Saturday, October 30, 2004

Drowning in TV political ads?


Local stations air $20M worth

By Cliff Peale and Gregory Korte
Enquirer staff writers

Ohio's swing-state status in the presidential election has brought more than $20 million into Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky this year.

The money paid to the three largest local television stations this year almost doubles estimates of the amount collected four years ago, according to an analysis by the Enquirer of television stations' 2004 advertising contracts through Monday.

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(The Enquirer/MICHAEL E. KEATING)
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Election 2004 section

And orders continue to pour in, spurred by polls that place Republican President Bush and Democratic U.S. Sen. John Kerry neck and neck and many politicos predicting Ohio could help decide the winner in one of the closest presidential races in history.

The ads have saturated local airwaves, where almost three of every four commercials this weekend will be a political buy.

"I think this is the biggest influx of money Cincinnati media has seen," said Rob Riggsbee, owner of Inside Media, a Newtown agency that helps marketers place their commercials. "The dollars are pouring in for spots, and they're going to continue to pour in until the polls close."

Bill Fee, general manager at WCPO-TV Channel 9, said the ads are double what his station budgeted for the year.

The influx also scrambles the market for regular advertisers and puts TV sales staffs working nonstop to fit in all the ads. And simple supply and demand dictates that ad rates are going up across the board - even for non-political advertisers - as Election Day approaches.

"It's a mixed blessing," said Chris Sehring, general manager at WKRC-TV Channel 12, which has collected about one-third of the media money. "It's a lot of money, and don't get me wrong, we're happy with the money. But this one has really taken its toll on the station and on the market."

Top slots taken

In late August and early September, the candidates started buying time for the last week before the election, trying to lock in the best time slots. That means virtually all of the slots on the highest-rated shows, such as ABC's Monday Night Football or CBS's CSI, are taken.

That means the campaigns that raised money early could afford to buy more desirable time at lower rates.

Phil Burress, a conservative activist behind the effort to keep a Cincinnati charter provision that bans City Council from legislating on gay rights, bought more than $500,000 worth of time Sept. 30 - even before the ads were written or produced.

"Every 24 hours, the price was going up. We bought our time far before we did our focus groups with our television time with our spots," Burress said. "If we had waited until now, we probably would have had to pay double for it."

That presents a dilemma for local advertisers and issues trying to get a message out. Federal laws require stations to give candidates the lowest rate regardless of how much time they buy.

And as the presidential race tightens close to Election Day, almost all of the candidates' media money is poured into battleground states such as Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania. Television viewers in California, North Carolina or Texas, for example, aren't likely to see many of the ads we see here.

The Enquirer surveyed the advertising contracts at the three biggest television stations in this market, which are open to public disclosure under rules by the Federal Communications Commission. As of Monday, the study showed:

• The Bush-Cheney campaign outspent the Kerry-Edwards campaign by almost 20 percent. Bush-Cheney '04 bought time worth almost $1.9 million this year, compared with $1.6 million for the Kerry-Edwards campaign.

• The political parties have spent about $6.6 million locally on all federal races, with Democrats spending slightly more. Those numbers include groups such as the Republican Governors Association and the Congressional Campaign Committees.

• Partisan interest groups, which can collect unlimited money and are known in the industry as "527s," saw Democrats spend much more heavily than their Republican counterparts. For instance, Democratic-leaning groups MoveOn.org and The Media Fund combined to spend at least $2.5 million. Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, featuring a group of veterans criticizing Kerry, bought ad time late but has spent almost $1 million so far.

• In the fight to repeal Article XII of Cincinnati's charter, which prohibits City Council from enacting a gay-rights law, Burress's Citizens for Community Values has spent $569,400 to oppose the repeal. Citizens to Restore Fairness, the pro-repeal group, is far behind at about $240,000.

• With help from the national party, Republican Geoff Davis is outspending Democrat Nick Clooney 3-to-1 in their battle for a Northern Kentucky congressional seat. Davis and supporters have spent about $745,000 this year on the race, which is the most competitive congressional race in the region.

• WLWT-TV Channel 5 got a springboard into the political season in August with the Athens Olympic Games, which many political-action committees used to debut their commercials.

