Forum: Free Campaign Airtime on Cable: The Daniels Plan

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On Aug. 3, Daniels Cablevision asked the Federal Election
Commission for permission to allow our cable systems to provide candidates for federal
office with free airtime for an eight-week period leading up to the Nov. 3 election.

Our hope is that this may be a first, small step toward
breaking the stranglehold that television-advertising money holds on the electoral
process.

We operate two cable systems in Southern California that
serve about 70,000 customers. Our plan is to offer bona fide House candidates for the
44th, 48th and 51st Districts, as well as the candidates for the Senate seat in
California, free airtime to accommodate up to 750 30-second spot advertisements per week.

Depending on the number of candidates who choose to take
advantage of this plan, each candidate will have between 15 and 60 free spots per week.
The advertisements will run on all of our ad-supported services on a random basis. All
candidates will be treated equally with respect to when and where their ads are aired.

Candidates would be responsible for the production of their
commercials, which would have to meet Daniels' technical-quality standards. The total
value of the advertising time being donated is estimated at $86,250.

So why am I doing this?

Frankly, I believe that the emphasis on money in our
elections is threatening our system of government.

I am not naïve in this regard. For the last 30 years, I
have been a major contributor both to the Republican party and to individual candidates.
But in recent years, something has changed, and much for the worse.

The trend lines reflecting public interest, confidence and
respect for the campaign process are all negative, and they continue to plunge. Poll after
poll indicates an unprecedented level of cynicism about political campaigns and the
political process in general, which is frightening for those concerned about the future of
representative government.

Fund raising for campaigns has gotten out of hand. It is
totally dominated by special interests, and the public knows it. That's why the
public is getting more and more turned off. Each year, the amount of money spent on
campaigns increases, and each year, fewer people bother to vote.

I wish that I could lay all of this just on the
Clinton/Gore campaign's activities in the last election, but the truth is that
there's enough sleaziness to go around for both parties. We simply can't have a
society where everyone believes that good government is irrelevant and all politicians are
on the take.

And the only way to change things is to reduce the impact
of money on politics.

As this is being written, Congress is taking a last stab at
some sort of election reform. Frankly, I think that this problem is too important to be
left to the politicians, and that the

private sector should take a stand. And I believe that the
cable industry has an excellent opportunity to do the right thing.

We've done the right thing before. In contrast to
broadcast television, over the years, the cable industry has played an innovative role in
the political process.

Exhibit A is C-SPAN, which has become an essential part of
how Congress operates and communicates with the public.

Cable has also substantially expanded the coverage of the
electoral process and public policy through the creation of 24-hour news services. Cable
News Network is the prototype, while MSNBC, Fox News Channel, CNBC, Courtroom Television
Network and others are attempting to duplicate its success.

All of these efforts were developed by the cable industry
through private initiative. Now, the time may be ripe for the cable industry to take
another step forward to improve the political process, this time by providing free airtime
for political candidates.

It is my hope that this project will strike a chord, and
that other cable operators will voluntarily create similar programs in future election
years.

Using past interpretations of the FEC statute and
associated regulations as a guide, cable operators currently appear to be prohibited from
offering free commercial time on the grounds that it constitutes a campaign contribution.

The plan that we are proposing resolves that problem by
characterizing the free airtime as "political commentary," thus making it exempt
from the ban on contributions. All bona fide candidates (defined by the FEC statute as
candidates who have raised $5,000 or more in campaign contributions, or who have expended
that much) will be entitled to equal airtime.

We believe that our approach is also consistent with the
First Amendment rights of cable operators, and that it will broaden the marketplace of
political ideas, which the Supreme Court has stated is a primary purpose of the FEC laws.

I view this year's efforts simply as an experiment to
see how the public, the media and the candidates respond. If it proves popular, then I
will seek permission from the California Fair Campaign Practices Commission to expand it
to state and local candidates next year.

For the cable industry, the Daniels Cablevision project is
an interesting trial run. If the response from the public and the candidates is favorable,
it might prompt other cable operators to voluntarily develop similar programs.

And if a critical mass of cable operators agreed to
participate, then the opportunity to impact both the costs of political campaigns and the
manner in which they are conducted would be significant -- perhaps as significant as the
creation of C-SPAN.

On the other hand, maybe nothing positive will happen. But
there's no way of knowing until someone tries. Daniels Cablevision is willing to take
the risk. The FEC should let us try.

Bill Daniels is chairman of Daniels Communications Inc. He
is regarded as "the father of cable television." Earlier this year, he was one
of the first inductees into the Cable Television Hall of Fame.

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