Free Political Ads On U.S. TV? They Do It In Mexico

This country has got it all wrong when it comes to TV political advertising.

In Mexico, TV broadcasters have to run political ads free of charge -- all to level the playing field. In this country, political messaging only has to be priced at the lowest commercial unit rate.

At least U.S. TV stations get some form of payment.  And, in big political years -- like in 2008 --  they can get plenty more. Last year's total TV political revenue was upwards of $3 billion, all of which was key to somewhat offset the crumbling of the TV advertising market, pulled down by the severely depressed automotive industry.

It looks like Azteca, Mexico's No. 2 TV broadcaster, has had enough of the freebie thing. Azteca nixed running some 5,734 political spots in May in prime time, all of which got Mexico's Federal Electoral Commission angry enough to fine the network what amounts to $1.7 million -- the highest ever penalty levied against a media outlet in Mexico. (The commission was actually was looking for a bigger fine $4.7 million) Meanwhile, No. 1 station bigger Televisa was also fined to a lesser degree).



Perhaps Azteca was looking down the road, according to reports -- hoping to pay the penalty by selling more advertising in other dayparts.

In this country TV stations are licensed by the federal government -- hopefully serving some public good. That means some level of public affairs/news programming, kids/education programs, or other low-level requirements. All this allows private companies to own broadcast stations which have (up until recently) allowed them to reap hundreds of millions of dollars.

One wonders what would happen if U.S. political candidates (with some restrictions/qualifications) were allowed free advertising like those candidates in Mexico. In the best of circumstances, such a move would seem to offer up some positive and new public discourse -- perhaps establishing somewhat of a level playing field.

The worst: mass confusion, corruption, and abuse.

9 comments about "Free Political Ads On U.S. TV? They Do It In Mexico ".
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  1. Dave Robinson from O'Leary and Partners, July 30, 2009 at 11:08 a.m.

    Excellent column (as usual). Thanks.

    The idea of getting money out of politics is very appealing; however, the idea of lots more thirty second negative campaign ads is troubling. Most people simply don't pay enough attention to get beyond the headline put out by their favorite.

    However, as you noted, in this country, stations are licensed by the federal government - I think the public at large would be better served by a return to the fairness doctrine.

  2. Dominic Mancuso from Broadcasting Consultant, July 30, 2009 at 11:35 a.m.


    Way off the mark this time. First off, we're in the worst broadcasting recession I've seen in over 28 years in the business. So now, let's legislate away the one possible revenue bright spot for next year?

    Also, you forget that by "leveling the playing field," you take away any possibility of a challenger truly pulling even with an incumbent. If all candidates get equal time, then the incumbent will always have the advantage of the bully pulpit. It's part of the reason many incumbents would love free time.

  3. Jesus m. Medina-rodrigueze from MoonLeopard Productions, July 30, 2009 at 12:14 p.m.

    Yes, let's put some rules in, and some guidelines. But by all means lets give ALL candidates a chance to speak. I never hear from the libertarians and others which might just have an idea or two. WE own the airwaves right? then why aren't WE getting at least some of the benefits of owning them.?

  4. Diane Sutter from ShootingStar Broadcasting, July 30, 2009 at 12:20 p.m.

    While the idea sounds tempting on paper there are some realities that have to be considered. Free spots for political candidates can only work if there is also a limit on campaign spending that goes with it. If the TV stations gave free time and then the candidates could spend their cash too, you haven't solved anything you have just let the big spenders get more time for nothing. It doesn't level the playing field at all. Lots of stations offer free spots to political candidates now and many, if not most, turn them down. Candidates want to pick their time, their format and message and the idea of leveling the playing field is not always viewed as attractive. And, then there is the real question of how do you do that for stations in markets that have dozens of candidates running in their DMA for federal office alone? If you are in New York, LA, or even markets that cross state borders, the sheer numbers of "qualified" candidates could use up or even exceed all of a station's inventory. All commercial television stations have limited inventory to sell. If we still want news, weather, community service, public service announcements and alike, we might want to be careful what we wish for. As I suggested in the beginning, it sounds better perhaps than the reality.

  5. Janet Mcmullen from University of North Alabama, July 30, 2009 at 1:31 p.m.

    What would happen to the election process if political ads were banned from television? While TV ads provide some substantive information, content usually boils down to "I'm a nice person, I can do the job, I have a nice family, I look good, the other guy's a jerk, so vote for me." Without political TV ads, the electorate might actually have to read something to learn about a candidate and vote on policy rather than presentation. Campaign costs would be reduced enormously. Inventory would be preserved for other advertisers who don't have to be charged at bargain basement prices.

    While video political ads would still show up online, their exposure would be more limited, often to people who actively sought them out.

    There are First Amendment issues and others that make such a ban improbable and possibly unwise. Still, for all the criticism of campaign costs, financing, voter involvement and understanding of issues, it's interesting that a some kind of "time, place, and manner" limitations on political TV ads hasn't been part of the discussion.

  6. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, July 30, 2009 at 1:43 p.m.

    You sound like such an Idealist, Wayne !

  7. William Hughes from Arnold Aerospace, July 30, 2009 at 2:10 p.m.

    All I can say is than Heaven for DVDs. I LOATHE Negative Campaign ads, and thanks to my DVD Player I can watch my shows without these Buffoons coming on and Slandering each other. With all the problems we have now, don't you have anything better to spend your money on?

  8. Frank Maggio from Maggio Media, LLC, July 30, 2009 at 2:22 p.m.

    The last thing we should risk is confusion, corruption and abuse... so let's change!

  9. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, July 31, 2009 at 9:47 a.m.

    I am speechless of the lunacy of this idea, for reasons already given by others.

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