Why local TV stations l-o-v-e Citizens United

If you're reading this, it's safe to assume that you enjoy politics -- that you probably are, in the vernacular, a "political junkie." Very good, thanks for stopping by. However, I regret to inform you that there is someone -- a group of someones -- who is more into politics than you are: the owners and ad sales teams at local television stations.

The estimate put forward by the New York Times for the amount of money that will be spent on political television ads this year: $2 billion. That's the equivalent of just over $6 for every person living in these United States, spent to influence the vote of that small subset of those Americans who will actually go to the polls. In large part, that's because of the dawn of the super PACs following the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision. These political action committees can raise gobs of money specifically for the purpose of putting ads on TV.

Which they are doing. We pulled data from the Federal Elections Commission documenting last-minute spending by outside groups and sorted it into three categories:

  • Spending explicitly on the production or airing of TV ads
  • Spending on "media," which is a nebulous way of referring to ad spending, often for TV spots
  • Spending on everything else

Of the $120 million that has been spent so far in 2014 alone, nearly half has funded TV ads.

We created this flowchart to show how the spending has broken down in more detail, including the states with the largest television ad spending.

Local-TV2

On the map below, the red circles indicate spending explicitly on TV ads in each state; the larger green circles are spending in total.

That's tens of millions of dollars pouring in to local television stations and cable networks. And this data represents only the first seven months of 2014, and only the purchases that occurred in the last 20 days of the campaign.

Why so much on television? First, it's a cost-effective way to reach a large or a reasonably well-tailored audience. Want to blanket Biloxi? Buy a primetime ad on the local NBC affiliate. Want to hit wealthier white males near Charlotte? Arrange a package that includes spots on the Golf Channel. You can cut an ad and have it air within hours -- turnaround that is impossible with mail and at a scale that's not yet a reality with online advertising.

So this is where the money goes. And for the television stations that air the spots, it's Christmas in July.

Philip Bump writes about politics for The Fix. He is based in New York City.
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