting point. The greater the market share (read profit), the greater the obligation to carry debates.
Airing debates more widely serves a broader public than just those people intensely interested in politics. It helps invigorate overall participation in the political process and keep citizens informed.
Do the nation's broadcast networks need better reasons than that for shouldering more of their civic responsibility?