WGME's plan to air a documentary critical of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry prompted three Maine companies Thursday to pull their advertising from the Portland TV station.
Hannaford supermarkets, the Lee Auto Malls, and the law offices of Joe Bornstein withdrew their advertising indefinitely from WGME (Channel 13) over its plans to air "Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal" on Oct. 23.
WGME's owner, Sinclair Broadcast Group, has ordered its 62 TV stations in local markets across the country to air the film without commercials.
The film shows Vietnam War veterans criticizing Kerry - a fellow veteran - for opposing the war after he served.
Alan Cartwright, WGME's general manager, declined to comment when contacted.
Hannaford, based in Scarborough with 46 supermarkets in Maine, decided to pull its ads so its name would not be associated with the film.
"Hannaford is apolitical, and our employees have varying views on issues," said Caren Epstein, Hannaford's spokeswoman. "We object to being positioned politically."
Epstein said she did not know how much Hannaford spends on advertising with WGME, but noted that the chain advertises on other Maine TV stations as well. She said Hannaford's ads will stay off WGME at least until after the documentary is aired.
Adam Lee, president of Lee Auto Malls, decided to pull his company's ads because he believes airing the documentary is unfair.
"I'm torn. I think the press should be able to print and air what they want, but doing this just before an election, without advertising and without a rebuttal, is not fair," said Lee.
Lee, who appears in his company's ads, would not say how much his advertising is worth to WGME. He said he did a "fair amount" of advertising with WGME, but does more with WCSH-TV (Channel 6).
Bornstein, who has offices in Portland and Bangor, said that having his ads on WGME during this controversy made him "uncomfortable."
"This is really an issue of fairness in broadcasting and Maine has been dragged into it," said Bornstein.
Advertisers on Sinclair stations in other cities have received calls and e-mail, but published reports as of Thursday listed only a few who have actually pulled advertising.
Ads are an important source of revenue for local TV stations, which compete mightily for good ratings because they determine ad rates.
Word of Sinclair's planned airings hit the news media earlier this week. Democratic members of Congress and Democratic Party officials called for a Federal Communications Commission investigation of Sinclair, some saying that the airing may be tantamount to an in-kind campaign contribution to President Bush.
In Maine, angry viewers flooded WGME with calls and e-mail to protest the airing.
People who call the station are told to dial a specific voice mailbox set up to handle comments on the documentary. There is also an area on the station's Web site (www.wgme13.com) that allows people to e-mail comments to Sinclair directly.
Mark Hyman, Sinclair's vice president for corporate communications, did not return phone calls Thursday.
Some Mainers angry over the documentary have also started e-mail, letter and phone call campaigns aimed at trying to get businesses to pull their advertising from WGME.
But officials at Hannaford, Lee Auto Malls and Joe Bornstein said calls and e-mail were not their primary reasons for pulling ads, though they were aware of them.
The program is scheduled to air on WGME from 8 to 9 p.m. on Oct. 23, replacing a repeat of the CBS crime drama "Cold Case." The film is to be followed by a panel discussion, and on some Sinclair stations the total program will run for 90 minutes.
"Stolen Honor" includes interviews with veterans who charge that Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran himself, prolonged the war by speaking against it publicly after his tour of duty had ended. The film was funded by a veterans group and produced by a former Washington Times reporter.
Sinclair stations reach about a quarter of all U.S. TV viewers.
The company has been criticized for using its power to support conservative causes. The company tapes nightly commentary pieces - featuring company vice president Hyman - and has its local stations air them.
During an 11-day period in September, seven of the pieces focused on Kerry and were critical of him.
The increasing partisanship may represent a growing trend in local TV broadcasting.
During the first 40 years of commercial television, broadcasters were required by the federal government to provide equal time to political candidates during an election and to provide programming that was in "the public interest."
But the so-called "Fairness Doctrine" was abolished in 1987 as part of deregulation in the TV industry. In the 1990s, further deregulation allowed companies to own large numbers of stations, giving them more power and influence over the airwaves.
"This (the controversy over Sinclair's programming) may lead to re-regulation, to a closer look at how license holders use the airwaves," said Jill Geisler, a former TV news director and head of leadership programs at the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit school for journalists in St. Petersburg, Fla.
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