January 2, 2008

Why Local TV Loves the Presidential Campaign

Broadcast TV 72
Radio 11.8
Cable and Satellite TV 6.6
Newspapers 4.8
Billboards 2.5
Internet 1.8

In the 2004 presidential election cycle, more than $1.8 billion dollars was spent on political advertising, setting a new record. Two years later, even in an “off year” election without the White House at stake, the roughly $2.2 billion spent on political ads set yet another threshold.

Given the intensity of the 2008 campaign, it seems certain that the amount spent on advertising for that cycle will reach new heights again. At a time of changing audience habits, where will it be spent?

Even in a media universe being transformed by new online outlets, local broadcast television – a staple of old media – will capture most of the ad dollars. In 2004, broadcast television captured 78% of the political advertising dollars. In 2006, the percentage dipped but accounted for a still-enviable 72%, according to Veronis Suhler Stevenson, an investment firm that analyzes media companies.

Virtually all of that money is spent at local stations rather than with national broadcast networks. As PEJ has noted in its annual State of the News Media report, campaign strategists have learned to target their ads down to the congressional districts and precincts where undecided and swing voters live. It is precision (and price) that local stations can offer but that the networks cannot.

For some stations, especially those in presidential swing states, 2008 could be a boom year. For 2008, the Television Bureau of Advertising forecasts ad revenue jumps of 5% to 6% for local broadcast stations, according to a report in Multi Channel News. The bureau, one of the industry’s major market research groups, credits the expected rise mostly to the presidential race.

When it comes to political advertising, no other media platform has challenged television’s dominance as a vehicle for political ads.

Radio ranks a distant second. Election to election, radio also suffers sharp swings, according to Veronis Suhler. In 2000, radio captured nearly 15 percent of the political ad spending. Four years later, the figure dropped to 9.5%. In 2006, the figure jumped to 11.8%.

Cable and satellite TV rank third. They took 5.5% of the campaign ad dollars in 2004. In 2006, the figure rose to 6.6%.

Newspapers came next with 3.3% of the political ad dollars in ’04 and 4.8% in ’06.

Billboards and other outdoor displays rank fifth. In 2006, they captured 2.5% of the political ad spending.

What about the rapidly growing Internet? Its share of political ad dollars in 2006 was a modest 1.8%, about $40 million, according to Veronis Suhler. (PQ media, a research and marketing firm, estimated total campaign ad spending to be somewhat higher and the Internet’s $40 million to account for only 1%.)

But at the same time, no other advertising medium is growing as fast. Since 2000, says Veronis Suhler, the growth in political ad spending on the Internet has averaged 145% a year. Even at that level of expansion, ad spending online in 2008 is likely to lag far behind the money used to disseminate a candidate’s message on your local TV station.

Why, when the audience is fragmenting and ratings are down, are the dollars rising? One reason, say experts, is that since it is harder to find places where everyone gathers, those that come close—like local TV stations—become more valuable. But it also becomes more expensive. Rather than buy time for an ad to run a few dozen times on TV, it might have to run hundreds to ensure that enough people see it. It is a case where smaller audiences can actually translate into more dollars.

It all fits with another axiom of running campaigns. Since you can’t be sure what will work, do everything.

Robert Ruby for PEJ