2012 Campaign

TV Stations Cash In on Attack Ads


TV Stations Cash In on Attack Ads

Photo Illustration by 731; Photographs by Alamy (2); Getty Images (3); Volkswagen (1)

“I can look through my schedule and go, ‘Well, that’s all sold out with political ads, and that’s all sold out, too!’ ” says Lisa Howfield. “It’s almost hard to find an area that the political groups aren’t buying right now.”

Howfield, the vice president and general manager of KSNV-Channel 3, an NBC (CMCSA) affiliate in Las Vegas, is in an enviable spot. While most traditional media are suffering from the weak economy and long-term erosion of their audience’s attention, KSNV is one of the TV stations in contested states that are raking in cash from a boom in campaign spending.

Ken Goldstein, the president of Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks campaign ads, estimates that at least $1 billion will be spent nationwide on presidential TV ads this year. Las Vegas is cashing in. From Oct. 1 to Oct. 21, more ads aired there than in any other market except Denver, according to the Wesleyan Media Project. Democrats ran 4,551 of the spots vs. 3,506 by Republicans. Since the start of 2012, no other station in the U.S. has run more ads than KSNV, according to CMAG. The station has broadcast 20,282 political spots so far this year. “What did we used to do with our time?” asks Howfield.

At the moment, about 80 percent of all the local ads on KSNV are campaign-related. “Suddenly, people are excited to see an automotive spot or an ad for a furniture store,” says Howfield. “Those are the ones that are really jumping out right now.”

TV stations tend to operate on two-year business cycles. The odd years are lean, the even ones more bountiful, thanks to elections and (for NBC affiliates) the Olympic Games. This year’s spending on local political ads is at record levels. “It’s created a whole new atmosphere,” says Howfield. “We’ve seen an incredible onslaught of political ads from every direction.” Erika Franklin Fowler, the Wesleyan Media Project’s co-director, says the onslaught has injected a small fortune into the economies of critical TV markets including Vegas. Call it the great Obama-Romney stimulus package of 2012. Says Fowler: “If you own a local television station in any of the key battleground markets this year, you are incredibly lucky.”

Intermountain West Communications, based in Las Vegas, owns KSNV. The owner, says Howfield, ultimately will decide how much of the windfall gets plowed back into the station. She suggests that KSNV is likely to take a conservative approach: “Quite honestly, it helps us catch up with some of our overhead costs that have been hard to keep up with.” Brad Adgate, a senior vice president for Horizon Media, says local station owners in contested states count on the election-year revenue bump. They don’t get to keep all of that cash—a lot goes back to corporate headquarters, often in distant cities. “This isn’t found money,” says Adgate. “If there’s any area they would invest in, it would be local news websites. That’s the next battleground.”

KSNV airs two locally produced, daily political shows, The Agenda and Face to Face, whose wonky audiences are particularly desirable to campaign advertisers. Typically, a half-hour show would feature 7.5 minutes of ads. These days, Howfield says, KSNV sometimes pushes that to 10 minutes or beyond. “That’s not just to accommodate political; it’s also to keep my regular advertisers happy,” she says. “We end up expanding the breaks as much as we can without driving our viewers completely crazy.”

The bottom line: TV stations are squeezing in as many political ads as possible to get their share of the $1 billion that campaigns will spend on airtime.

Gillette_190
Gillette is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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