Super PACs Pay Up To 4X More For TV Spots

A TVNewsCheck review of the online political files of several stations in three swing states reveals that super PACs and other groups not directly affiliated with candidates sometimes pay three or four times more for spots than do candidates who are entitled to the the lower unit rate discount by federal law.

Super PACs and other third-party political advertisers have been spending heavily on TV advertising in the run up to the Nov. 6 election and they are paying as much as four times as much as the candidates for comparable ad time, according to a TVNewsCheck spot check of stations’ online political ad files in three markets in the swing states of Ohio, Florida and Nevada.

The disparity is not surprising. Federal law mandates that stations sell time to candidates at the lowest unit rate — that is, at the rate stations charged their most favored commercial advertisers. Since super PACs and other groups not directly affiliated with a candidate don’t qualify for the federal discount, stations are free to charge them whatever the market will bear and they do.

But until political ad rates went online this summer by order of the FCC, it was difficult to find the evidence of the disparity. It required visiting individual stations and rummaging through their public inspection files.

Even online, it isn’t easy to find apples-to-apples comparisons.

The most glaring examples of price disparity uncovered by the spot check were in primetime.

Obama For America, the president’s official campaign, paid $4,500 for a 30-second spot in the Sept. 23 broadcast of 60 Minutes on CBS affiliate WTSP Tampa, Fla.


American Crossroads, the  conservative super PAC created by Karl Rove, the political strategist of former President George W. Bush, paid $14,000 for a similar spot in the same show — three times as much.

The difference was even greater in buys in NCIS on Sept. 25. Obama For America paid WTSP $5,000 for a spot, while American Crossroads, albeit paying for a higher placement priority, coughed up four times as much — $20,000.

But wide pricing spreads between candidates and third-party pricing could be found in other types of programming.

Nevada Republican Senate candidate Dean Heller paid $275 each for spots on the noon news of KLAS Las Vegas during the first week of this month. However, Patriot Majority, a super PAC backing Heller’s Democratic opponent Shelley Berkley, had to pay four times more — $1,200 for spots in the same newscasts. Berkeley’s official campaign was also on the Oct. 2 newscast, paying the same $275 as Heller to the CBS affiliate owned by Landmark Media Enterprises.

The spreads were not always so great.

The National Republican Congressional Committee, which is hoping to put Nevada’s new 4th Congressional District into the “R” column, is paying KTNV Las Vegas $10,000 for a :30 in Dancing With the Stars on Oct. 15. Berkley paid exactly half that, $5,000, for a spot in the Oct. 1 episode of Dancing. 

For spots on Bachelor Pad on Aug. 27, two super PACs — the pro-Heller American Future Fund and the pro-Romney Restore Our Future — paid $5,000 per. Meanwhile, the Obama campaign was able to buy a spot in the same show for $3,500.

Priorities USA, a super PAC backing Obama, paid CBS affiliate WOIO Cleveland $4,000 for a 30-second spot during The NFL Today on Sept. 16, while the official Obama campaign ran a spot during the same hour for $2,400.  

(The Romney campaign opted to run two :30s in the actual game [Cleveland vs. Cincinnati] that followed, paying $20,000 each.)

During the week of Sept. 17, the Romney campaign bought six spots during the 6 p.m. news of ABC affiliate WEWS Cleveland, paying $1,100 for each, while Priorities USA Action, a pro-Obama super PAC, paid $1,800 each for two spots during the same newscast.

The official Obama campaign also ran one spot in the same newscast that week, although at a low priority placement, which nabbed a lowest unit rate of $400.

In late September, the conservative super PAC The Center For Individual Freedom bought :30s on Dr. Oz opposing Democrat Steven Horsford in his bid for the new 4th Congressional District seat, paying KVVU Las Vegas $350 each. Horsford’s campaign bought three :30s around the same time, paying only $175 each.

When inventory is not under pressure, the super PACs may not pay any premium.

During the week of Sept. 17, the Obama campaign, the Romney campaign and the pro-Obama Priorities USA PAC all paid the same price for a spot on the noon news of  WOIO — $475.

