TV stations make no small sacrifice by selling campaign ad time at a discount in the run up to elections. Broadcasters should be recognized for that and for their other contributions to electoral politics — providing routine news coverage of campaigns and offering free airtime for debates.
As ordered by the FCC earlier this year, network affiliates in the top 50 markets are posting their political advertising files online where anybody with a Internet connection can rummage through them and find out who’s buying and what they’re paying.
The broadcasters don’t like it. It’s another expensive chore, and it exposes to the world rate information that undermines their sales strategies in selling not only political time, but commercial time, too. That’s why they fought hard — and ultimately futilely — at the FCC against the online disclosure.
We sympathize with the broadcasters, but as reporters we couldn’t resist taking a peek ourselves.
On assignment for TVNewsCheck, reporter Jack Messmer looked into the files of stations in three swing markets to see if he could ascertain the differences between what super PACs and other non-candidates are paying and what candidates are paying.
The candidates should be paying less. The law says that qualified candidates are entitled to buy spots in the run-up to elections at the lowest unit rate — that is, at the rate stations would charge their most-avored advertisers. Stations may charge non-candidates as much as the market will bear.
Our look at the files confirmed that they are, but I was surprised by how big the disparity was. The candidate price was, in a couple of cases, 75% less than that of the non-candidate.
For example, on Sept. 25, candidate Obama paid WTSP Tampa $5,000 for a spot on CBS’s NCIS, while conservative super PAC American Crossroads, paid $20,000 to run a spot in the same show, albeit for priority placement.
I was under the impression that the discount worked out to around 30%. And it probably is. Our sample was small — it proved difficult finding candidate and non-candidate ads in the same show for direct comparisons — and in some of the other examples Messmer turned up the disparity was much less.
In any case, it’s safe to say the discount is substantial. It says that while broadcasters are getting a lot in political advertising (up to $3 billion this year), they are getting considerably less than they could — and should — in a free and unregulated market.
So, broadcasters should get some credit for selling time on the cheap. Keep in mind the ad time only has value to any advertiser because of the enormous investment broadcasters make in the news and entertainment programming that surround it.
Broadcasters should also get credit for their coverage of local and state campaigns and elections and for hosting debates among candidates. Here’s a sampling of recent debates involving broadcasters collected by the NAB.
Next Thursday, I am scheduled to be in Hartford for the Connecticut Broadcasters Association’s annual convention. To cap the day, the CBA will stage a debate between Senate candidates Linda McMahon and Chris Murphy. A panel of local broadcasters will be asking the questions. (I’m wondering what happens if things go badly for McMahon. Will she go after Murphy with a folding chair?)
And how about some bonus points for airing the best reality series of the fall season — the presidential and vice presidential debates. The first of four episodes (“Too Cool by Half” and “Why You Young Whippersnapper, I’ll Teach You”) enthralled the nation with their riveting exchanges, dramatic turns and blunt charges of unbridled mendacity. The less structure imposed on the debates by the moderators, the better they have become.
Each of the broadcast networks and their affiliates carry the debates commercial free even though they know any viewer could watch it on at least a half dozen other networks. They do it because they are in the news business, and feel they have a responsibility to the public that networks like, say, TNT and USA do not.
The first Obama-Romney debate on Oct. 3 drew 67.2 million viewers across all networks, up 28% from the first Obama-McCain showdown in 2008. It must kill the salespeople and accountants to watch the needle on the Nielsen meter go so high and not be able to monetize the audience.
Broadcasters need to be recognized for discounting political rates for candidates, providing routine news coverage of campaigns and offering free airtime for debates.
Why? Because critics of modern electoral politics and the corrupting influence of money in them see broadcasters as part of the problem. If half the money raised by the politicians ends up in the coffers of the TV stations, the stations must somehow be culpable. From time to time, they float plans that would force broadcasters to subsidize campaigns by providing free time or perhaps steeper discounts.
Of course, they never target recipients of the other half of the campaign money — consultants, hotels, caterers, landlords, airplane leasors and printers of lawn signs and bumper stickers. Only broadcasters.
Right now, the reformers are on hiatus. But you watch: they’ll be back, demanding more from broadcasters just because they happen to be, for various reasons, the best possible platform for political advertising.
And when they come back seeking concessions, broadcasters’ response should be simple and clear: We already give.