Free and Reduced-Rate Television Time for Potential Candidates

Publication Date: July 1997

Publisher: Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service


Research Area: Media, telecommunications, and information; Politics



Among its profound effects on modern society, television has played a critical role in changing the way our nation’s politics have been conducted in the post-World War II era. Politicians have increasingly used broadcast media and especially television to communicate directly with voters. Paid 30- and 60-second commercials have become a vital force in the conduct of today’s elections.

While there has been a dearth of reliable data on spending on TV in elections, recent studies show that in the aggregate broadcast media spending (including radio and TV air time, production costs, and consultant fees) constitutes about 27% of campaign budgets in House races, 40-45% in Senate races, and at least 50% in presidential races. While these data contradicted higher anecdotal estimates, they still showed a major role for broadcast advertising, particularly at the national and statewide levels. Still other data show the importance broadcast ads play in more competitive races, in which more than 60% of campaign funds may be spent on broadcast advertising in Senate races for example.

Because of the significance of television and concerns about the level of money in elections, Congress, in 1971, sought to curb political advertising costs through a limit on advertising spending, later repealed, and a requirement that broadcasters provide lowest unit rate air time to political candidates, still in effect.

As the debate over rising campaign expenditures and fund-raising pressures on candidates has intensified, many observers have looked to proposals for free broadcast time or for further rate reductions to alleviate the perceived problems. Since 1960, 163 such proposals have been offered in Congress. They would require broadcasters or the federal government to absorb the costs of this “free” or discounted time. Most of these proposals also condition candidate receipt of free or reduced-rate advertising on adherence to voluntary spending limits.

Supporters contend that these proposals offer ways to curb the role money plays in elections, to make elections more competitive by providing underfunded candidates greater access, and, through time and format requirements, to help improve the level of political discourse in elections. Opponents question whether reducing the costs of broadcast advertising would in fact reduce the role of money, as opposed to merely allowing some candidates to buy even more exposure. They also doubt whether there is any formula for distributing this benefit that accounts for the wide differences in media costs, market reach, and political realities in different electoral jurisdictions. They further argue that free-time requirements would constitute an unconstitutional “taking” from broadcasters. Supporters deny this and contend that broadcasters can be required to provide free or reduced-rate TV time under their license obligations.

This report provides an overview of free and reduced-rate TV time and discusses the policy, constitutional, and legal issues it raises. The focus is on television, although much of the debate and many of the specific proposals apply equally to radio.