Dilemma for D.C. stations: so many political ads, so little airtime

October 22, 2012

So many political ads. So little time. What’s a TV station to do?

Faced with an unprecedented flood of commercials for candidates and causes, Washington’s TV stations have had to get creative to fit them all in. Some are trimming their regular programming to squeeze in a few more ads, and some are adding more news at other hours.

WTTG (Channel 5), the District’s Fox affiliate, for example, began bumping daily reruns of “The Simpsons” on Monday to add an extra half-hour to its 6 p.m. newscast. The expanded “News Edge” program will focus on political news — the kind of programming political advertisers demand most.

WJLA (Channel 7), the area’s ABC affiliate, has temporarily added two weekend newscasts to its schedule for the same reason. On Saturday, the station preempted network programming and aired a two-hour movie in prime time in order to create more local ad slots. The station has occasionally shaved time from some of its weekday programming to accommodate an extra political ad or two, said Bill Lord, WJLA’s general manager.

“It makes sense, let’s put it that way,” he says.


MAD MONEY | Presidential ad spending doubles in swing states

Washington’s TV stations are the beneficiaries of a record amount of political advertising this fall. During a one-month period that ended Friday, the stations collected $58.6 million from political advertisers, a sixfold increase from the $9.8 million spent on political issues in the same period in 2008, according to an estimate by Campaign Media Analysis Group (CMAG), a tracking firm.

Washington ranks fifth nationwide among TV markets in the number of political ads broadcast during October, according to the firm. In the most recent week tracked (Oct. 11-17), about 5,560 political commercials ran on Washington’s broadcast stations.

The deluge is driven by a confluence of events, and by the Washington area’s two-state, three-jurisdiction geography.

With Virginia a crucial swing state in the presidential race, President Obama and challenger Mitt Romney, along with allied but independent groups, have poured money into local TV ads to reach viewers in the voter-rich northern part of the state. Virginia senate candidates George Allen (R) and Tim Kaine (D) and their supporters have their own TV ad war going, too, aimed at those same Northern Virginians.

Meanwhile, voters in Maryland are getting bombarded with ads for and against two heavily contested ballot questions, particularly Question 7, which would expand casino gambling to Prince George’s County. Proponents and opponents of Question 7 have raised about $56 million for the statewide fight, making the ballot measure more expensive than the past two Maryland gubernatorial campaigns combined.

Good news for Washington’s stations, which reach Maryland, Virginia and the District simultaneously.

“This is the biggest political market that there has ever been in this marketplace,” says Mark Burdett, the president and general manager of WUSA (Channel 9), the CBS affiliate. “It’s the biggest wave you’ve ever ridden.”

Elizabeth Wilner, a vice president of CMAG, characterized it this way: “Washington usually was an island where everyone knew about politics but where people didn’t see the same number of ads that other [cities] did. This time, D.C. got on the political [ad] radar early and never fell off.”

The crush has left station managers with a problem, albeit a happy one: How to get all of those ads onto the air when the supply of prime airtime is finite?

Federal rules require broadcast stations to sell “reasonable” amounts of commercial airtime to federal candidates, although in practice stations rarely turn away ads from qualified candidates, station managers say. That means that the Romney, Obama, Kaine and Allen campaigns have been able to buy all the airtime they want, eating up much of the available “inventory” of commercial slots.

Nonpolitical advertisers, which typically ramp up their TV advertising at this time of the year in anticipation of the holidays, push up the demand for airtime.

Traffic is so tight that local advertisers say they are having difficulty getting their ads on and are paying more for the ads that do make it. Sam Mansouri, president of Fairfax Hyundai and Fairfax Kia, said the cost of his commercials have risen about 8 to 10 percent recently.

To accommodate more political commercials, stations have cut some of the airtime they devote to promotional messages for their upcoming shows. Another trick: Taking time that is reserved for network ads and converting it into local ad time.

Stations say they are wary of tacking on too many commercials. Viewers notice when the ad breaks increase in a half-hour program, which typically carries about eight minutes of commercials.

Amen to that, says Barbara Levin, a retired Silver Spring resident. Levin, who describes herself as politically active, voices what’s likely a widely shared view: Enough already. “If you turn on your TV, you can’t help but see the ads,” she says. “I am tired of seeing them.”

Another person who is fed up is Jim Vance, the venerable anchorman on WRC (Channel 4), the NBC affiliate. In a commentary on Friday, Vance called the ad overload “noise,” adding, “I am sick to death of all these campaign ads.”

Nevertheless, the stations aren’t giving up a good thing. When the ad clutter has grown too thick this fall, they have bumped their usual customers — car dealers, banks, supermarkets — to make room for more “I-approved-this-message” messages. Doing so is generally a distasteful step for the stations, since such preemptions upset their regular customers’ ad planning.

Some of the overflow has gone to local cable stations — a less attractive alternative for advertisers, since cable audiences are usually smaller than those of the bigger broadcast stations.

WUSA’s Burnett said his station has been in constant contact with its nonpolitical clients to advise them about the ebbs and flows of the ad-traffic jam that will surely last until Nov. 6. “We’ve planned accordingly, and we’re managing it effectively,” he says. “But we’re not at the finish line yet.”

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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