Political ad flurry in forecast

TV/RadioColumn

October 02, 2002|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

What Republican congressman is trolling for political support from those who follow the treacly story lines of NBC's Providence? What state's lieutenant governor thinks she can win votes by advertising on WMAR during the mentally taxing Wheel of Fortune?

Answers to those questions in just two short paragraphs.

(The local television news tease is really underrated as an art form. People should use it more often in their daily lives, as in: "What child of mine failed to rake the leaves this weekend? You'll find out that, and so much more, over dinner.")

Baltimore's television stations have been deluged with political advertising over the past six weeks, as candidates for governor, congressman and, in some cases, even state delegate are seeking votes through the airwaves. In the gubernatorial race, Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend has spent roughly $2 for every buck spent by Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Here are a couple of things worth keeping in mind:

Baltimore television stations stand to derive significant revenues from this fall's political campaign. A survey of documents available to the public shows that about $1.2 million has been spent so far on the city's five largest commercial television stations.

Townsend has already spent about $464,000; Ehrlich bought $215,000 worth of spots. The U.S. House race pitting Dutch Ruppersberger against Helen Delich Bentley has drawn significant spending, too, including $205,000 by the state Democratic party for Ruppersberger.

But those figures are likely to balloon. Ehrlich and Townsend will each raise more than $8 million. A significant portion of that is earmarked for ads to be aired in Washington and Baltimore (so far, markedly more has been spent in D.C.), and there will be more from congressional candidates. "There are so many dollars out there that we do anticipate a flurry of activity," says Steve Bock, sales director for WMAR-TV. During a slow economy, that can be a boon for station officials.

Political ads are nonetheless viewed as a mixed blessing by the television stations. To set rates for an ad, television executives consider not its length, but when it appears, how many spots are available during that program, and whether it can be bumped to a different time. Sponsors pay a premium to ensure ads air when scheduled.

Political campaigns generally run on a lot of last-minute decisions. But television executives, who value the ability of advertisers to plan ahead, are required to give candidates for public office the best possible rate, no matter when it's bought.

When the money starts pouring over the transom, life gets hectic on Television Hill.

Media buyers for major candidates tend to seek out viewers who are 35 years and older, and they favor advertising on programs preferred by women voters. "We know what voters we're trying to reach," says Ehrlich spokesman Paul E. Schurick.

This, of course, turns conventional television wisdom (if such words can share space) on its head, which dictates a pursuit of younger viewers. Candidates bought ads on all local news shows, including morning and noon; Oprah; evening and prime-time game shows; newsmagazines such as Dateline and 60 Minutes. The rates offered vary madly, from $50 for one 30-second spot on WBFF's morning news (probably discounted because it could be moved) to $3,800 for a fixed slot during Everybody Loves Raymond on WJZ.

Finally, many candidates argue in favor of free time on the air to explain their platforms, decrying the need to raise money to pay for ads and saying the broadcasters give them only sound bites. Yet most of the stations have run extended interviews during newscasts.

Several stations have offered to present candidate forums that would run an hour or more. While radio remains a popular outlet for candidates, politicians are often more wary of joint appearances in events where they do not have significant control of the format. We'll see how many actually occur.

Questions? Comments? Story ideas? David Folkenflik can be reached by e-mail at david.folkenflik@baltsun.com or by phone at 410-332-6923.

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