Rush for White House Sets Stations Buzzing

Jan 29, 2007  •  Post A Comment

An expanding field of candidates for the 2008 presidential election promises to line television station coffers in states with early primaries. It could also challenge news directors to allocate airtime equitably.

Station managers in the four states most likely to hold the first votes-Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada-said that if candidates and political action committees snatch all their political advertising slots, they’ll likely turn to the Web to give those left out a place to get their message across. The Web also will let stations supplement limited newscast time with additional information about the candidates.

Spending on the presidential race over the next two years could reach $1 billion, up more than 50 percent from 2004’s $659 million, said Evan Tracey, COO of TNS Media Intelligence. Spending in the four states with early votes prior to the Republican and Democratic conventions could double the figure posted in the last race for the White House, he said.

Cable channels and broadcast TV networks may also benefit if Florida and California move up their primaries, potentially making spot buying of political ads station-by-station far less efficient, Mr. Tracey said.

When TV stations run out of advertising inventory, cable networks, cable operators and newspapers will probably benefit.

“This kind of wide-open race is unprecedented and there is only so much [advertising] time,” said Jim Boyer, president and general manager of Des Moines station WHO-TV, a CBS affiliate that is among the New York Times stations being sold to Oak Hill Capital Partners.

In Reno, Nev., Lawson Fox, general manager of Sarkes-Tarzian station KTVN-TV, the CBS affiliate, said he isn’t too worried about allocating ads.

“It’s the kind of problem I like to have,” he said.

The potential for an unusually large field of primary candidates and the fact neither party has an incumbent to power through the primaries makes the 2008 the most open race since the 1920s. So far 16 hopefuls have announced their candidacies. Other pretenders to the White House could push the field to 20 by the time the primary campaigning begins in earnest.

The broad field may stoke demand for ads on the 11 p.m. newscast on a particular night, when political action committees and regular advertisers also want on. That will give station sales managers leverage to increase prices, Mr. Tracey said.

“My concern is if we get 20 of them at the same time,” said Jeff Bartlett, general manager of Hearst-Argyle’s WMUR-TV, an ABC affiliate in Manchester, N.H. “It’s possible that we could end up with a lot more candidate ads, but a lot fewer issue ads” as political action committees’ spots are moved into less desirable time slots.

In Iowa, Mr. Boyer said it remains to be seen whether many of the candidates will have much money to spend, noting that two years ago, only a handful of Democrats actually spent significantly on TV time.

Mel Stebbins, general manager of Raycom’s WIS-TV, the NBC affiliate in Columbia, S.C., said he anticipates being forced to limit the number of ads any one candidate can buy in order to allow everyone equal access.

“We are going to be traffic managers. You have to be careful. Whatever we do, we will have to justify it to every damn campaign there is,” Mr. Stebbins said.

The same forces that may boster the ad sales team may create headaches for the news staff.

Mr. Bartlett said his station will use a spreadsheet to measure news coverage of various candidates and that he plans to use the Web site to provide coverage that doesn’t get on the airwaves.

Already the station is planning to extend its half-hour broadcast chats with each candidate with an extra half-hour streamed on the Web in a show called “The Conversation Continues.”

He said the station will handle the news challenges of covering so many candidates by starting early and using its newscasts throughout the day and on weekends.

WIS plans to offer a Web component for most election news coverage, be it a replay of an interviews or additional information. Already the station, which is planning to air an hour of an MSNBC debate by the candidates, intends to stream an additional half-hour of the debate on its Web site.