Sanders' next price-fighting tactic? Get the debate on TV screens

Sen. Bernie Sanders is pushing TV execs to amp up their coverage of drug prices, and he's asking for a sit-down with network and bureau chiefs to discuss the matter.

U.S. drug pricing news may seem inescapable, but there's one medium that hasn't participated much: television. And now, Sen. Bernie Sanders is asking six TV network execs to explain their “lack of coverage” on an issue important to so many Americans.

Citing a new Media Matters for America study, Sanders said CBS and ABC evening news programs have aired no drug pricing segments since December 6, the day he introduced a measure in Congress that would have allowed drug imports from cheaper markets and granted Medicare direct price-negotiating power. After that date, NBC featured one story about EpiPen price hikes and PBS discussed the issue twice.

Cable news network MSNBC discussed drug prices in six segments over the study period, while CNN and Fox News “mentioned drug prices in only four segments,” according to Media Matters.

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RELATED: Top 20 pharma brands dropped more than $2B on national TV ads last year

That lack of news coverage made TV a safe haven for pharma as the drug-pricing debate raged in recent months—relatively free of critique, full of consumer advertising. Indeed, as the TV news coverage lagged behind print media, drugmakers shelled out millions for direct-to-consumer spots. According to iSpot TV data, drugmakers paid $2.2 billion to air TV ads for their top brands last year, and spent $173 million in January alone.

“I hope very much this lack of coverage has not been influenced by the enormous amount of advertising done on your networks by the pharmaceutical industry,” he wrote (PDF) to the executives, noting himself that pharma shelled out $5.6 billion on DTC ads overall last year, an 11% jump over 2015.

RELATED: Pfizer runs away with pharma brand ad-spending crown, Nielsen data shows

Despite the belief by a majority of Americans that drug costs are too high, Sanders said TV networks continue to “sweep this story under the rug.” To arrive at the numbers, the Media Matters study authors searched show transcripts for “drug” and “prescription” within five words of “price,” “cost” and “import.”

Sanders asked to meet with the TV execs or their Washington bureau chiefs to discuss future coverage.

Sanders' Dec. 6 proposal, in the form of an amendment to the 21st Century Cures Act, didn't make it into the final bill. After a vote on importation failed again back in January, Sanders told USA Today some of his Democratic colleagues didn’t have the “guts” to stand up to the pharma industry.

RELATED: Rolling out new importation bill, Sanders, Cummings urge Trump to step up on drug prices

But the senator hasn’t given up. He continues to go after the pharma industry, recently blasting a proposed Zika licensing deal to Sanofi and pushing a new drug importation bill.

On Friday, Sanders called a proposal by the U.S. Army to license its promising Zika shot a "bad deal," urging President Donald Trump to intervene. Before that request, he and fellow pharma watchdog Rep. Elijah Cummings asked for Trump's support on their price-fighting importation bill.

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