CASHING IN ON POLITICAL ADVERTISING. OR NOT.
After reading last week’s column on the likelihood of broadcasters enjoying a bumper crop of political ads this year, my brother asked me, “So which stock should I buy?”
Alas, some of the station groups sitting prettiest this year can’t be found on any ticker.
Take Raycom. With stations in Cincinnati and Toledo, Ohio, the privately held company is looking good, considering Ohio is now setting the stage for fierce Senate and governor races as well as party primaries.
Raycom also has leading stations in Syracuse, N.Y. (Democratic gubernatorial frontrunner Eliot Spitzer and Hilary Clinton will spend gazillions upstate); Louisville, Ky. (Dems are primed to oust Republican House incumbents); Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (a fierce open governor’s race with a Democratic primary); and Memphis, Tenn.(a state with an open Senate seat).
Moreover, Raycom has limited exposure in states like Texas, Georgia, and North Carolina that had sizzled in the last off-year campaign of 2002, but are likely to fizzle in 2006.
That’s why, as I reported last week, publicly held Belo is only lukewarm about this year’s prospects. It has two Texas markets.
Company finances are all about comparisons. It’s not enough to have a good year; you have to do keep doing better. Overall, take out the odd-numbered years and political ads are like a stock that never slumps, presidential year or not. According to TNS Media Intelligence, about $1 billion was spent in 2002, the last non-presidential election year. Experts believe spending this year should soar past that number, but fall short of the record $1.5 billion in 2004 when Kerry and Bush went at it. About 90% of the political dollars go to spot TV so that most TV stations—public or private—will benefit to some extent.
The key to the mint is having a closely fought statehouse race: Gubernatorial candidates spent $412 million in 2002 with 27% of that going into from primary campaigns, according to the Wisconsin Advertising Project at the University of Wisconsin.
Who else could be living large? Privately held Hubbard Broadcasting. It has two stations in upstate New York and seven in Minnesota, which has an open Senate seat and a potential showdown for the state house now occupied by Republican Tim Pawlenty.
Come on, my brother insisted, there has to be someone with a stock ticker who will need a Brinks truck come election time.
Well, there is an old reliable: Hearst-Argyle, whose political revenues have consistently risen by double-digits in even-year comparisons. Its strong stations in Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Cincinnati, and Harrisburg, Pa., should do well this campaign season, more than offsetting lackluster politicking in its other markets.
Clear Channel, with leading stations across upstate New York and Cincinnati, is another publicly traded company that might also benefit. But the issue with Clear Channel is competitiveness—or lack thereof—in markets like Memphis, Tenn.; Mobile, Ala., and Jacksonville, Fla. Also, Clear Channel stock price depends mostly on the fortunes of its massive radio division. Radio attracts few political dollars.
Other publicly traded groups seem to be in the same position as Clear Channel—some good political markets, some bad. LIN TV, for instances, can count on big bucks in Buffalo, N.Y., and Dayton, Ohio, but likely fall-offs in Austin, Texas, and possibly Grand Rapids, Mich.
So, brother, if you’re really determined to make a fast buck on the political campaigning this year, I have two words for you: bumper stickers.