Chart In August, Cincinnati ranked fourth in the country in the number of political ads, according to Nielsen Monitor-Plus and the University of Wisconsin Advertising Project.

Though that overall ranking has dropped to 23rd in the most recent study of ads, from Sept. 24 to Oct. 7, Cincinnati remains ranked fifth for Democratic National Committee ads and sixth for Bush campaign ads.

And the commercials bought on WKRC, WCPO and WLWT are not the only political advertisements in the market. WXIX-TV Channel 19 and WSTR-TV Channel 64 sell smaller amounts of ads, and radio stations owned by the likes of Clear Channel Communications and Infinity Broadcasting are regularly airing commercials. Cable outlets also sell local time on popular networks.

To a lesser extent, print media, including the Enquirer, are also in the ad game, with full-page ads for county commission candidates, the Issue 3 campaign and Democratic groups backed by billionaire philanthropist George Soros.

But the biggest money goes to television ads on the biggest network affiliates.

"There's a reason why politicians put 95 percent of their money into television," Sehring said. "Because they want to win."

The torrent of money really started late in 2003, when www.MoveOn.org bought early time at local stations. At WCPO, for example, the buy was $25,200.

This year, that has become small change. MoveOn.org has spent at least $845,255 so far, almost all of it for ads criticizing President Bush.

For a 30-second ad during a popular prime-time network show, political candidates might pay up to $10,000, part of the lower rate to which they are entitled.

Issue advertisers or other local advertisers might pay as much as three times that amount during the last few weeks before an election.

"It's created problems for us holding onto our regular business," Fee said.

LaRosa's Inc. is one local company keeping its commercials on the air, despite the constant bumping and the higher rates.

"We're gonna get beaten up (next) week, but it is what it is," said Pete Buscani, executive vice president for marketing at the pizzeria chain. "This is our season, and we definitely need to shoot when the ducks are flying."

But Skyline Chili Inc. sat out the several weeks before Election Day because of the clutter and the rates, said Tom Allen, vice president of marketing.

"As you lay out a year in a political year, I don't think it's unusual for people to stay away from that time, unless there's something absolutely critical going on in their business," Allen said.

Lots of interest groups

It's not just the parties and their billionaire-backed allies buying time in Ohio. All sorts of interest groups - labor unions, chambers of commerce, and senior citizen organizations - all want to get their ads in front of Ohio voters.

Chart And then there's Tony Seton, a former broadcast journalist from California, who bought $2,500 worth of time on WLWT - what's considered a "boutique" buy in advertising circles - for a series of ads urging people to vote.

Embittered by what he sees as "a cataclysmic, almost treasonous failure" of the media and millions in campaign contributions influencing the election, he raised $20,000 from friends and bought time on 21 television stations - only in Ohio.

"There's so much propaganda in this campaign you'd think that (Nazi propaganda minister Joseph) Goebbels was running it. We need to take the money out of politics."

David P. Little of Clifton, a veteran Democratic campaign manager who's now working on Jeff Hardenbrook's campaign for the 8th congressional district, has long been a critic of the television dominance of political campaigns.

"If you want any kind of coverage, you simply buy it," he said. "When you have to purchase your voice in the marketplace at competitive rates, the minority view, the under-funded view, is avalanched by those with large dollars, repeatedly."

Many voters and political pundits have criticized the flood of commercials and their messages, calling them misleading and overly negative. If voters are turned off, the campaigns still think that television ads move poll numbers.

"It's a hot medium," Little said. "It makes a visual impression that can be very lasting. People will remember what they see more than what they read."

---

E-mail cpeale@enquirer.com or gkorte@enquirer.com




ELECTION 2004
It may be trick, not treat, for Bush
Drowning in TV political ads?
Election protests thwarted
10 states that could swing it
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Clermont County challenger derides 'club' atmosphere
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Schools say new levies are crucial
Northeastern faces deficit
Edgewood and Franklin schools put taxes to vote
Election turnout could be at 70%
'Limp wrist' charge angers Mongiardo
Fletcher name chafes brother
Facts to help Kentucky voters with Tuesday's election
Nader's name is on the ballot, but you can't cast vote for him
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Election 2004 section

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