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Which media outlet wins big in the political ad wars?

With tens of millions of dollars on the line, TV will be the big winner as politicians stimulate the economy. Who wins biggest, and what are the rules of the competition?

With the economy crashing, the 2008 election was a godsend for local TV stations. Minnesota was a battleground state in the presidential election, and the Coleman-Franken U.S. Senate race provided a massive stimulus. Combined, the two men raised $41 million, according to the Federal Elections Commission. At least $12 million went to local TV, according to an MPR analysis.

Across all ’08 races, Twin Cities network stations and Comcast Cable reaped $49 million.

This year, for the first time since 1998, Minnesota will have neither a presidential nor U.S. Senate race. The only marquee matchup for governor; as of this writing, GOP gubernatorial nominee Tom Emmer had reported raising less than a million bucks. Even with Mark Dayton’s personal wealth (plus Matt Entenza’s in the primary), interest groups and party campaign committees, the entire 2010 governor’s race might not top the $22 million Al Franken raised two years ago.

From the TV perspective, the 6th District race between Michele Bachmann and Tarryl Clark is a boon. The two have already raised a combined $7 million for a House race MinnPost’s Derek Wallbank projects as “the most expensive in the nation.”

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Offsetting that will be the loss of one of TV’s quieter ’08 paydays, the open 3rd District race Republican Erik Paulsen won. The west metro district doesn’t figure to produce big advertising bucks this year.

Tarryl Clark
Tarryl Clark

Still, KARE11 general sales manager David Crawford says managers count on the biennial political windfalls. “Years ago, if the money showed up, great,” he says. “Now it’s such a big part of the process, it’s part of everyone’s budget.”

Which station wins?
Minnesota campaign pros estimate high-profile candidates spend as much as three-quarters of advertising money on TV. Even though cable claims a bigger share of the viewing audience, most dough still goes to the network stations — KARE, WCCO, KSTP and Fox9. In 2008, Comcast, the area’s biggest cable service, beat out Fox9, but took in only one-seventh of the network total.

For highly ideological people, politicians buy TV in remarkably un-ideological ways. The top-grossing ’08 station generates the least partisan flak: KARE11.

(Lefties look askance at KSTP, which has donated to a group backing Emmer, and Fox9, whose owner Rupert Murdoch contributed $1 million to the Republican Governors Association. Conservatives sometimes gripe about WCCO and Don Shelby’s commentaries. Still, the CBS affiliate ranked second in ’08 political advertising, taking in $13.3 million to KARE’s $14.3 million.)

Why did KARE and WCCO finish one-two? Their newscasts annually duke it out for ratings leadership. Thanks to CBS, WCCO’s prime-time shows are stronger (think “CSI”), but KARE’s “Today Show” is the morning champ. Such daytime shows are a leading way to target female voters.

For example, when Tarryl Clark’s campaign bought time this summer on KSTP and sibling station KSTC, shows included “Live with Regis and Kelly,” “The View,” and “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire,” hosted by the Today Show’s Meredith Viera.

The buys look less ideological because persuadable voters often share that characteristic. Direct mail, cable, radio and grassroots activity target partisans, but the six campaign pros I spoke with said network TV ads are primarily about swaying undecideds.

Ben Golnik
Ben Golnik

How pricey are TV ads?
Ben Golnik, a Republican strategist, estimates a statewide “saturation buy” costs $300,000 to $350,000. That translates to 1,000 “gross ratings points,” a measure that smushes together individual show numbers.

A thousand ratings points means the average viewer sees your ad 10 times, Golnik says. Scott Cottington, a longtime GOP ad buyer, puts it this way: 1,000 gross ratings points can “support one thought.”

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Because the 6th District extends throughout the metro suburbs, Bachmann and Clark must buy the entire Twin Cities TV market to hit their slice. Cottington says a Twin Cities buy isn’t much cheaper than one statewide. However, he pegs the saturation cost lower than Golnik — $150,000.

Take the two estimates as a range, and you’d spend between $1.5 million and $3.5 million to inculcate one weekly thought from now to Nov. 2.

In 2008, Bachmann, who raised $3.5 million, bought $1.6 million of Twin Cities TV time. Using that template, if she raises $6 million this time around, her Twin Cities TV spending would be $2.74 million. That assumes the race is close enough to justify it.

