BROADCASTING, July 4, 1960

 

SENATE SUSPENDS SEC. 315

Now it's up to the House to follow suit

The Senate last week gave its approval to a plan to allow broadcasters to present major party presidential and vice presidential nominees during this election year without being subject to demands for equal time from minority and splinter party choices for those offices.

S J Res 207 was passed by a voice vote after senators were told during debate that the networks (and inferentially, their affiliates) have promised to make free time available on tv and radio to the Democratic and Republican nominees for the nation's highest elective offices if allowed to do it under their own formats and their own concepts of fairness.

Passed by the Senate Monday, the resolution was sent to the House and referred to the House Commerce Committee.

Reaction to the senate suspension was immediately forthcoming from all three networks. NBC Chairman Robert W. Sarnoff wired an offer of eight weekly hours of prime time to candidates, Dr. Frank Stanton called the senate action "a critically important step in freeing radio and television." ABC President Oliver Treyz again called for voluntary acquisition of three different prime evening time hours by the networks beginning nine weeks before election.

Equal Treatment . The only challenge to the resolution came from Sen. Ralph W. Yarborough (D-Tex.), chairman of the Senate Communications Subcommittee's watchdog unit. Sen. Yarborough questioned whether broadcasters would treat both parties equally and offered an amendment which would have required the exemptions of Sec. 315 to apply to broadcast debates only. But he withdrew the proposal after assurance from Sen. John O. Pastore (D. R.I.), chairman of the Senate Communications Subcommittee who explained the proposal to senators, that both the networks and their affiliates are honor bound by network testimony last May that candidates of both major parties would receive equal treatment from broadcasters.

Sen. Pastore conceded broadcasters could favor one candidate over another without directly violating a law, but he said any such action would amount to "bad faith" in their agreements with his subcommittee and that the FCC still is charged with seeing that licensees present public issues fairly and impartially.

The Rhode Island Democrat acknowledged the FCC had not commented on the suspension proposal and said that the formula or format for presenting presidential and vice presidential candidates will have to be worked out among the candidates, the national committees and broadcasters. Speaking of Sen. Yarborough's proposal for a debate format, he said there might be "a thousand" reasons why a candidate would not wish to appear in a debate with his opponent. In the 1952 campaign, he said, one candidate offered to debate, but his opponent refused.

Other senators agreeing with Sen. Pastore were Clair Engle (D-Calif.), Andrew Schoeppel (R-Kan.), Hugh Scott (R-Pa.), A.S. (Mike) Monroney (D-Okla.), Jacob Javits (R-N.Y.), Albert Gore (D-Tenn.) and Frank Carlson (R-Kan.).

The Follow-Up . The measure calls for the FCC to report by next March 1 on how the suspension plan worked during the 1960 election campaign and to recommend any legislation it thinks necessary to amend Sec. 315 permanently.

Sen. Yarborough's three-man watch-dog subcommittee has been assigned the function of watching for broadcaster abuses of Sec. 315 as regards exemptions of the section enacted last year for candidates' appearances on news and panel shows and also under the Sec. 315 suspension for presidential and vice presidential nominees, if enacted. The subcommittee's report also is to be made early next year.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has released a statement supporting S J Res 207. The American Civil Liberties Union has gone on record as favoring legislation which would "affirmatively require" broadcasters to make time available for political campaigning to all legally-qualified candidates for every office. ACLU also supports legislation to place the networks under FCC regulation.

Mr. Sarnoff's offer of free time was wired to House Speaker Sam Rayburn immediately after the senate suspension. He said that NBC was ready to offer an hour series entitled The Great Debate, if the bill cleared congress. Debate would be given eight weekly hours of prime time, the first four shows devoted to discussion between candidates on issues. The second half of the series would feature candidates being interviewed a la Meet the Press. Mr. Sarnoff said that his network will remain open to suggestions by the candidates themselves.

Mr. Treyz presented ABC's proposal that each network voluntarily give up three different periods of prime time nine weeks before the election. Each hour, he said, would be rotated on the different networks for the use of presidential or vice presidential candidates. He said that after approval by the Justice Dept., he would seek the "necessary acquiescence" by the FCC and ask for a meeting with other network officials and political leaders to work out a commonly acceptable schedule.

The ABC president warned that candidates would end up debating a total of 24 hours during the nine-week period if each of the networks allocated eight hours. He suggested that such lengthy exposure of candidates on TV would contribute to sagging interest on the part of both the viewing public and the candidates themselves.