Even in the mashed-up world of TV these days, it is a little jarring in the middle of a Baltimore Ravens game or "Late Night With David Letterman" to suddenly see the screen fill with images of Martin O'Malley and Bob Ehrlich talking about a 72 percent energy rate hike that they were fighting about in 2006, during the last governor's campaign.
In fact, when their ads run back to back during a commercial break, it is almost surreal — as if their video images are locked in a TV time warp, a kind of candidates' (and viewers') hell that will have them arguing about BGE through eternity on the small screen.
If it seems as if the arch rivals for governor have been everywhere on TV in recent weeks, station executives and campaign managers have news for you: Even more ads are on the way as Maryland heads down the homestretch to the Nov. 2 primary. Two months ago, some local station managers predicted in these pages that political ad spending in Baltimore, led by gubernatorial campaign commercials, would set a new record, topping $17 million. With just over three weeks to go, they guarantee it.
"The volume of political and issue advertising is every bit as strong as we expected," says Bill Fanshawe, general manager of WBFF and WNUV, the first local TV executive to make the call in August when he introduced an overnight newscast on Channel 54 in part to provide ad buyers with an extra venue in which to place their political commercials.
But as much as some might consider political ads an intrusion on their viewing pleasure, the commercials have offered one of the best windows into the visions, strategies, twists and turns of the two candidates and their campaigns. What started out in July with Ehrlich vowing to take the high road while denouncing his opponent's attack ads now finds Ehrlich going negative as well — with some serious help from the Republican Governors Association.
One of the only spin-free sources of information on the two TV campaigns is that of the Nielsen Co., which is tracking the Maryland governor's race closely. Its most recent report, which was issued late last week, covers the week of Sept. 27 to Oct. 3, and it shows how O'Malley has been outspending Ehrlich and winning the war of the airwaves in terms of volume.
"In the rematch of the 2006 gubernatorial campaign, Democratic incumbent Martin O'Malley continues to outpace Republican Bob Ehrlich in the advertising race," the Nielsen report says. "Overall, Governor O'Malley ran almost 100 more ads than Ehrlich last week."
For the week, O'Malley ran 397 ads compared with 298 for Ehrlich. But the Ehrlich campaign ran all of its ads in the Baltimore market, while O'Malley ran 122 in Washington.
(It is far less expensive to advertise in Baltimore because it is the 26th-largest TV market in the country with 1.1 million TV homes, while Washington is the ninth-largest with 2.39 million. Also, Baltimore is a more efficient buy because it is virtually all Maryland, whereas with the Washington market, you are also paying to reach Virginia and District of Columbia viewers, who cannot vote for you. But to cover Montgomery and Prince George's counties, you have to buy Washington TV.)
While Ehrlich's Baltimore-only strategy was good news for the local TV economy, it was not a very effective use of TV when running for statewide office. And in fact, Ehrlich launched a TV ad campaign in Washington on Thursday after telling a Baltimore County audience earlier in the week that he believed the polls showing O'Malley ahead of him were in part the result of O'Malley's ad dominance in the Washington market — particularly with attack ads.
"Every argument deserves a response, and that's precisely what the Ehrlich campaign is doing now" in Washington, says Henry Fawell, director of communications for the Ehrlich campaign. "Baltimore and Washington are obviously different markets with different prices, but we deem this the appropriate time to be in Washington."
According to Nielsen, Ehrlich has some on-air catching-up to do. Another snapshot from the research firm's report shows how effectively O'Malley's campaign has used the airwaves of all 12 stations in the Baltimore and Washington markets to define the GOP challenger.
Under the heading "TV presence," which measures "total airtime — paid, free, positive or negative," the report notes that "Ehrlich consistently led O'Malley." But it then goes on to explain that Ehrlich's "bigger lead" is "largely due to the negative ads" by O'Malley.
Translation: Ehrlich's getting more mentions on Baltimore and Washington TV, but many of them are coming from O'Malley ads that depict Ehrlich negatively. That's not a good thing for the candidate.