Political ads may help, hurt public stations
NEW YORK — A federal court decision has created the possibility that some public TV and radio stations that are perpetually challenged financially could see a windfall of cash from political advertising.
Stations that get that chance would have to weigh whether the money is worth the risk of alienating their audiences.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled in April that federal law prohibiting public broadcasters from airing political or issue advertising is unconstitutional, even though the court said a ban on commercials by for-profit products could stand.
The Justice Department must decide by next week whether to ask the court to reconsider its divided decision, or bring an appeal to the Supreme Court.
Stations have held off changing their policies because of the uncertainty of an appeal, and because it so far affects only a limited area out West.
“We are monitoring the case closely and are concerned that lifting the ban on political advertising and public issue ads may undermine the trusted relationship we have with the American public and the objective environment we create for our programs,” said Anne Bentley, PBS spokeswoman.
National Public Radio said it will be up to individual stations to decide how to respond.
The case came to the 9th Circuit on appeal from the Minority Television Project, a corporation that operates the San Francisco station KMTP-TV.
While classified a public broadcaster, it gets no funding from the national Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
A decade ago, KMPT-TV ran nearly 2,000 ads and was fined by the FCC. Its appeal challenged the advertising ban in general.
Product commercials are banned on the theory that public stations would reject educational programming in favor of more commercially popular fare to support the advertisers.
The appeals court said there’s no evidence political or public service messages would have the same impact.
Commercial stations in select markets have picked up substantial revenue due to political advertising during the Republican presidential nomination fight, and in areas where the general election campaign is starting early.
There will only be more, particularly with the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling easing restrictions on corporate campaign spending. The Kantar Media Campaign Media Analysis Group estimates as much as $3.3 billion could be spent on such advertising this year, up from $2.1 billion in 2008. Three-quarters of that is expected to be spent on local broadcast stations, Kantar said.
Stations that benefit most will be in battleground states like Ohio, Colorado, Virginia, Iowa, Florida and North Carolina, said Ken Goldstein, chief of Kantar’s campaign unit.