TV stations profit from more competitive contests

Campaign ads

November 04, 2006|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,Sun reporter

As the final weekend of the 2006 midterm campaign arrives, one of the most powerful players among the politically powerful has already posted results unprecedented in the history of American elections.

That has been the television industry. And its numbers have been huge.

Broadcasters will have sucked in about $2 billion from political campaigns, including $20 million spent on candidates for Maryland governor and the state's open U.S. Senate seat. The numbers, compiled from records at Maryland broadcast stations and analysts who track the ads nationally, have been boosted by the closeness of races around the country.

Here's how pervasive the commercials have become, just in Maryland, based on the number of 30-second ads reported by the stations: If the commercials broadcast by U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele were played continuously and an equal number of times as they aired on Maryland televisions through mid-September, it would equal more than seven hours of pitches for U.S. Senate. By Tuesday's election, it's likely to hit 12 hours, and that'll be 12 hours aired mostly during local news.

"Basically, it's saturation-bombing time," says Evan Tracey, of TNS Media Intelligence/CMAG, a nonpartisan research firm that monitors political commercials. "Or maybe at this point it's more like driving cattle; the candidates are just trying to keep making noise and steer things in their direction."

Or maybe the bombardment of commercials is being driven by the influx of money in politics, and as long as a candidate has money to spend, it will get spent.

"Nobody's campaign wants to lose an election by a percentage point and then have it discovered they still had money to spend," Tracey says. "So politics is about replaying the last campaign - only adjusted for inflation. That means doing everything a little bit more, including advertising."

The previous record for spending nationally was $1.6 billion, spent during the 2000 presidential campaign.

In Maryland, the previous high, set in 2002, was $8 million.

In all, the Senate candidates have spent nearly $11 million since January and through Sept. 12, according to TNS. The candidates for governor have spent about $9 million.

Part of the increase can be attributed to Maryland's first open U.S. Senate seat in 20 years. That made for an expensive Democratic primary - millionaire businessman Josh Rales bought $5.4 million worth of television ads, more than any other primary candidate in the nation - and it accounts for the money Cardin and Steele are now spending on television.

The week of Sept. 26, for example, Steele put in a buy for 14 spots for $4,200, mostly on newscasts. Then he added two World Series spots at $3,500 each, and a spot during the NFL pre-game programming for $1,100.

Cardin was putting his money on the news and, every day, on the three judges of Maryland television, Judge Mathis (bought for $225), Judge Brown ($300) and Judge Judy ($450). And he spent $1,200 for a single shot on Justice and tossed in $500 for the show Trading Spouses.

"The local newscasts are always going to be attractive for candidates, because people who watch them tend to be likely voters," says Keith Kincaid, whose company consulted with Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan before he dropped out of his primary battle with Mayor Martin O'Malley.

"The Judge Judy's I'm not so sure about, but what people like me hate to admit is a lot of it's a crap shoot. It's somewhat up to the odds."

But television also has a reach all its own, with an ability to talk to people who don't want to listen. TV ads can tell relatively complex stories in 30 seconds, and they can reach more people than newspapers.

"I knocked on 17,000 doors, by my count, and I still had a lot more to go," says Republican Del. John R. Leopold, explaining why his old campaign tactic of shoe-leather politics and holding a big sign with his name on it just wasn't going to work in his run for Anne Arundel county executive.

So, from a campaign budget of about $500,000, he devoted about $150,000 to television advertising. "I had never advertised on television before," he says, "and I thought I never would."

Television commercials have inspired the "perpetual" campaign, being aired long before campaign season, in low numbers, to keep the brand out there.

Closer to the campaigns, the frequency intensifies.

Nearly all of candidates who can afford it start small, then build up.

O'Malley, for example, dropped $45,945 on commercials on WJZ alone the week of Sept. 12; on Oct. 23, he spent $76,500 for the week.

Nowhere is the advertising more frequent than with the local newscasts. For weeks now, O'Malley and Ehrlich have been advertising in nearly every newscast, with Steele and Cardin also dropping by. Costs range from $100 to $400 for each 30-second visit, depending on the popularity of the newscast.

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