Local TV stations stand to profit from boom in super-PAC spending

Well-financed super-PACs are expected to spend heavily in battleground states this year, and while viewers may get tired of the onslaught of negative ads, the spending could be a boon for local television stations.  

Total spending on federal elections topped $5 billion in 2008, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.

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But because of the Supreme Court's 2010 decision in Citizens United, 2012 is shaping up to be far more expensive.

The decision loosened restrictions on corporate campaign giving and led to the creation of super-PACs, which can collect unlimited contributions from companies, unions and individuals.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, as of Jan. 24, independent spending, which includes super-PACs, was double the figure from the same period in 2008.

As a result, a handful of television stations in key markets for the presidential and congressional campaigns could see a windfall of advertising revenue this year.

Dennis Wharton, vice president of communications for the National Association of Broadcasters, said 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.

Television stations are required to provide a discounted price to political candidates who buy “preemptible” TV spots, according to Wharton.

Although TV stations can swap out a preemptible political ad if another group is willing to pay full price, many candidates take advantage of the discount, which Wharton said is usually about 30 percent.

He said that because of the discount, stations are unlikely to rake in huge profits from political candidates.

But stations can charge outside groups like super-PACs "whatever the market will bear," Wharton said.

Super-PACs can even preempt the ads of their political opponents by outbidding them.

Wharton said that only stations with the top few local news programs in a market are likely to benefit from the influx of campaign cash. 

"Once you get to the third or fourth, you might get a little bit of gravy, but you're not getting the meat and potatoes," Wharton said.

Super-PACs have spent millions of dollars in the first few Republican primary contests.

Although a political candidate may be hesitant to run a particularly nasty attack ad under his or her name, super-PACs usually have no such qualms. 

Super-PACs supporting Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich have taken to the airwaves to bash their opponents, questioning their credentials and conservatism. 

Legally, super-PACs cannot coordinate with candidates, but candidates' supporters can still donate to super-PACs that support them.  

Although President Obama opposes Citizens United, he endorsed a super-PAC that supports him this past week.

Wharton said he knows viewers get frustrated when negative advertising blankets their television stations, but he said viewers should blame politicians, not the stations.

"We can't censor them," he said.