The following editorial appeared in Washington Post:
Between January and July this year, the 13 local TV stations owned by General Electric, the corporate parent of NBC, ran 15,819 political ads and pocketed $23.5 million. Over the same period, Rupert Murdoch's Fox stations ran 14,532 political ads and earned $9.2 million. Now that the campaign is heating up, both companies are raking in money at an even-faster rate. And yet despite profiting so much from this barrage of sound bites, NBC's flagship broadcast channel is not going to carry the first presidential debate, which could have brought more-substantive election information to their viewers. Fox's broadcast channel isn't going to carry any of the debates. Both companies offer instead their cable channels, which are available only to paying subscribers and which reach far fewer voters.
It is not as though the broadcasters had an inconvenient date imposed on them. The Commission on Presidential Debates has been working for more than a year to find evenings acceptable to the networks. The commission agreed to avoid September, because of the Olympics; it did its best in October to work around big football games, Jewish holidays and other important occasions. But NBC says it is contractually obliged to air a baseball playoff next Tuesday, the evening of the first presidential debate. Fox has a baseball excuse on one evening, but it is snubbing two of the presidential debates in favor of entertainment programming.
The commission is not blameless. To raise the pressure on the presidential candidates to take part, it allowed people to think that all the networks were committed to broadcasting all three debates. In part due to the false assumption that everyone was on board, we and many others urged George W. Bush to accept the commission's framework.
The greater offenders are the TV stations, which ought to feel some duty toward public service. Most businesses can fairly argue that they have no obligation to improve public discourse. Broadcast TV is different. The networks have headed off attempts in Congress to make them join wireless telephone companies in paying for the airwaves they occupy. In exchange for free spectrum, the broadcasters have accepted that they must serve the public interest. Congress may fairly wonder why it is giving away the air to those who do not honor that deal.
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