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Minor Candidates Wary About Network Free Time Plans

June 26, 1996

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Minor presidential candidates, fearing they will be excluded, don’t want federal regulators to approve TV network plans giving their major party rivals free air time.

``To restrict access to the airwaves to Bill Clinton and Bob Dole will simply force-feed Americans more of what they don’t want,″ John Hagelin, a presidential candidate with the Natural Law Party, told a Federal Communications Commission hearing Tuesday.

Sharon Ayling, a spokeswoman for the Workers World Party, whose presidential candidate is Monica Moorehead, agreed. ``We’re very worried. If the FCC approves the plans, it is really gutting the equal opportunity law,″ she asserted.

But Fox owner Rupert Murdoch, who testified at the hearing, said that ``it is not possible to offer valuable air time to candidates who have failed during the campaign to attain any significant public support.″

Third-party presidential candidates don’t want Fox and other broadcasters to get exemptions from federal rules requiring equal access for all legally qualified candidates. Such exemptions, they fear, would jeopardize their ability to get on the air as often as Clinton and Dole.

However, most witnesses at the FCC hearing, including academics, political reformers and media executives, urged regulators to approve the proposals _ though they warned broadcasters to act responsibly.

``Certainly in a relatively close three-person race, exclusion would be intolerable,″ said Michael Meyerson, a professor at the University of Baltimore Law School.

FCC commissioners said they were sympathetic to third party candidates’ concerns, but don’t want to discourage broadcasters from creative ideas for improving political debate.

The Big Three broadcast networks, Fox and the Public Broadcasting Service all have submitted free air time proposals to the FCC.

But Fox, ABC and PBS have asked the FCC to exempt their plans from federal equal time rules.

NBC and CBS, which plan to make time available on existing news programs, said their plans already qualify for the automatic exemption from equal time rules given to bona fide news events.

_ Fox seeks to provide each major presidential candidate at least 10 minutes of prime time free to address 10 issues. On election eve, Fox would provide one hour of prime time free, equally divided among the major candidates, as selected by the Commission on Presidential Debates, not Fox.

_ ABC also seeks to provide major candidates with the opportunity to appear on a one-hour prime time special during the final week of the campaign.

_PBS wants all 344 of its member stations to make several minutes of prime time available every day at the same time for major candidates to address voters.

While praising the proposals, former Washington Post reporter Paul Taylor called upon the networks to adopt the format created by his organization, Free TV for Straight Talk Coalition. Under that format, candidates would deliver 10 made-for-TV speeches _ 2 1/2 minutes in length, to be aired on alternating week nights during the month before the election.

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