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How Local TV Advertisers Can Survive The Upcoming Onslaught Of Political Ads

If your intent, as a Central Pennsylvania business owner, is to advertise your products or services on Local Television in 2016, you will have to “play politics” to ensure that your commercials will air.  No, you don’t have to run for office, but you do need to be aware of those candidates who are and the effects they’ll have on your advertising plans. 

 

Many in the Broadcast industry are expecting two robust rounds of political advertising here in the Keystone State.  I’ve recently interviewed the advertising sales managers at WGAL, WHTM, WHP, WPMT, and Comcast Spotlight to understand the projected advertising environment my clients need to prepare for.  Here’s what I’ve learned:

 

All indicators point to a record amount of political dollars being invested here in Central Pennsylvania.  The most active months will be in what is known as the “Political Windows”:

  • 45 days before the Primary Election (March 12 through April 26)
  • 60 days prior to the General Election (September 9 through November 8)

 

How much will be spent?  Here’s what one station executive shared:

  • $1.2 million in March
  • $2.0 million in April
  • $1.6 million in August
  • $2.5 million in September
  • $3.0 million in October

 

 

Those numbers represent significant increases over the record expenditures of 2012.  Where will all of this money be spent?  Not all stations will share it equally.  WGAL, because of its dominance with local news programming, will garner the lion’s share, probably nearly 45%.  On the other end of the spectrum, WPMT / FOX43 will pick-up about 10%.

 

Political dollars will be spent pushing, positioning, and poking candidates and issues for the following:

 

PRESIDENTIAL

Without an incumbent in the race, expect the remaining Republican and Democrat candidates to spend BIG money.  Pennsylvania is seen by many as an important swing state.

 

SENATE

Incumbent Republican Pat Toomey seeks reelection.  PAC money is already being spent to support him.  Look for Democrat challengers Joe Sestak and Katie McGinty to face-off in April.

 

CONGRESSIONAL

Expected spending to be higher than in 2014 for the (6) Congressional Districts in our DMA.

 

PA STATE TREASURER / STATE AUDITOR GENERAL / STATE ATTORNEY GENERAL 

Very crowded fields in the Primary will result in aggressive spending levels.

 

PA STATE ASSEMBLY 

Numerous House and Senate seats up for grabs.

 

VARIOUS ISSUE ADVERTISING

Projected to come from groups representing special interests in the Presidential, Senate, Congressional, and State Officers as well as PACS.  Look for various backers and distracters of Marcellus Shale (Energy), Healthcare Reform, and Medical Marijuana.

 

So, how much ad time can a Candidate buy on a station?  According to Federal Communications Commission (FCC) guidelines, here’s what we know:

 

Federal candidates – i.e., candidates for President, Vice President, U.S. Senate, and U.S. House of Representatives – are entitled to “reasonable access” to buy spots on broadcast stations.  Stations must sell time to federal candidates throughout their campaign and cannot set any predetermined limits on the spot inventory made available to federal candidates.  The only exception is that stations can exclude federal candidates from news programs.

 

State and local candidates, on the other hand, do not have any right of access.  Accordingly, stations can set limits on their inventory and/or accept ads only for certain races; or decline ads altogether.  However, if they accept one candidate, they must treat all other candidates in the same race evenhandedly.  Also, remember that if they afford time to state and local candidates, all other political rules apply, including lowest unit rate and equal opportunities obligations.

 

What price do Candidates pay for commercials?

 

During the 45-day period preceding next year’s Pennsylvania primary election (March 12 -April 26) and the 60-day period preceding the general election (September 9 - November 8), all spots sold to candidates must be provided at the station’s “lowest unit rate.”  The lowest unit rate (or “LUR”) is the amount that is offered or charged to the station’s most preferred commercial advertiser for the same class (e.g., immediately preemptible spot) and amount of time (e.g., 30 seconds) for the same period (e.g., 11:00 news).  Outside the applicable LUR windows, stations can charge “comparable rates” charged other similarly-situated commercial advertisers.

 

Note that the LUR does not apply to third-party ads or Internet advertising.  The LUR only applies to authorized candidates.

 

Is every Candidate given an equal opportunity to purchase advertising time?

 

When there has been a “use” of a station by one candidate, legally qualified opposing candidates for the same office (whether federal, state or local) must be given an equal opportunity to “use” the station in a manner comparable to the first candidate.  Stations are not required, however, to notify opposing candidates of their equal opportunities rights; instead, these candidates must make their equal opportunities claims within seven days after the triggering “use” – which is why it’s very important that information about political buys and other “uses” be placed in a station’s political file promptly.

 

For example, if Mayoral Candidate A buys a schedule of prime time spots, then the station must allow Mayoral Candidate B an equal opportunity to purchase the same amount and desirability of time, provided that Candidate B requests such time within seven days after Candidate A’s first spot airs.  

 

The equal opportunities obligation also applies where a free “use” is made.  For example, if the station airs an old movie in which Candidate A appears, then Candidate B would have a right to request free comparable time on the station.

 

Please note, however, that candidate appearances on many news and public affairs programs are exempt from the equal opportunities requirements.  These exempt “uses” include candidate appearances on bona fide newscasts, news interview programs, news documentaries and on-the-spot coverage of news events.

 

Okay, so what can you do to insure that your commercials air during the two upcoming “Political Windows”?  Here are some strategies suggested by the Local TV Sales Managers:

 

  1. Book early.  Plan in advance and place your schedules with each station as soon as possible.  Available commercial inventory will sell-out rapidly as we approach the “Political Windows”.
  2. Pay a higher rate, especially in news programming.  Rates fluctuate on a daily basis according to the class of time ordered.  Outside of the “Political Windows”, most advertisers will negotiate a low rate considered to be immediately peemptible.  In most months, those commercials will usually air.  But during the “Political Windows” next year, immediately peemptible spots will be blown-out first by Political ads.  Buying in advance won’t necessarily protect you if it’s at a very low rate.  Be willing to pay middle of the rate card.
  3. Consider running 10-second commercials.  If your message can be effectively communicated in less time, this could give you a big advantage.  Nearly all political ads are 30-seconds in length.
  4. Buy outside of news programming.  Inquire with each station about programming that’s unique to them and that politicians won’t necessarily buy.  For example, NBA basketball or college football telecasts, local home improvement / healthcare / self-improvement sponsorships — all are areas that politicians don’t typically use.
  5. Use Cable TV during the “Political Windows”.  Providers like Comcast Spotlight and Service Electric will have available inventory on networks such as FOX News, CNN, MSNBC, The Weather Channel, Bloomberg, CNBC, and FOX Business Network if you need to reach a news oriented audience. 
  6. Go Digital.  Custom, dominant banner ads and video pre-roll are available on stations’ websites.  And Digital ads don’t play by the same FCC regulations as do broadcast ads.  If you place a dominant, fixed-placement ad on a station website, a political candidate or PAC will NOT preempt you.
  7. Avoid October.  The Central Pennsylvania DMA will be wall-to-wall with political ads.  Most stations’ newscasts (especially WGAL & WHTM) will be sold-out.

 

Finally, your local station account executive should alert you in advance to potential weeks that could be of concern.  Most stations place “dummy” political schedules into

their computer inventory systems to reserve the projected political time and minimize the actual local advertiser displacement.

 

Local television advertising is still the most impactful media for reaching consumers that use your products or services.  It’s just going to be a little more challenging to “stand-out” in 2016’s crowded political market. So, the best advise:  Don’t wait.  Plan early for next year’s TV advertising.  Be willing to pay a little more.