By Sara Jerome - 05/24/11 10:44 AM EDT
When Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) stares out from the television to tell his constituents to lead a heart-healthy lifestyle, he is, strangely enough, being lobbied by one of the most powerful interest groups in Washington.
On a morning in May, Cohen heads to a makeshift studio on Capitol Hill set up by the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), where makeup artists poke at his face before assistants usher him into a video production room.
“Make healthy choices to maintain a strong heart,” he says with a smile.
A producer asks him to shoot a second take after she straightens his jacket and reminds him to emphasize his name.
“Sure,” quips the heart-healthy Cohen. “It’s prophylactic.”
The shoot wraps and Cohen promptly reunites with his scheduler to dash off to the rest of his day.
The final product is a public service announcement that will air on television stations in Cohen’s district, reminding viewers to make healthy choices — and, of course, reminding them who their friendly, health-conscious congressman is.
The other important product is good will for the NAB, which pays for production and comps the airtime via member stations.
NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton says the PSA campaign is an important tradition for over-the-air radio and television stations that feel a responsibility, as members of local communities, to help spread positive messages.
“We have the franchise on localism,” he said.
The takeaway for lawmakers is positive publicity. This year, the NAB gave lawmakers the chance to take a stand on some important topics, largely of the universally palatable variety.
Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), usually mired in heated battles as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, recently stood up for one of the few imaginable platforms that could easily unite a Tea Party Patriot with an Obama campaign staffer.
“Hi, I’m Congressman Dave Camp. I know reading is important for all children, so volunteer to read with a child; you’ll give them the gift of a lifetime,” he says in his ad.
Camp splits screen-time with an influential and politically popular group: babies — in this instance, adorable ones who are listening to their parents read.
An American flag waves in the background, and the NAB logo flits across the screen.
Other PSA topics include mental well-being and childhood fitness.
Though a far cry from the fundraisers and Capitol Hill meetings that dominate Washington, the NAB’s effort still manages to send an important reminder from the broadcasters to Congress.
The message is simple: Radio and television still matter in politics. That’s a premise that once went without saying.
But that notion is increasingly in question in a world where the Internet is ascending as the most important medium in cultural and political life.
Part of NAB’s influence in Washington hinges on the ability to play a critical role in the lawmakers’ image-making process due to local stations’ control of airtime.
Getting on the wrong side of local broadcasters, who can air and re-air advocacy campaigns to buttress their views, has never been considered wise politicking.
But the ongoing shift from television to the Internet as the most important medium has fundamentally challenged the NAB’s clout in Washington.
That tension has never been so stark as this year, when NAB’s regulatory opponents made a concerted effort to push a narrative depicting what they view as the demise of local broadcasting in favor of the Internet.
The wireless and technology industries have portrayed over-the-air television and radio as antiquated over the last several months.
Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics Association, said earlier this year that NAB is a “buggy-whip” industry that has refused to innovate or adapt its business to the latest technologies.
Another executive suggested that broadcasting is the contemporary equivalent of the pager industry.
The message is perhaps most succinctly encapsulated by a Twitter feed devoted entirely to mocking the broadcasters for what it suggests is an inefficient use of airwaves that ought to be devoted to mobile Internet.
“No one needs to access the wireless Internet anyway. Now I can focus on a real ‘crisis’: All My Children’s demise,” the Twitter account, @lazyspectrum, recently tweeted.
The broadcasters counter that their industry is thriving. Radio listeners are up by 7 million over last year, and the number of over-the-air listeners per week is at an all-time high.
In the battle of media, the stakes are high. The broadcasters are fighting it out with the tech industry on Capitol Hill over policy proposals that would repurpose broadcast airwaves to wireless companies.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in particular has been a staunch advocate of devoting more airwaves to mobile Internet rather than television and radio.
The NAB has taken an aggressive approach, saying it can approve of voluntary measures to repurpose its airwaves, but doesn’t want stations to be forced off the air.
The battle leaves NAB in a difficult position, defending the importance of local television and radio, a principle that once went without saying.
But for the hundreds of members who signed up to make PSAs this year, that notion was hardly in doubt.
Cohen, who hosts a local television program in his district devoted to sharing the latest policy developments, says he focuses on television to reach his constituents because he can be sure people will get the message.
“The Internet is the next step,” he says. “But television is playing a critical role.”