Despite few key races, Maryland could see record political spending

One local TV station has added to a newscast to take advantage of the increase in ads

August 14, 2010|By David Zurawik, The Baltimore Sun

The economy is still on shaky ground. The state has few major primary showdowns. And by the general elections, there will likely be only a handful of top-dollar, hotly contested races here.

Yet political ad spending on Baltimore television could break the 2006 record of $17 million by the midterm elections on Nov. 2.

Local radio is going to have a banner year as well, analysts say, thanks to a Supreme Court ruling opening the floodgates on advocacy advertising. Meanwhile, deep-pocketed Democrats will be spending big over the airwaves to counter anti-incumbent sentiment in these contentious times.

"To some extent, there are no handcuffs — there's very little to limit spending now after the 'Citizens United' Supreme Court case," says Sam Feist, CNN political director and vice president for Washington programming. "The floodgates are open, and the amount of spending district and statewide is going to be absolutely remarkable. … So, in Maryland, that's the governor's race and the 1st Congressional District and any advocacy campaigns."

The supply of money from candidates and policy advocates eager to buy radio and TV advertising time in Baltimore is anticipated to be so strong that one network affiliate has already added an extra newscast in part to meet the demand. Because of that demand, some advertising agency executives have been advising their clients to buy in advance if they don't want to be squeezed off the local airwaves this fall.

"In 2006, Baltimore had a record of $17 million in TV political spending," says Bill Fanshawe, general manager of WBFF-Channel 45, and WNUV-Channel 54. "In 2010, I think it could go as high as $20 million — and that's just television."

In anticipation of that kind of money, Fanshawe launched a 12:30 a.m. overnight newscast on WNUV, Baltimore's CW affiliate, which has no news operation of its own. The newscast is a replay of WBFF's 10 p.m. production, but it quickly found a nightly audience of 14,450 area homes in July — and there is no environment political advertisers like better than news because of the credibility they believe it lends their messages.

Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc., the Hunt Valley-based media company that owns and operates Channels 45 and 54, reported this month that its second-quarter profit jumped nearly 600 percent — and attributed the surge to political candidates and car dealerships buying more ad time.

Political advertising for the second quarter of 2010 on Sinclair's TV stations was $3.8 million compared with $700,000 in the second quarter of 2009.

And it is not just Sinclair stations — or only Baltimore broadcasters that will be reaping the benefits of this increased political spending.

"Because the House of Representatives is being contested, and there are a lot of terrific statewide races, I think you're going to see record spending at the local level for a midterm election," Feist says.

The issue of slots at Arundel Mills mall is the referendum question broadcasters expect to generate the most advertising in Baltimore. TV ads opposing the parlor at the mall began airing Friday. But as a result of the 5-4 Supreme Court ruling Jan. 21 in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, which said limits could not be put on how much corporations can spend on issue advertising, media buyers expect an array of issues to be taken up in paid political advertisements.

"We're expecting a record-breaking year of political spending in Baltimore radio and TV, and part of that is the gubernatorial race," says Daniel Robinson, media director at GKV, a Baltimore communications company.

"Given the Supreme Court ruling, we recommended early on that if any of our clients were advertising in the fourth quarter, please do it early," Robinson said.

Gov. Martin O'Malley's campaign has been spending about $160,000 a week on Baltimore TV advertising since early July, but much more spending is expected.

The first surge will come after Labor Day. But Ed Kiernan, general manager of WBAL Radio, says, "The bulk of it will be after Oct. 15. … Right up until Election Day, we'll be relatively booked with political advertising. Probably, in every commercial break during the day, there'll be one political [ad]."

Rick Abbruzzese, spokesman for the O'Malley campaign, says, "We will spend what we need to spend to be competitive and get our message out, both in the Baltimore market and the D.C. market, across all media." Abbruzzese says the campaign has $6.7 million in the bank.

"We certainly will be advertising on TV in Baltimore and probably elsewhere as well," says Andy Barth, spokesman for Ehrlich's election effort, which has "in excess of $2 million in the bank," according to a statement released Friday.

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