On Media: A race — to the tube

If there’s one thing local TV executives like more than an imminent snowstorm, it’s the approach of well-financed political campaigns in a contested election. The bigger, the better. And there’s nothing bigger than the U.S. presidency.

The campaigns of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have put Kentucky and Indiana in play, making appearances and placing campaign operatives here. And soon they’ll be buying up avails on local TV stations, some say as early as next week.

“They’re here and they’ll be spending money. The issue is how much they’ve got,” said Carol LaFever, general manager of The CW.

Most observers thought that because of Kentucky’s late primary date (May 20), the issue of selecting the nominee for president would be moot well before Derby Day. The same was thought to be true of Indiana’s primary on Tuesday, May 6.

But like the weather, the winds of politics can change suddenly and without warning.
“They’re probably going to spend a lot of money,” said one veteran political operative, who asked to remain anonymous. “I think they may start in Louisville this week. Obama may spend more here, because Indiana is really a battleground state. If he wins there, he could end the race.

“If Hillary wins in Indiana, they’ll make buys in Louisville for the Kentucky primary,” he said.
Such is the fickle fate for local TV. The money spent on advertising in total in the Louisville market is about $90 million annually, but most agree that so far in 2008 the money is off. WAVE-TV general manager Steve Langford said political advertising often makes up 8-12 percent of the total budget, but acknowledges it’s a mixed blessing.

“It’s not shaping up to be a spectacular political year,” he said. “With political, it’s hard to be ready, and when it comes, it’s concentrated and blows out your other dollars.”

Langford said 2007, with a contested governor’s primary and the general election, was a good political year with $8 million to $9 million spent in the market. So far in 2008, he says, there’s been less than $1 million, but things could heat up, and quickly.

Bill Lamb of WDRB-TV said predicting political campaign money can throw accountants for a loop, but he doesn’t hold station managers responsible for political performance.

“All you can do is try to predict what’s going to happen from past performance,” he said. “This year maybe something will come in April and May, but you really don’t know.”

The outlook for political spending in the fall is brighter for local stations. The U.S. Senate race between Mitch McConnell and a well-financed Democratic challenger (most likely Bruce Lunsford) will fill the airwaves with political ads from late summer through November. Congressman John Yarmuth is likely to get a stiff challenge from Anne Northup in a repeat of their 2006 campaign.

Lamb said money that comes in from national parties often determines how financially competitive a race is, and he isn’t sure about the Democrats’ strategy for defeating McConnell.

“He’ll be spending in the market, but I don’t know about the Democrats. If they don’t think they have a chance, they might not help out,” he said.

Such was the case in Yarmuth’s 2006 campaign, when the national party was reluctant to help the LEO founder until late in the race, when it started to look like he could win.

Langford thinks both Northup and Lunsford will spend healthy amounts in the fall, though he doesn’t expect much from the presidential campaign.

Modern political campaigning often seems to come down to which candidate can raise the most money in order to get on TV, which helps raise more money to buy more TV. During the political season, viewers complain constantly about the volume of and negativity in TV commercials from candidates.
But does it work?

In a word, yes. For one, campaigns can easily track and measure the number of people they’re reaching, and can associate themselves with the “right kind of viewers” by choosing where they place spots.
“News is a good vehicle for political because it gives a pretense of plausibility when it’s in the newscast,” said LaFever.

A good campaign will spend 70 percent of its budget reaching out to voters, and most of that on TV. Sure, there’s online campaigning, direct mail, yard signs and those pesky robo-calls, but nothing gets voters’ attention like a good TV.

Rick Redding, Louisville’s media critic, writes about media and politics on his website, The ’Ville Voice (http://thevillevoice.com)