One Small Way This Terrible Election Is Better Than Last Time
Policy + Politics

One Small Way This Terrible Election Is Better Than Last Time


Executives at local television stations may have greeted the report late last month that Donald Trump’s campaign is planning a $140 million ad blitz, including $100 million in television ads, with a deep sigh of relief if not an exasperated exclamation — that it’s about time.

Presidential election years are traditionally a boon for local televisions stations, which can count on getting a healthy boost in advertising from campaigns and interest groups looking to woo voters, especially in swing states. Those voters, of course, may see it another way, longing for Election Day to pass and bring a merciful end to the barrage of ads constantly bombarding them.

The pattern this year has been different — and Trump is a big reason.

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Bloomberg reported last week that this election cycle has seen more than $222 million in total TV ad spending, about half the $435 million that had been spent at this point in the 2012 campaign. Hillary Clinton and her allied groups have spent about $122 million, some $40 million less than Team Obama had spent at this time four years ago. Trump’s campaign and related groups have spent roughly $20 million, far less than the $89 million Mitt Romney’s campaign and supportive outside groups had shelled out by this time in 2012.

And the pace of TV ad spending this year has slowed significantly relative to recent races. Even as the presidential campaign heated up last month, political advertising across the 17 largest television station groups actually fell by 3 percent compared to September 2014, according to analyst Brian Wieser of the Pivotal Research Group and data from Advertising Analytics, a tracking firm. (The companies included in Wieser’s comparison are ABC, CBS, Cox, EW Scripps, Fox, Graham Media Group, Gray, Hearst, Media General, Meredith, NBC, Nexstar, Raycom, Sinclair, Sunbeam, Tegna and Tribune.)

Wieser notes that total political ad bookings for the first nine months of the year were still up by 25 percent over the same period two years ago — there are still plenty of congressional and statewide races, after all — but the September numbers forced him to cut his overall forecast for the election. The analyst points one finger at the GOP nominee and his supporters, saying that “with relatively little fund-raising on the Republican side of the Presidential campaign (including through affiliated Super-PACs) during this election, there has also been less spending.”

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Campaigns and related groups usually direct much of their ad spending toward local television stations, which allow them to both target their audience geographically and sway swing voters through their attack ads or other messaging.

For example, the 2012 elections, including the Obama-Romney race for the White House, helped local television and cable businesses generate $2.6 billion in political advertising, according to Magna Global figures cited by Wieser. In 2014, when there were only congressional, state and local races, the TV ad spending still totaled $2.3 billion.

Another tally, using data from Kantar Media/CMAG, put total television ad spending by Romney’s presidential campaign and allied groups in 2012 at $492 million. Trump’s campaign, by contrast has spent relatively little on television ads — but benefitted from billions of dollars worth of free air time. As of late September, the Trump campaign had spent only $22 million on general election television and radio ads. Clinton’s campaign had spent over $100 million more.

Related: Trump's Low Advertising Spending Weighs on US Broadcasters

“I’ve gotten so much free advertising, it’s like nothing I’d have expected,” Trump said more than a year ago, according to The New York Times. “When you look at cable television, a lot of the programs are 100 percent Trump, so why would you need more Trump during the commercial breaks?”

October Is the Make-or-Break Month
Trump has continued to rely on free media, and to boast about how much less his campaign has spent than Clinton’s. But the calculus is changing in the final weeks of the race, if only modestly. The Trump campaign’s spending plan for the remaining weeks of the campaign includes nearly $17 million a week for TV ads compared to the Clinton campaign’s ad buys of about $11 million a week, the Associated Press reported last week. Whether Trump’s camp follows through on those buys — or can afford them — remains to be seen.

“The big question for station owners is how October will end up, as more than half of the spending arrives between now and Election Day,” the analyst writes. But he adds that “signs of a significant turnaround in the trajectory of spending are mixed at best and poor at worst.”

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Wieser had previously forecast that political ad spending on local TV would see 40 percent growth over 2014, or roughly 20 percent over 2012. He then cut those projections, saying growth would come in between 20 percent and 30 percent. He’s now lowered his forecast again, saying 20 percent growth over 2014 is about the most stations can expect this cycle, and that’s assuming Trump’s campaign delivers on its promised ramp up in spending.

Still, even if the local TV operators haven’t reaped quite the windfall many expected from the election, they haven’t exactly suffered either. “If spending held flat for the remainder of this election cycle vs. the comparable period in 2014,” Wieser writes, “spending growth for the full year would amount to only +12%.”

That would be a disappointing total — but would still be about 15 percent of local TV ad sales for the year.

Who’s Winning the Race for Political Television Ads
Political ad bookings at owned and operated stations for the third quarter of 2016 vs. 2014
NBC 77%
ABC +76% 76%
Hearst Television +37% 39%
Sinclair Broadcast Group +29% 29%
Tribune Broadcasting +18% 18%
CBS +13% 13%
FOX -17% -17%
Tegna -18% -18%
Gray Television -39% -39%
Source: Pivotal Research Group