Bachmann’s campaign manager, Gina Countryman, says she doesn’t want to reveal media-buying details, but “I don’t think we’ll do much abnormal from a typical campaign, percentage-wise.”

Who else has “thought-a-week” money? Dayton, probably. National party organs such as the Democratic and Republican Governors Associations, and Congressional Campaign Committees, if they choose to spend it here. And independent groups such as the Alliance for a Better Minnesota and MnForward, almost certainly.

The rules of the road
Politicians have given themselves special privileges to buy ads. One law requires candidates receive “lowest unit rate” pricing. That sounds like a bargain, although Cottington says there’s “some myth” there.

Federal Communications Commission rules require that stations charge candidates for public office the lowest price they charge other advertisers. However, campaigns grapple with rising prices during the race, and may even see their ads bumped.

KARE’s Crawford says political spots fall into three classes.

The cheapest: “immediately preemptible.” If someone pays more, the station can swap out the political spot without giving campaigns a heads-up.

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Rep. Michele Bachmann
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Rep. Michele Bachmann

The middle tier: “preemptible with notice,” which means you get a call if you’ve been outbid. Crawford says most campaign buys fall into this category. Political ad buyers want the heads-up so they can decide if they want to pay more, accept a different slot, or move to a higher ad tier.

Explains Cottington, “You have this new spot you’re paying $1,000 for, and they can tell you it’s $1,500 if you want to run it. Partly, your rivals are the private marketplace, and partly, it’s outside political groups that may be willing to pay more.”

Cottington says campaigns lay in several weeks of schedules but pay week-to-week. Crawford says stations price ads weekly, locking in rates before the “broadcast week” begins Monday.

Flush-with-cash outside groups have come in and bid up the price of spots, Cottington adds, squeezing the bankroll of poorer rivals.

However, the FCC gives campaigns some leverage to fight back.

Stations must provide “equal opportunity” for candidates of the same office to ad time. That’s not “equal time” — bigger bankrolls buy more spots, and savvier buyers can get better times. Federal candidates are also guaranteed “reasonable access,” especially in the campaign’s final weekend.

Crawford says you can ask “ten different people and get ten different answers” about what “equal opportunity” means. However, one current campaign manager, who described scenarios on condition of anonymity, says a well-heeled campaign could bump an outside group’s attack ad come crunch time.

An election lawyer, who asked not to be named because he represents Minnesota candidates this cycle, terms that possibility unlikely.

“Stations do not have to give you unlimited access,” he says. “If you want to buy 2,000 points, they do not have to turn the station over to you. They’ll be less likely to bump issue ads. Sometimes, they’ll tell Ivory Soap they can’t run their ads” until after the election.

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One station official confirms long-term advertisers know the drill when October rolls around. For TV budgets, the higher price paid by outside groups cushions any “lowest-unit-rate” concession.

Should a campaign want to assure a spot runs at a particular time, it can purchase “fixed” time, the most expensive ad category.

This year, Crawford has a particularly enticing bauble: the Oct. 24 Vikings-Packers game, which will attract a massive local audience nine days before the election. A campaign that values that time has a lot more incentive to lock in now at the current fixed price. Otherwise, it must be prepared to pay more down the stretch. (There’s a remote chance the price will drop if the Vikes aren’t bound for glory.)

No censorship
The lawyer says TV stations sometimes get caught up in another federal provision: they can’t censor candidate ads. That rule doesn’t apply to Ivory Soap — or even the outside groups that try to influence political races.

“Let’s say an ad says [Candidate X] murdered her first husband — which is libel per se because it has no basis in fact, and even though the candidate is a public figure, is actual malice,” the lawyer says. “The TV station has to run it.”

However, he adds, the station is immune from libel — the ad’s sponsor is on the hook.

Minnesota politicians have one other thing to fear: we’re one of a handful of states that penalizes false ads.

However, the legal standards are high and complaints are often more about campaign strategy than legalities. For example, in the final days of the 2008 campaign, Coleman sued Franken over a TV ad calling Coleman “the fourth-most corrupt Senator,” flinging the accusation in a well-attended news conference.

Two weeks after the election, a state administrative court tossed the complaint, noting Franken had captured the “gist” of an interest group’s rankings.

Even if the complaint had been upheld, media outlets would not have been at risk. State law contains an exemption for “any person or organization whose sole act is, in the normal course of their business, the printing, manufacturing, or dissemination of the false information.”