Television is generally acknowledged to have the longest reach of all the media today, with audience access estimated at 96 percent of all Filipinos nationwide.

Much has thus been said about TV’s being the political battleground in the campaign for this year’s elections. The candidates’ media gurus know this if they know nothing else. Thus the political ads that television—especially the two major networks ABS-CBN and GMA-7—is attracting even at this early stage, which should translate into hefty increases (by as much as 10 percent) in their revenues for this year.

The key word is “revenues,” which at the candidates’ end means “expenses.” The extensive reach of television means TV ads aren’t cheap. A 30-second ad during prime time, for example, can cost as much as P250,000. A TV ad campaign can thus run to nearly a hundred million per station.

Most of the candidates this year have turned to the Internet and to podcasts in an effort to cut costs and to “even the playing field”. But the Internet suffers from limited access, despite the falling prices of PCs and laptops and the drop in the cost of connections to the Web. Romantics and optimists will tell you there’s the proliferation of Internet cafes, but it’s doubtful if most of their customers are lining up to access Noynoy Aquino’s latest podcast or Ping Lacson’s website.

Television not only has the reach. It also has the captive audience that’s glued to that popular soap during prime time into which a political ad can be inserted with little risk of anyone’s turning the set off. If television is thus the field of combat where who gets to sit in the Senate floor or in the gallery will be decided, those who intend to do battle in it better come prepared with the huge budgets required.

While it’s all very nice to point out how well-done some of the early-bird politicians’ ads are, which of them are ineffective, and which can stand some tweaking, the real bottom line is the impact of this contest on us poor folk who will have to live with such consequences as Cesar Montano’s or Richard Gomez’s making it to the Senate.

If the elections this year and in the coming years will be decided by who has the most ads or the most effective ones, it means the golden rule of politics all over again—who has the gold rules. Who has the means will prevail, given the cost not only of airing TV ads but also of producing them.

What about those who don’t have the resources but who may have the brains to actually craft the laws this country needs? If it’s going to be a battle of the ads alone, they won’t, or will hardly, count. Ergo, this year as in years past, it will be money politics all over again that will be in the winners’ circle.

Today the key question when it comes to the media’s role in a democracy is how the less moneyed but possibly brighter and more principled can access the electorate to offset the inherent advantage of those whose war chests run into the billions.

Not only can fair, relevant and accurate media coverage enable those who can’t afford to pay hundreds of millions for ads gain the name recognition Philippine politics puts a premium on. Even more importantly can they inform voters about their plans and programs through thoughtful media coverage.

In 2004, a Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility monitor of media coverage of the campaign and elections that year found that media, particularly TV, coverage was less than thoughtful.

While there were initial efforts to make the coverage of the campaign meaningful, eventually the coverage regressed into the usual videos of candidates’ out- of- town sorties. There was a preponderance of reports on who was leading whom in the surveys (otherwise known as the horse race). Television news also devoted entire segments to the doings of celebrity or celebrity-associated candidates (among them Manuel “Mar” Roxas, whose TV ads advantage was augmented by repeated coverage of his “relationship” with a TV anchor).

The focus on the two main “contenders” for the presidency was to the exclusion of such candidates as Raul Roco. (The rare times in which Roco was covered almost exclusively had to do with his illness and departure for the United States.)

There was no coverage of the crucial party-list elections except in those instances when these groups were accused of being communist fronts. Except for Mar Roxas, there was very little coverage of other candidates for senator, and zero on what the advocacies of the candidates were–or if they had any at all. Mostly the “issues” covered had nothing to do with platforms or programs, and everything to do with such scandals as an ex-wife’s accusation that a candidate had not been providing child support.

Given the quality of the 2004 coverage, it’s safe to say that, except when they were shaped by fraud, the results were at least partly the doing of the media. The shift from print to TV ads during the campaign was already pronounced even before 2004. But that is not as important as how television—and the other media—will cover the elections this year.

The two major networks launched with much fanfare their commitment to sustained coverage of the campaign and elections this year. Let’s hope they mean “better,” and that, in exchange for the increased revenues they’ll be making this year, they will provide the public information beyond what the ads provide.

(Business Mirror)

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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