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Stations Cope With Political Ad Overcrowding

September 9, 2010

By Janet Stilson TVNewsCheck, September 8, 2010 6:49 AM EDT

Birdnow Dealerships is the sort of advertiser that TV stations in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, should want to make happy. It owns four new car dealerships and six used-car locations. But Mark Birdnow, the company’s president, says he has been “frustrated” trying to buy time on TV stations prior to elections and so isn’t looking forward to the next eight weeks.

“If it’s like it’s been in the past, we’d have to pay an awful lot to guarantee the spots or they’ll get preempted in the particular newscast we wish to have them in,” Birdnow says.

“There was one particularly bad [political] cycle where they were preempting our ads to the point where we had no control. We would think we were going to have a spot on Sunday night in the 10 o’clock news, and it was preempted so we had two in the noon news the next day.”

That wasn’t good enough. And it’s exactly the sort of experience that Birdnow’s sister hopes to avoid. She’s Colleen Brown, CEO of Fisher Communications, which operates 13 TV and eight radio stations.

Brown is among the station executives who are getting more creative in accommodating regular clients during political season when campaign and issue advertising floods in and tends to wash out other advertising.

“We’ve set up a holistic experience where we try very hard in all our properties to offer a ‘menu of solutions’ that are designed to super serve our customers,” Brown says.

Unlike two years ago, Fisher now has multicast channels on some stations. To fortify the programming on them, the stations have added one-hour newscasts from the primary channels and the syndicated three-hour morning program The Daily Buzz where they can.

Fisher is also making time available on its Spanish-language stations in three markets where it has duopolies along with its radio stations and websites, including scores of hyperlocal sites that didn’t exist during the last election cycle.

“This strategy is helping our regular advertisers maintain their presence, while providing them more value for their advertising dollar,” Brown says.

Overcrowding is a perennial problem or, to be more exact, biennial problem for broadcasters and their advertisers. Every even-numbered year, money from candidates, parties and advocacy groups soars, swelling the top line, but creating a headache for station managers that have to cope with excess demand.

Evan Tracey, who tracks political spending at the Campaign Media Analysis Group, believes it will approach a record $3 billion this year with TV stations getting most of it. According to BIA/Kelsey, TV station revenue will rebound to $18.5 billion this year. If $2.5 billion of that is political, the category represents 14% of broadcasters total take.

While advertisers may groan at the overcrowding and the higher rates of election season, it’s not the windfall for stations they may think it is.

David Barrett, CEO of Hearst Television, discounts the political dollars that come into his stations by 50% because of the finite availabilities and the crowding out of other advertising.

Others agree that all the political money is not incremental, but are reluctant to put a number to it.

“You’d probably get a few people that would debate that,” says Steve Gibson, SVP and CFO of Allbritton Communications, when asked about Barrett’s percentage. “There’s no way to quantify it. We struggle with that all the time, with how much is truly incremental.”

Whatever the impact of overcrowding, broadcasters are doing what they can to deal with it, to reap as many dollars as they can and to make sure they don’t damage relations with regular advertisers. And those dealing with excess demand are not complaining. They consider themselves fortunate, recognizing that political dollars are not evenly distributed among markets or even stations within markets.

Like Brown, other broadcasters are trying to drive excess advertising to multicast channels and the Web. But it’s not always easy.

“When we have dollars that we can’t find homes for on air, we will take a package to the client that’s multiplatform as a makegood package,” says Jane Williams, VP of sales, Cox Media Group. “Sometimes they approve it and sometimes they don’t. Most people want the traditional media.”

Another approach is simply to create more local programming and more inventory. “One of the things that we’ve been doing as a group for the last several years is looking to expand the amount of time that we devote to local programming on a daily basis,” says Allbritton’s Gibson.

Like a lot of other station groups, Allbritton is adding programming at the front end of the programming day. “We’ve launched a 4:30 a.m. newscast in Washington and plan to roll it out in the majority of our markets,” Gibson says.

Newscasts at 4:30 a.m. is a bona fide trend this year, documented by TVNewsCheck and the New York Times.

“The thought that you would launch [early newscasts] in a political year shouldn’t go unnoticed,” says Williams. “It’s a great time to launch something like that, because you know you’ll have demand on the inventory.”

Cox sees the early news as good for ad clients and viewers alike. “In a lot of the commuter markets, folks are getting up earlier and earlier to drive to work. Therefore they need news earlier,” Williams says.

Raycom Media is also part of the trend, but denies the political connection. “That’s an ongoing thing,” says Wayne Daugherty, EVP and COO. “If you do any kind of research on newscasts, you know the opportunity for growth is in the morning.”

For Steve Hamel, general manager of WRAL Raleigh, N.C., good communications skills are key to managing the excess demand in political years. “We prepare clients way in advance to let them know what the political situation is going to be like,” Hammel says. In that way, clients can shop early or consider other options.

Hammel and other executives say stations must warn clients about which federal or local races are likely to place big demands on inventory and how that pressure compares with prior even-numbered years.

They also suggest ways that clients can alter their ad strategies by moving into other dayparts or changing the media mix to take advantage of multiplatform opportunities as the election demands intensify.

“Stations need to have very good relationships with their advertisers,” says Hearst’s Barrett. “It’s having credibility with your customers on the advertising side, knowing that they’ll trust you to give them a good shake. Or, they’ll trust you to say, you know, you’re not going to get a good run next week or next month, let’s move you to the month following.”

But not all broadcasters are good communicators, at least not in Cedar Rapids. Dean Schlitter, president of DSL Advertising, who places Birdnow’s media buys there, says he has yet to be approached by any TV station sales people about solutions for a better ad experience during the 2010 elections.

“You’d be surprised how many stations don’t do that,” says Kate Brady, VP of sales for Petry Media. “They just kind of wait until [the political season] hits.”

But stations are better prepared this year, she adds. “I don’t see as many problems coming up. I think that things are running smoother than they have before.”

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