Buying TV time cost political candidates at least $1 billion in the 2002 elections, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group. In theory, candidates might have spent less. Under a 1971 law, television stations must charge candidates "the lowest unit rate" for advertising spots, as part of their public-service obligation. But that law has a loophole that stations abuse by charging full rates for prime-time slots.
If a candidate wants to place an ad at 5:30 p.m., for instance, the station doesn't have to guarantee that slot, and instead could run the ad at 2 a.m. So candidates are virtually forced to pay more to ensure their ads run when the most people are watching.
A survey of stations by the Alliance for Better Campaigns makes it clear how stations are profiting by ignoring the spirit of the law: Of 37,000 political ads on 39 local stations in 19 states, the average price for a candidate's ad rose by 53 percent between the end of August and the end of October last year.
A typical example: A gubernatorial candidate in New York paid $2,800 for a 30-second ad on a local station during NBC's "The Today Show" on Aug. 26. He paid $4,300 for the same time slot on Nov. 4 - a 53.6 increase. In tight election races, the increases were much greater.
The Senate's campaign reformers, John McCain (R) of Arizona and Russ Feingold (D) of Wisconsin, have introduced a bill that would close this egregious loophole. Their fellow legislators should act to do so.