The bottom line
Where does all the ad money end up, anyway? Local broadcast stations are usually owned by large media companies, or, in some cases, by the networks themselves. So the flood of new ad revenue is rarely under local control. “Just like any revenue that comes into the company, it gets accounted for,” said Dana McClintock, a spokesman for CBS, about earnings from political ads on local stations that CBS owns and operates. “There’s nothing special about it.”

None of the stations we spoke to in Denver discussed plans for these revenues, which ultimately flow to their parent companies. At press time, the earnings reports for leading broadcast ownership companies included early estimates for the fourth quarter of 2012, and thus the heavy crush of ads before election day. Carl Salas, a senior analyst at Moody’s who rates companies that own TV stations, said the majority of them were using 2012’s unprecedented political windfall to pay down debts, pay dividends to shareholders, and conduct mergers and acquisitions.

In other words: The rising tide of political advertising does not appear to be floating any groundbreaking TV journalism. That’s unfortunate, for now and the future. The avalanche of ads that hit Denver this year, nearly half of them produced by super pacs and nonprofits, will likely be a regular occurrence for many election cycles to come. Salas estimated that political ads will increase their share of broadcast companies’ earnings from a historical average of 6 to 7 percent over the two-year political cycle to 9 percent in the future. “This is a new baseline, and it will continue to grow,” he said.

The rise of factcheck segments is encouraging; factchecking is a crucial tool. And Denver newsrooms demonstrated the capacity and the integrity to effectively truth test ads with teams as small as a single reporter.

But some TV journalists think much more could be done on politics and policy with just a few more resources. Raising the bar costs money. But, hey, the money is there.

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Sasha Chavkin covers political money and influence for CJR's United States Project, our politics and policy desk. He has written for ProPublica, the Center for Public Integrity, and The New York World. Follow him on Twitter @sashachavkin.