Local television stations in swing-states cash in on deluge of political ads

Swing state residents may be growing weary of the barrage of political ads, but this election season has been a boon to local TV stations. 

President Obama, Mitt Romney, the two parties and the 10 largest independent groups have spent more than $610 million on presidential TV ads so far this year, according to the Wesleyan Media Project, which obtained data from ad tracking firm Kantar Media/CMAG. 

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More than 915,000 presidential ads have aired on broadcast and cable television since June 1. That’s a 44.5 percent increase from the same period in 2008, and a 43.7 percent increase from 2004. 

Erika Franklin Fowler, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project, said the ad buys this year are concentrated in the handful of swing states that will likely decide the election.

Four years ago, Obama had the luxury of spending money in conservatives states like Missouri, Indiana, Montana and North Dakota, but this year, locked in a tight race with Mitt Romney, he has concentrated his funds only in areas where he has a strong chance of winning.  

The top markets for ad buys are Denver; Las Vegas; Tampa, Fla.; Cleveland, Ohio; Orlando, Fla.; Washington, D.C.; Miami; Columbus, Ohio; Cincinnati, Ohio and Norfolk, Va., according to the data from Kantar Media.

With control of the Senate at stake, a handful of close races have also seen a flurry of spending in recent weeks.

Between Oct. 1 and Oct. 21, candidates and groups spent $14 million in Virginia, $10.6 million in Indiana, $10.4 million in Florida, $9.6 million in Massachusetts and $9.5 million in Ohio.

Because of cheap air time in Montana, groups only spent $3.3 million on the state's Senate race. Still, Montana led the nation with 25,211 ads overall during the period.

The vast majority of the ad spending is going to the local broadcast stations in those battleground markets, Fowler explained.

Buying ads on local TV stations allows campaigns to target voters in particular markets, whereas campaigns have to pay more for spots on national cable channels, which reach many viewers in non-competitive states.    

"Political advertising is a boon to local stations if you're lucky enough to own a station in one of the battleground markets," Fowler said.

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

"There's this perception that there's this tsunami of money washing over every TV station. That's not correct," he said. "The additional revenue is coming only to a small percentage of stations."

He said “it’s business as usual” for stations in non-competitive states.

Stations can charge super-PACs and other outside groups premium rates, but Wharton emphasized that stations are required to provide a discounted rate to the candidates' campaigns.

He said that rule limits how much stations can rake in from the surge in political advertising.

But some stations in competitive states are reportedly taking unusual steps to find more airtime for lucrative political ads.

The New York Times reported that stations in Las Vegas are shaving off time from their news programs to make room for political ads. The Washington Post reported that one D.C. station dropped reruns of "The Simpsons" to expand its newscast, which attract the viewers most sought after by campaigns.

The ads in the presidential race this year have been especially negative.

According to the Kantar Media figures, 58.5 percent of Obama's advertisements have been negative and 27 percent have been "contrast" ads — spots that mention both candidates.

The researchers found that 49.2 percent of Romney's ads have been negative and 30 percent have been contrast.

Ads funded by outside groups were almost exclusively negative.

Although viewers often complain about the nastiness of political campaigns, Fowler said negative ads are more likely than positive ads to discuss substantive policy issues and the differences between the candidates.

"Citizens who don't necessarily pay attention to politics can get information from [negative ads] and be more informed than they would be otherwise," she said.