Hurricane Sandy sidelined President Obama and Mitt Romney’s campaign plans, but in the final stretch of election 2012, TV stations in battleground states will still see an unprecedented advertising bonanza, to the point of scarcity in some dayparts.
Even if campaigns temper their message out of respect for the victims of the devastation, station groups expect to reap record sums for political spots, campaign consultants stand to earn big rewards whether their candidate wins or loses, and viewers will find themselves satiated, or even numbed, by an endless onslaught of negative messaging. It’s raised questions of whether all of the advertising has reached a point of saturation, particularly in the final seven days and especially with a major news event bumping 24/7 election coverage from lead news headlines.
“Obviously, Mother Nature threw a little bit of a monkey wrench at the entire political ad community,” said Dan Sinagoga, vice president of political advertising for Comcast Spotlight, the local TV and online sales division of the cable giant.
“I have heard rumblings that due to the sensitivities in the East, a couple of campaigns may not do as significant” of an ad push, he said. “There are concerns of do they want to take a bad PR hit by over inundating the airwaves? I think by tomorrow we will have an idea of whether they take a positive PR route and rachet it back.”
Nevertheless, he said that Monday was the second largest billing day of this election cycle, and he expected heavy volume on Tuesday and Wednesday.
That is because there is a scramble for placement in the most desirable dayparts, like local evening newscasts. Campaigns are now reaching the point where too many dollars are chasing too little time. By law, stations have to prioritize time for candidates, selling them time at the lowest market rate, forcing some channels to bump traditional advertisers. Yet what happens when all of the ad time is given to candidates and that priority treatment? That’s what has begun to happen in certain dayparts at NBC’s affiliate in Las Vegas.
“I am expanding breaks as much as I can without driving viewers completely crazy,” said Lisa Howfield, vice president and general manager of KSNV, which has added 30-seconds to some breaks.
She said that the ad spending “is not only more than four years ago, but it is more than two years ago, which we thought would never happen again.”
A difference this cycle is that campaigns are reaching more into all parts of the day. For example, a popular place for spots at KSNV has been during “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” and even “Last Call with Carson Daly,” as campaigns target younger audiences.
While she’s mindful of not alienating regular advertisers, Howfield said that the political windfall “is the shot that we needed.
“If businesses are struggling, broadcast stations are struggling. We have had some difficult years.”
According to a Wells Fargo analysis of figures from the Campaign media Analysis Group, as of mid-October, total local TV political spending neared $1.65 billion. The final figure is expected to approach $3 billion. CBS, News Corp., CBS, Sinclair, NBC Universal, Gray Television and LIN among those that have benefited the most. Some estimates are that total spending across all media could reach $5 billion.
The uptick is most apparent in the presidential race. According to the Wesleyan Media project, more than 915,000 ads aired on broadcast and national cable TV from June 1 through Oct. 21, a 44.5% jump from the 2008 cycle.
“It is unbelievable; I have never seen anything like it,” said Bob Prather, president and COO of Gray Television, which has 36 stations in 30 markets, including ones in Ohio, Florida, Colorado, Michigan and North Carolina and Wisconsin.
He said that the advertising started earlier --- and has been heavier --- than they thought.
The sales at their Reno station “is way off the charts,” he said, while their Madison affiliate is benefiting not just from being in a swing state, but having a competitive Senate campaign as well as the gubernatorial recall in June. The additional political coin will enable Gray “to pay down a lot more debt than we thought, faster than we planned.”
Stations have seen a crunch in local newscast inventory, Prather said, and they have been trying to entice campaigns to consider the option of digital channels at lower prices.
As of yet, he has not heard of campaigns pulling back in response to the storm, but “even if they cut back for a day or two they will probably make up for it.”
He also said that campaigns have gotten wiser about how they spend their money in the final week of the campaign, with where they place their money viewed as much as a competitive strategy as it may be a way to cloud their gameplan in the eyes of their opponents. The Obama campaign, for instance, “has jumped back into Wisconsin,” with plans for a $300,000 to $400,000 buy, Prather said. Meanwhile, his station manager in Greenville, N.C. told him that the Obama campaign informed him about a week ago that they might pull ads. “I frankly haven’t heard whether they did or not,” Prather said.
So what happens next year?
Political spending undoubtedly will be down --- but it won’t be non-existent.
Kip Cassino, executive vice president of Borrell Associates, which tracks local advertising, said that “some of it will not stop.
“We have developed an industry out of political advertising,” he said. “You are almost going to see a neverending campaign, a continuous flow of issue ads, PAC ads.”
The result has been a marked increase in the cost of elections, at all levels. Even though stations can only charge candidates the lower market rate, the New York Times reported this week that even that has done up this season.
Cassino doubts that campaigns will pull many ad spots in response to the storm, for a simple, tit for tat reason: “They are afraid their competitor is going to get the available time.”
“There has been almost an unceasing demand for more airtime,” he added. “Unfortunately, the stations can’t manufacture more hours of the day.”
Photo from Romney auto ad implying that Chrysler is moving jobs to China.