A little-noticed change in federal broadcasting rules could result in a broad shift in political advertising for the 1992 elections.
On Dec. 12, the Federal Communications Commission ruled that all political commercials on TV must identify who paid for them both in the audio track and on the screen.
The change means that from now on, someone would actually have to say out loud who is responsible for each message the viewer is seeing and hearing.
Proponents of the change hope it will help clean up political advertising, but political consultants say the new ruling, which they hope to fight, will shrink even further the length of political discourse.
BACKGROUND: By law, sponsors of political ads have always had to be identified in their commercials. Previously, the FCC interpreted that to mean that the candidate had to be pictured in the commercial and that the name of the sponsoring committee or group had to be printed in text during the spot.
But last year, two interest groups, People for the American Way and the Media Access Project, petitioned the commission, contending that the law as enforced was not working. Too often, they said, the candidates' pictures and their sponsorship statements were so tiny and fleeting that they were meaningless and violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the law.
For example, in an ad attacking Pete Wilson when he was the Republican gubernatorial candidate in California, Democrat Diane Feinstein was identified by a crumb-sized picture that filled just 0.8% of the screen, appeared for just three seconds and was hidden against the background of a newspaper.
In the age of attack politics, candidates were obscuring their affiliation with ads, the reformers argued, to lessen the risk that their ads would cause backlash against the attackers. Research even suggests that if an ad can be made to seem neutral or authoritative, viewers later tend to think they got the information from watching the news.
The reformers' petition suggested that the candidates' pictures fill at least 20% of the screen, that the letters on the sponsorship statement be at least as tall as 4% of the screen and that both air for at least four seconds.
In addition to appealing to simple truth, the reformers hoped clearer identification would inhibit vicious attacks by raising the chance that the mud will stick more to the candidate doing the slinging.
Other reform proposals went further. Sen. John C. Danforth (R-Mo.) offered a bill calling for the candidate's picture to fill 40% of the screen and requiring the candidate to announce: "I, (name), candidate for (whatever office), approved of this ad."
Now, the reformers are partially satisfied. While they wish the FCC had set standards for the always-powerful visual element of identification statements in ads, FCC commissioners "have recognized the problem of candidates obscuring their affiliation with the commercial, and they have taken a serious first step toward addressing that problem," said John Gomperts of People for the American Way.
A number of political consultants are irate, however. They argue that the new rules will shorten the political discourse to less than 30 seconds. Now, six seconds of every ad could be spent announcing who paid for it, a reduction of 20% in air time.
"We already have the most hyphenated political dialogue in the world," Democratic media consultant Robert Squier said.
Nor will this change affect the most vicious ads, Squier said. These ads often are not from the candidate, but from supposedly independent interest groups acting on the candidate's behalf. It was just such an independent group that produced the notorious Willie Horton ad in the 1988 presidential race.
Some consultants also insist the problem is exaggerated. "I think if an ad is an attack on candidate Jones, people have probably figured out that Jones didn't pay for it," Republican consultant Eddie Mahe said.
OUTLOOK: The consultants, and others, still have one more chance to make their case. FCC rulings are subject to 30-day periods in which anyone can ask the commission to reconsider. And Mahe, for one, is trying to convince the congressional campaign committees, which dole out money to senators and congressmen for reelection bids, that the new rule will mean they will be spending millions just to identify themselves rather than to get out their messages.
If the FCC does not change its mind, the ruling will be law before the first presidential primary in February.