AIR CHECK BY DIANA MARSZALEK

Election Season Proving To Be A Mixed Bag

With political races heating up in some markets, stations there have plenty to cover and few ad slots left. But in others where races are one-sided, journalists are getting creative, turning to coverage of state and local issues to keep political interest strong.

Political campaigns are expected to pump $2.4 billion into TV ads this election season, with the bulk of the money going to stations in markets where the big political action is. That means those stations’ news departments are also bearing the brunt of election-related work.

However, hot political races that were expected earlier in the year have not materialized in some markets, leaving journalists at stations there scrambling to find stories and account execs working even harder to sell ad time.

Located in the current hotbed of midterm politicking, Little Rock, Ark. news crews are steeped in election news, covering heated, and very high-profile, senatorial and gubernatorial races, as well as tight race for the state’s 2nd congressional district. The neck-and-neck senate race between Democratic incumbent Sen. Mark Pryor and Rep. Tom Cotton, and the gubernatorial race between Democrat Mike Ross and Republican Asa Hutchinson, both former congressmen, are among the most closely watched races in the country.

Broadcasters, in Ohio, however, are having a much different experience, having gone from being in the thick of presidential politics two years ago to an election season that’s “a bit of a dud for us,” says Michael Fabac, news director at WCMH Columbus, the Media General-owned NBC affiliate in the country’s 32nd largest market. “This is like being 180 degrees in the opposite direction.”

Interest in the state’s gubernatorial race, which was supposed to be a big swing-state election, has fizzled since Democrat challenger Ed Fitzgerald’s campaign imploded following revelations about his personal life, making incumbent Gov. John Kasich a shoo-in. Fabac says he was hoping, at the very least, that hot-button issues — same sex marriage or, say, legalizing marijuana — would be on the ballot, but no such luck on that one, either. As for political advertising, “There is plenty of inventory,” he says.

Which is why Arkansas stations are moving into full-blown election mode — hosting debates, airing political talkers and deep diving into issues — while Ohio broadcasters are coming up with alternative ways to put politics on the air, which include focusing on everything from neighborhood elections to the role the state will play in deciding the next president.

BRAND CONNECTIONS

Knowing “it was going to be a really big year,” Nick Genty, news director of Sinclair ABC affiliate KATV Little Rock (DMA 56), says he started prepping for election coverage months ago. The station launched a Sunday morning talk show, Talk Business & Politics, in March. It also produces daily minutes-long webcasts that sum up the day’s political events.

KATV, as well as Hearst’s ABC affiliate KHBS Fort Smith, Ark. (DMA 101), will host debates between Pryor and Cotton. Both KATV and KARK Little Rock, Nexstar’s NBC affiliate, will host debates between the gubernatorial candidates as well.

KARK is inviting candidates in all of the major races to discuss their platforms on the station’s morning or noon shows, as well appear on that station’s Sunday talker, Capitol View, says Assistant News Director Ernie Paulson. Every Friday, KARK Today, the station’s morning show, includes a segment called “Political Plays of the Week” featuring analysts.

All of which will culminate in Election Night. Genty has already decided to air six hours of election coverage on air and online, using tech resources including microwave and bonded cellular systems to give viewers results as they come in.

With seven weeks until Election Day, Dave Parker, the news director at Gannett-owned Little Rock CBS affiliate KTHV, says he’s trying to avoid inundating viewers with too much election news by taking a “very selective approach” to choosing which election stories to cover.

At this point, the station is focused on “voter-centric” coverage that explains, for instance, how elections outcomes can affect issues of concern, such as the state of VA hospitals and immigration. Stories about voting — a recent one highlighted a woman’s effort to get young minorities to the polls — also air regularly. The station will add candidate profiles and appearances to the mix as Election Day gets closer, Parker says.

Meanwhile, Elbert Tucker, the news director at WBNS, Dispatch’s Columbus, Ohio, NBC affiliate, is using the dearth of big state races in Ohio to more aggressively cover “pocketbook issues inside communities” — bond issues, public safety funding and schools, for example.

“We want to get to the hearts of those neighborhood decisions and tap into what it is people have on their minds,” Tucker says. “We plan to hit the road pretty hard.”

That includes participating in candidates’ forums and digging deeper into community issues that have serious impact on people’s lives, he says.  “The state issues are very important. There’s no doubt about that,” Tucker says. “But of equal weight to people in the community are those pocketbook issues.”

WCMH is taking a different tack. Fabac says he is using the relatively quiet election season to focus coverage on the role Ohio plays as “a critical piece of the big national puzzle,” and what that means for voters.

Ohio is also already buzzing with predictions and politicking associated with the next presidential election.

Sen. Rob Portman and Kasich are both considered contenders for the GOP presidential primary. Cleveland will host the 2016 Republican National Convention, and Columbus is pushing hard to host the Democrats.

All of which means Ohio will likely be back in the spotlight two years from now.

“There is certainly a lot of anticipation for what 2016 may hold,” Fabac says.

ALSO OF ELECTION SEASON INTEREST

Four Dallas news outlets, including NBC’s KXAS and KXTX, the market’s Telemundo affiliate, are partnering to cover Texas’s high-profile governor’s race, and are enlisting the help of voters in the process.

The “5 Days In October” initiative, a joint effort of the NBC stations, The Dallas Morning News and public broadcaster KERA, includes all of the outlets covering the five issues consumers select as much important in the gubernatorial race between Attorney General Greg Abbott and state Sen. Wendy Davis for five days starting Oct. 12.

Although all of the news outlets will cover just one — and the same — topic per day, they can do so however they choose, says KXAS News Director Susan Tully, meaning Telemundo viewers, for instance, would get a different education story than the one that aired on public broadcasting.

The far-reaching partnership is an offshoot of some smaller-scale partnerships already under way in Dallas. KXAS’s partnership with Belo-owned The Dallas Morning News, which includes producing a Sunday morning political show, started in January, which is after Belo sold ABC affiliate WFAA to Gannett.

Read other Air Check columns here. You can send suggestions for future Air Checks to Diana Marszalek at [email protected].


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