Most of the GMs of the stations whose political files were checked for this story declined to be interviewed or did not return phone calls.

One exception was Lisa Howfield of KSVN Las Vegas. She said that some candidates are foregoing the lowest unit rate and paying more to insure that their spot are not bumped from particular programs and times by other advertisers willing to pay more.

Howfield, whose NBC station is the flagship of the Intermountain West group, explained that under the law stations can preempt lowest unit rate spots if it offers “comparable” time for the spots elsewhere on the schedule.

Howfield also said she doesn’t recall interest in latenight programming in past election years, but now Late Night with Jimmy Fallon is coming up in discussions with political advertisers.

Sure enough, TVNewsCheck found that Crossroads GPS, a second super PAC associated with Rove, has bought a spot on Fallon each night from Oct. 30 through Nov. 5 — the last five days before the election. KSNV is charging $250 for each.

Comments (8)

Leave a Reply

Gregg Palermo says:

October 10, 2012 at 8:48 am

Another pet peeve of mine, when journalists pretend to be salespeople by using “as much as” and “up to” in their headlines and stories. We all know what “save up to 40%” actually means in an ad. It means a lot less than 40%. But in a political story, “puffery” is pernicious, bordering on deceit. Shame on you. Just give us the median or average amount overcharged and spare us the hyperbole. Exaggerating causes the critical reader to ignore what might have been important.

    Linda Stewart says:

    October 11, 2012 at 12:11 pm

    I’m not sure what your gripe is. Based on our small sample, non-candidate advertisers are paying up to four times what candidate advertisers are paying for the same time. Four times was the most we found. Everything else was less. It would be a huge task to take all the data from just one market to come up with averages and medians. Perhaps others are doing that.

Jeff Groves says:

October 10, 2012 at 10:34 am

Thank god for DVRs, DVDs, VHS and whatever else it takes to avoid these abominations.

Brian Bussey says:

October 10, 2012 at 10:54 am


Boots Walker says:

October 10, 2012 at 11:03 am

One of the few redeeming qualities of the Super PACs is that they are the stations’ stimulus package in an otherwise lousy economy.

Mark Annas says:

October 10, 2012 at 11:14 am

I don’t think Jack Messmer should be so quick to insinuate the broadcasters are at blame here….blame the politicians and courts for enacting these rules for the PACs. This is precisely why we will end up with “the best government money can buy”.

Rachel Martin says:

October 10, 2012 at 1:33 pm

Super PAC’s impacts local business much less than candidate money. If a local business commercial is bumped by “soft” money it will be 5-10x their rate. Candidate is bumping the same spot at 2x.
I’d rather pre-empt a local advertiser for 5-10x their rate. So would they.

Brad Dann says:

October 10, 2012 at 5:52 pm

Let’s be honest here. Political Ads are Free Speech, how they could be restricted in the first place is only a liberal/progressive fantasy. Political ads on TV work, otherwise the money would not be poring in. The same congress that complains about costs, content and the media created the rules of the system. The only kind of ad an FCC licensee can not reject is a political ad. I ran a station once, where we decided about this time in the cycle that we were not going to sell ads for the mayors race (none had bought less than a month before the election). I applaud the GM who was interviewed for correctly stating the rules about Preemptible and Non-Preemtible time. I suspect the other GM’s and those with such pricing disparity between LUR running and PAC money either don’t want to “offend” any politicians or don’t understand the rules completely. Selling an LUR and allowing it to run in a time frame when you can sell it for 5-10x more would be defended by saying the stations are being good citizens. If I were their owner, I’d call it leaving money on the table. Stations are good citizens in their community, by and large, and the way they can do that is by generating more advertising revenue. As far as local advertisers are concerned, the same people who are complaining thet they’re buying year round and getting bumped by Political in their prime retail saeson are the same ones who nickel and dime you over rate whenever they can. If these advertisers were consistently paying what the station perceived as a fair market rate, they’d get a lot more protection from preemption. In reality, the PAC’s are showing the market the true worth of what a :30 spot is in a particular market.

More News