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TV rakes in cash, shortchanges voters

Now that the first television ads in the Philadelphia mayor's race have aired – one promoting James F. Kenney, paid for by a pro-labor political action committee, and another paid for by Anthony Hardy Williams' campaign – voters should consider just how much they rely on TV ads, as opposed to TV news, to learn about the candidates.

Here's a clue. A collaborative research project called Philly Political Media Watch collated data from the 2014 midterm election, which revealed that 12,000 paid political ads ran on TV in the Philadelphia market during the last two months of that campaign. Two-thirds of those commercials, about 8,000, aired during local TV news programs. But the six TV stations that aired the ads collectively provided only 19 minutes of substantive political news coverage during that period. The researchers say the amount of time devoted to paid political ads on local TV was 45 times more than the time provided for political news stories that went beyond candidate schedules and polling places.

Apparently, the TV stations decided too much political news might reduce the number of eyes watching their news programs. Since ad rates are based on the size of the audience, maybe they didn't want to risk losing a penny. After all, pennies can add up pretty quickly when in comes to paying for political ads. The six Philadelphia stations were paid more than $14 million for the political ads they aired, the researchers said. What the stations charged ranged from about $2,000 each time an ad aired on WPVI, to about $1,100 on KYW, around $1,000 on WCAU, WTXF, and WPHL, and about $400 on WPSG.

With only the mayor's race likely to have candidates paying for TV time, maybe the TV stations won't charge the same rates. But no matter what they charge, it would be nice of them to put more time and effort into actually covering the election. In the meantime, voters who want more information than what the candidates are paying TV stations to get them to hear can continue to check out The Inquirer, Daily News, and other public-interest websites.

Harold Jackson is editorial page editor of The Inquirer.