Candidates Don’t Need Airtime, They Need Attention

Imagine a Netflix-type portal for short campaign videos.

Ross Perot and Katie Couric on the "Today" show
Alex Brandon / AP

Last week, Senator Bernie Sanders appeared on The Joe Rogan Experience, on which the eponymous host frequently converses with guests for longer than three hours. So it was no surprise when Rogan asked the presidential candidate, “Do you get frustrated by the time constraints of the debates?”

“You shouldn’t even call them a debate,” Sanders answered. “What they are is a reality-TV show in which you have to come up with a sound bite. It’s demeaning to the candidates and it’s demeaning to the American people. You can’t explain the complexity of health care in America in 45 seconds. Nobody can.”

“Why do you think it’s still done that way?” Rogan asked.

“I think the DNC is in a difficult position,” Sanders said. “They have 20-plus candidates. They want to give everybody a fair shot, which is the right thing to do. And then if you’re going to have 10 candidates up on the stage, what do you do?”

In this telling, equity demands that Democrats adopt a “demeaning,” dysfunctional approach. “But there are other ways that we’ve got to do it,” Sanders continued, as “the issues facing this country are so enormous and in some cases so complicated, nobody in the world can honestly explain them in 45 seconds.” His suggested remedy: long blocks of commercial-free network airtime that presidential candidates could use to address voters at much greater length.

“Could you convince CBS, NBC, and ABC to go along with that?” Rogan asked.

“No,” Sanders said. “You’d have to pass legislation.”

Proposals to give free airtime to presidential candidates have recurred in American politics dating back at least to the aftermath of Watergate. During the 1990s, President Bill Clinton asked the Federal Communications Commission “to provide free or reduced-cost television time for our candidates who observe spending limits voluntarily.” The news anchor Walter Cronkite declared in 2002, “It’s time to pass a bill that would require broadcasters to provide free airtime during political campaigns as is done in virtually all of the world’s other democracies.” And the late Senator John McCain regularly included free-airtime requirements in various versions of campaign-finance-reform legislation.

A proposed law in the current Congress, the Fairness in Political Advertising Act of 2019, would require legacy and cable networks to make free airtime available to political candidates in the run-up to federal elections.

“People used to laugh at Ross Perot because he used to get up there with a chart and all this stuff,” Sanders said during his conversation with Rogan. “And the media made fun of him. But in fact, he tried in his own way to explain his point of view to the American people. And we need serious discussion on serious issues.”

Sanders acknowledged that the internet has changed politics; that his own campaign, like most others, has a large email list and does outreach on social-media platforms. “But television still has a very important role to play,” he insisted.

If that is still the case, it probably won’t be for much longer.

Circa 1992, Perot bought airtime in an information environment where there weren’t that many choices. And he didn’t come close to beating the Republican or Democratic nominee. Today the internet affords everyone the ability to cheaply disseminate as many hours of video as one pleases, unlimited by broadcast spectrum or scheduling.

It’s not airtime but voter attention that is the scarce commodity.

If you’re reading this article, you likely pay far more attention to politics than the average American. Say the 20 Democratic candidates who qualified for the first televised debates were given two hours of free NBC airtime in 30-minute chunks to present ideas. Say all their segments were thoughtful, substantive, and detailed.

How many of those 40 hours of television would you personally watch?

The U.S. population is roughly 329 million. CNN estimates that 9.2 million viewers watched its recent debates, which featured several candidates who are supported by tens of millions. With that in mind, how many Americans would likely watch two hours, or even 30 minutes, broadcast by Steve Bullock, John Delaney, or Tim Ryan? (Those are candidates for the Democratic nomination.)

High-information voters already have access to all the data they need to make choices based on substantive differences; low-information voters are no more likely to tune in to nuanced policy lectures than they are to seek out the detailed plans that politicians have already released. The true obstacle to a less “demeaning” campaign isn’t greedy networks unwilling to cede airtime. It’s the civic culture, a collective creation.

But technology does now offer ways for candidates to reach voters that would arguably prove far superior to televised debates or 30-minute broadcasts—and that would play into, rather than try to change, the civic culture.

The approach I’m pondering would need the backing of an organization with both cultural power and a high degree of competence—such as Google or Netflix.

Imagine that one of those companies allowed presidential candidates who polled at (say) 1 percent or higher in a reputable national poll to upload (say) a five-minute video about their personal background, a five-minute video about their professional experience, a series of five-minute videos about the issues topping public-opinion surveys, additional five-minute videos on issues of their choice, and a final 30-minute video on any subject.

Anyone who wished could watch everything by a given candidate, or all the candidate videos on the issue of immigration, or all the biographical videos. And the segments would be made available as podcast streams, too.

This system wouldn’t be an improvement in every respect. It wouldn’t test thinking on one’s feet, for example.

But Americans could tune in anytime, sharing and discussing videos that they liked or disliked as they discovered them. Journalists and citizen commentators could fact-check videos and draw sustained attention to inaccuracies, an improvement on live debates, where there is greater incentive to mislead in the moment, knowing that winners will be declared and public attention will shift to other matters quickly. There would be no incentive to seek advantage by pandering to debate-hall audiences or getting in a live zinger that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Voters could more easily seek out information on subjects they care about.

In a crowded primary, I’d tentatively rather have voters draw conclusions from two hours spent exploring a video repository than two hours spent watching a single debate. Of course, candidates such as Bullock, Delaney, and Ryan would still find themselves reaching fewer voters than they would like, just as they do now, and just like they would if given free network airtime.

But given a rising generation that regards appointment television as a relic, I’d argue that a streaming portal with short videos and an audio option has a real shot of catching on. Which would you be more likely to post on Facebook: a segment clipped from a long network broadcast or a self-contained five-minute video?

I do have concerns about a private company running the portal, but those are outweighed by a lack of faith that a publicly created and run portal would be user-friendly. This change would undoubtedly have unintended consequences I haven’t considered. Email concerns, dissents, and competing ideas to