Imagine you're just about to settle in for an evening of "Seinfeld" after a hard day's work. But instead of Jerry making jokes, President Clinton suddenly appears with an impassioned, two-minute plea for more education funding.
Do you flip to another channel, or watch?
The question is at the heart of a debate over whether the three major broadcast networks should offer presidential candidates a few minutes of free air time in the month leading up to the presidential elections. Supporters are betting you'll stay tuned, and in doing so, transform the American political debate. Critics are confident you'll grab for the remote.
The idea of offering candidates free air time is not new. Every other major industrial democracy in the world already gives political candidates free access to the airwaves. Dozens of campaign-finance reform proposals over the years have included it. But like many other well-intentioned efforts to drain the cynicism, mean-spirited ads, and huge amounts of cash from America's political system, reform has been stymied by a Congress too dependent on the status quo to change it.
Enter Paul Taylor. The former Washington Post political reporter quit his job last year to begin a crusade to get the networks to offer up a few free minutes of air time. He says this simple change can succeed where other efforts have failed.
"I think it has the potential to change the language of politics, to change the habits of journalism, and to change the cynicism of the political culture," says Mr. Taylor, admitting to a bit of hyperbole for dramatic effect.
His zeal has turned a pie-in-the-sky idea into a serious proposal with the backing of such notables as former CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite, actor Christopher Reeve, and Sens. John McCain (R) of Arizona and Bill Bradley (D) of New Jersey.
TAYLOR calls his movement the Free TV for Straight Talk Coalition. In a full-page ad in The New York Times in mid-April, dozens of leaders in politics, business, and entertainment signed an open letter to ABC, CBS, and NBC urging them to give candidates a direct line to the largest audiences in America.
"You go into the heart of prime time, where the voters and, indeed, the nonvoters are," Taylor says. "And do it in a format that forces the candidates to be on the screen the whole time, so if they want to attack their opponents ... the candidate himself will have to get his fingernails dirty."
Taylor says that face-to-face confrontation with the American public will raise the debate from the current sound-bite-driven volleys of "attack ads" to a level where the candidates have to tell viewers in a straightforward manner exactly what they would do for the country.
"Currently, we have what I call the 'pro-wrestling mode' of fighting, which is all about fakery and artifice, rather than the 'boxing mode' of fighting, which is at least two combatants in a ring honestly slugging it out," Taylor says.
Skeptics are far less sanguine. They say the few free minutes would simply give candidates another venue to spin misleading half-truths. That, in turn, would give the public another reason to tune out of the political debate.
That's a primary concern of the three major networks, which would have to sacrifice advertising revenues and precious programming minutes to provide the time. The networks also say that their news and political programs already offer the candidates plenty of opportunities to be seen and heard. So far, all three have opposed the idea, although executives at CBS and NBC say the idea is under consideration.
"[T]he proposal should also be addressed to cable-programming services," reads a prepared statement from NBC, "since one-quarter of the prime-time audience is watching cable channels, particularly entertainment-oriented cable channels, most of which provide no coverage of the campaign or the candidates."
The major networks have already seen their share of the prime-time audience drop from more than 90 percent in the late 1970s to less than 35 percent today. That's because of competition from cable and new networks like Rupert Murdoch's FOX, which once again is making life difficult for the Big Three.
In February, Mr. Murdoch offered to give the presidential candidates 10 one-minute addresses that would be aired in prime time in the weeks leading up to the election. On election eve, the candidates would split a full hour of FOX prime time.
The Australian-born Murdoch sees this as a first step in weaning American politicians from their obsession with fund-raising to pay for 30-second "attack ads." He calls the money chase "a cancer in our system." In Australia, where Murdoch was born and raised, free broadcast time has long been a part of the system.
Many democracies, like Canada, split up the air time among the parties in proportion to their showing in the last election. For years, that allowed politicians to address the electorate in a statesmanlike fashion. But many of Canada's political parties have recently turned to US political consultants. That has changed the tenor of their debate.
"The parties over the last number of elections have argued they wanted the time in shorter and shorter segments," says Prof. Robert MacDermid of York University in Toronto. "It's now been broken up into 30- and 50-second segments, so it's not really any different than paid advertising."
Taylor says many nations are moving toward a faster-paced model. "What I'm suggesting is that in the midst of these international trend lines, we move in the other direction, back toward a healthier debate," he says.
Even some of Taylor's backers are skeptical. Political scientist Larry Sabato, who signed the Free TV for Straight Talk Coalition's letter, says it's a positive step, but no panacea.
"You'll still have paid advertising, you'll still have 'push' polling, you'll still have vicious direct mail, and you'll still have an angry and frustrated electorate, for the most part," says Professor Sabato, whose new book "Dirty Little Secrets" (Times Books) catalogs the corruptions of the political system. He says the candidates need to stop bickering and start addressing the needs of the American people.
A study recently done for the Center for National Policy, a Washington-based political think-tank, found that disaffected American voters feel left out of the political system. They believe it's dominated by self-interest, corruption, and hypocrisy.
"One of the central findings of the study is that the current parties are warring with half-truths," says study co-author Edward Shapiro. "Both are in defensive positions, and neither ... transcends the fight to articulate something that captures the whole picture, an American identity."
If a few minutes of free TV will let politicians do that, Dr. Shapiro says, disaffected Americans may stay tuned to the political debate.