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Voting With Eyeballs—A Commentary by Ian Ayres ’86

The following commentary was published in The New York Times on October 7, 2008.

Voting With Eyeballs
By Ian Ayres ’86

Barry Nalebuff and I just published a column in Forbes proposing a simple way to fund a substantial chunk of the presidential campaigns. It starts with the simple proposition that lots of people watched the political conventions — and eyeballs have value:

Shortly after the Olympics pulled in an average of 27.5 million viewers per day over 16 days this summer, the Democrats reached an average of 22.5 million viewers over four days. Barack Obama’s acceptance speech drew 40 million viewers. Sarah Palin pulled in 37 million. Yet the parties gave away all that content for free.

What if the Democratic and Republican National Committees had decided to sell the broadcast rights to their conventions? What would that have been worth? NBC paid $894 million to get a total of 435 million viewer-days out of the sports in Beijing. At $2 per viewer-day, that suggests that the Democrats could have gotten $180 million for their 90 million viewer-days. Now, a convention has fewer commercial opportunities, especially during the candidate’s acceptance speech, and on the networks it’s only on for a couple of prime-time hours each day; so let’s knock that down to $100 million. Still, that’s a nice sum.

Many people react with horror when we first mention this idea. They don’t want to give any single network the power to frame the conventions. But a monopoly right to the revenues from commercial time does not necessitate giving a single network a monopoly right to broadcast the conventions.

We could still have 11 different channels showing the Republican convention; the channels would just have to agree to show the commercials that the winning network has sold. As we explain:

[The contract between the political party and the winning bidder] could make the winning bidder share the content and some of the revenue with other stations — but they would all have to air the ads sold by the winning bidder. Or the parties might insist that the winning bidder defray some of the costs of other networks’ coverage.

Bruce Ackerman and I have a book on campaign finance, Voting With Dollars (shameless plug), where we recommend giving every registered voter “Patriot Dollar” vouchers to fund the campaign of his choice.

Like the “one person, one vote” rule, Patriot Dollars give each voter the same power to finance political speech. Our convention idea applies an analogous idea to monetizing our attention. Under the Ayres/Nalebuff proposal, it’s “two eyeballs, one vote.” 

Selling the commercial rights to public acts doesn’t mean that the public would be charged to watch. We can still mandate that content be given away to the viewer and at the same time sell the rights to the associated ad time:

What works for politics could be applied in many other places as well. Two examples: The rights to broadcast high-profile court cases could be sold, and the proceeds used to pay for both the defense and the prosecution. NASA could support space exploration by selling the broadcast rights to Martian landings.

In fact, the list goes on and on. The commercial rights to the original O.J. Simpson trial might have funded years of public defenders. And just last Friday, the Biden/Palin debate pulled in more than 70 million viewers. Why should the networks get this content for free?

I’m Ian Ayres, and I approved of this post.