Another Big Citizens United Winner: Local TV

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For most local television stations, political campaigns are Valentine’s Day and Christmas rolled into one — a bonanza of gifts in the form of large checks written out to purchase valuable airtime.

Business is so lucrative that the high-tech, 80,000 square foot facilities of WMUR-TV, the ABC affiliate in Manchester, NH, often are jokingly referred to as “The House that Forbes Built” — a reference to the millions that failed presidential candidate Steve Forbes shelled out for TV ads during the 1996 New Hampshire primary. (For the record, the station says the studios were built and paid for before the Forbes campaign graced its airwaves. Nonetheless, media buyer Tobe Berkovitz told The Boston Globe back in 2000, WMUR is “like a political ATM machine… the heart of any political media buy in New Hampshire.”)

Steve Forbes celebrates a primary victory at his campaign headquarters in Phoenix. February 1996. (AP Photo/Jeff Robbins)
Millionaire businessman Steve Forbes spent millions of his own money on advertising in his 1996 run in for president. In this photo, he celebrates a primary victory at his campaign headquarters in Phoenix. The win put him back in the race after a disappointing fourth-place finish in New Hampshire. (Photo by Jeff Robbins/AP)

Now, with the floodgates of cash unleashed by Citizens United and other court decisions, TV stations will be even richer. Bloomberg News reports, “Broadcasters are attracting record political advertising from the Republican presidential primaries, a super-PAC-driven windfall for television stations that promises to grow even larger in the general election.”

“By the Nov. 6 election, campaigns will have spent $2.6 billion, with 85 percent going to local TV, Anthony DiClemente, a Barclays Capital analyst in New York, estimated in a Jan. 31 report.

“’TV stations will be the biggest beneficiary,”’ DiClemente said in an interview. ‘It’s a heated political environment and the relaxation of campaign finance laws is driving it all.’”

The vice president of communications for the National Association of Broadcasters, Dennis Wharton, told The Hill that “despite the rise of social media and cable television, campaigns still prefer to run ads on broadcast stations. He explained that viewers of local news tend to be older, better educated and more politically engaged than other groups, meaning they are especially likely to turn out to vote.”

Wharton downplayed the idea that stations strike it rich with political TV ads, because campaigns usually receive an approximate 30 percent discount as long as they permit their ads to be preempted by advertising customers willing to pay the full price.

But, he added, stations can charge Super PACs “whatever the market will bear.” In fact, according to The Hill, “Super PACs can even preempt the ads of their political opponents by outbidding them” — raising the chilling specter of Super PACs keeping other candidates off the air by the sheer weight of their wallets.

Despite that and other dangers, the attitude of many station owners may best be summed up by CBS CEO Leslie Moonves, cited by Bloomberg News at a December investor conference: “There’s going to be a lot of money spent,” he said. “I’m not saying that’s the best thing for America, but it’s not a bad thing for the CBS Corporation.”

CBS owns ten stations in this election’s “battleground states.”

Addendum: We’ve just finished taping Bill’s interview with Kathleen Hall Jamieson for the next edition of “Moyers & Company.” She speaks at length about local TV stations and political ads, pointing out that stations have the right to insist on the accuracy of ads they accept from “third party” groups – like the super PACs. Jamieson also discusses a new feature on the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s website (launching tomorrow) that gives all of us a quick and easy way to let station managers know just what we think about dishonest political attack ads. You’ll see it all here at – very soon.

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