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As Iowa caucuses near, TV stations see ad buys boom after long lull

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For all the hand-wringing about money in politics, a few Iowans spent the year hand-wringing about how little of it they were seeing. Station managers and sales teams at Iowa television stations had expected major profits but saw very little until the past few weeks, when PACs and candidate campaigns poured into their empty coffers pennies from heaven.

In interviews at the top affiliates in Des Moines, the state’s largest market, sales managers said they saw the same pattern: a complete dearth of ad buys until the August straw poll in Ames, then silence on the airwaves until late November, then a complete return to fortune in the last two weeks of 2011.

“We were way off on our projections when the month started,” said Russell Hamilton, the manager of ABC affiliate WOI.

He described how his ad teams waited, and waited some more. Hamilton looked at his ledgers at the beginning of December and couldn’t believe his eyes.

“We were all dumbfounded,” he said. “I’ve been in this a long number of years, and we were like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ ”

State officials, waiting to see how rival states might usurp Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status, did not lock in the caucus date until late in the year. Subsequently, candidates waited before purchasing airtime to sway voters.

Then, after the Jan. 3 date was resolved, debates drew record audiences and candidates exploited a cost-free stage to get out their message.

And after the final pre-caucus debate, in mid-December, the deluge.

“It really started coming in,” said Dale Woods, general manager of WHO, the NBC affiliate.

Anne Marie Caudron, national sales manager of KCCI, the CBS affiliate, said: “This year we saw a little before the straw poll and then nothing till late November. We were” — long pause — “concerned.”

The last quarter brought in a combined tally of nearly $3.5 million for the state’s two top stations, WHO and KCCI, who are viewed in the industry as the major players. Campaigns focused also on three other significant markets — Cedar Rapids, Sioux City and Mason City — where airtime is less costly. Based on interviews and public records about each political ad aired, some conclusions emerged:

Gov. Rick Perry (Tex.) and Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) were neck and neck as the candidates who spent the most on commercial airtime.

Political action committees associated with former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and Perry were virtually tied for second, right behind the two leading candidate spenders.

Compared with December 2010, when there were no political ads in play, WHO’s revenue is up 50 percent. But their dollar amounts are about half of the bonanza in 2007, when both parties were sorting out their presidential derby, fueling an advertising frenzy.

Revenue from PACs, freed from restrictions by a Supreme Court ruling, is new this year, too. Station managers recall only a few issue-oriented spots before the last caucus. But this time, until the final days, spending from PACs outpaced the candidate-funded airtime purchases. The two top Des Moines stations saw roughly 55 percent of their fourth-quarter revenue come from candidates, as Romney doubled all his spots from 30 seconds to 60 and Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) made her first ever airtime purchases timed for the final two days before the race.

As much as the debates may have contributed to the delay in ad buys, they may have contributed to the boom-and-bust prospects of nearly every GOP contender. Ad sales gave candidates airtime to try to change the course of public opinion.

“Did the debates change the polling positions and thus spur more advertising? I think it did,” said WHO general sales manager Mark McGeary, who had traveled to D.C.-based advertising agencies earlier in the year to make sure ad buyers knew him.

Also, candidates and PACs — now able to send their ads to stations via the Internet — could quickly alter the messages when controversy dictated.

“It seems to me that they changed their spots this year” after the purchase but just before airtime, McGeary said. “I think that they were answering each other.”

The tenor of the ads was more evenly divided between positive and negative ads than in past years, with none of the tougher spots getting sent back for standards violations.

“They know how to push the envelope,” McGeary said. “They are very familiar with the rules and regulations.”

The stations are required to provide access to the airwaves when the political players request it, and that leads to delicate negotiations with regular customers — the local advertisers.

“If we really needed that time, we’d call and say, ‘Is it okay if we move your ad to Wednesday or Thursday?’ ” WOI’s Hamilton said.

To minimize the chaos before a holiday weekend, affiliates closed their books on the purchases by Friday afternoon — except WOI. Hamilton said he would interrupt his steak dinner on New Year’s Eve and upload some more commercials if it meant more dollars.

The profits may be substantial, but Hamilton noted the costs of the last-minute chaos.

“Look at her,” he said, pointing to his sales manager. “She used to be much more lively and animated.”

“I’m exhausted,” she agreed.

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