Ad Attack

Political commercials outnumber political reports on local television.

Still, the election coverage in the dailies is but a squeak compared with the roar of negative TV commercials, and assorted laws prevent stations from doing anything to alter the tone except under the most extreme circumstances. During the 1992 campaign, Matt Noah, who ran for the U.S. Senate as a pro-life candidate, submitted advertisements dominated by explicit shots of aborted fetuses, which generated uncounted complaints from upset citizens. But the anonymous source says outlets can legally decline to air advertisements for federal candidates only if the spots lack proper attribution or fail to cite sources for on-air claims -- sins the Noah commercials didn't commit. In the end, the station appealed to government agencies for permission to restrict the commercials to times when children were unlikely to be watching, a request that was granted. Noah eventually attracted just over 22,000 votes; victor Ben Nighthorse Campbell racked up 803,000.

This year, the source adds, numerous commercials have been initially rejected for minor technicalities. But once corrections were made, all of them were eventually approved, and many of them are airing now -- on a television near you.

Other regulations require that stations provide all federal candidates with "reasonable access" to their airwaves, which most broadcasters interpret as dictating that such folks can purchase spots during whatever programming they wish. According to the source, channels 4, 7 and 9 -- the most venerable network affiliates -- are attracting the most ads during local newscasts, network morning roundups such as Today and The Early Show, and the most popular prime-time entertainment fare: The West Wing, ER, CSI, CSI: Miami, My Wife and Kids, The Practice.

Mark Andresen

Dowdle, from Channel 31, has a similar tale to tell. "The number-one-most-desired program is the news, because politicians are typically looking for an older demographic," he says. "But they're really all over the place: early afternoon through the beginning of prime time, in prime time, late fringe and after the news."

It's just as difficult to avoid politicians on Channel 2 -- but they like some shows more than others. "They're targeting us most on the morning news with Tom Green, because we're local from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m., and they see that as a real benefit," general manager Dalton says. "And there's a lot of interest in 6 p.m. to 7 p.m., with Friends and Everybody Loves Raymond, because it targets a good cross-section of younger people as well as older people. And then there's the late news and a bunch of our prime-time shows, like 7th Heaven, Everwood and Smallville, because they attract families.

"Politicians used to only buy news and the older networks," he goes on, "but they're getting savvier, realizing that younger people are voting, too. And because we attract a younger audience, they see our programming as complementing the older networks. They're spending 80 percent of their money on the older networks, but it used to be 90 percent."

The inside source says increased demand among warring campaigns for commercial time during specific slots has created a ripple effect, with many conventional advertisers choosing to spend more heavily before and after October, when political dollars are flowing most freely. As a result, it's sometimes difficult for stations to put much distance between the ads of competing candidates.

"We try in best-case scenarios not to run them back to back," Dalton notes. "But with so many ads coming in, sometimes that's impossible, and we don't have a hard-set rule that says we definitely won't run back to back." Likewise, the evolving nature of the news means that it's possible that commercials for politicians will appear next to stories about them. As Dalton puts it, "Our first mission is to cover the news, and to cover it properly -- and due to the nature of how the station is set up, the commercials run where they run."

They'll continue to do so right up until November 5, Election Day, providing a gusher of cash to area outlets. Laws require that stations sell ads to candidates for federal office at the lowest available rate, but no such limit is placed on commercials for ballot initiatives or spots purchased with so-called "soft money" by political-action committees and the like. The latter can be sold for whatever the market will bear -- and right now, the market is much improved over 2001. While advertising revenues have been down in most of the media since even before 9/11, Channel 31's Dowdle says "it's been a good time for the business in general since the middle of the year, outside of anything political. There's been a strong market for local TV stations here, and really around the country."

In other words, the windfall from campaign commercials isn't saving stations from debt's door, but it's certainly a nice bonus.

"If you don't count the political advertising, we estimate that the market would be up plus one, plus two percent," Dalton allows. "So the market was regaining its health as the year went on, and we're projecting a healthy 2003. But with the political in, we estimate that the market will probably be plus six percent."

Should these figures hold (and with the tightness of the Allard-Strickland, Beauprez-Feeley and Amendment 31 competitions, they most likely will), that means Denver stations can expect to triple their profits thanks to campaign commercials. In the meantime, candidates like Curtis Imrie can get their faces on television only when outlets like Channel 4 provide a free forum. Long live democracy.

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