28 hours of political ads (and a few minutes of news)

Tallying the ad buys at six local TV stations for one Pennsylvania primary race

Pennsylvania — In the weeks before the April 24 primary here, folks in Northeastern Pennsylvania saw and heard a lot on local television stations about the battle between longtime incumbent Democrat U.S. Rep. Tim Holden and challenger-turned-primary-winner attorney Matt Cartwright.

The visibility on the airwaves came through a deluge of paid political ads—not, unfortunately, from actual news reports (which were comparatively scarce and, when offered, not particularly substantive).

According to my recent review of the public inspection files (where broadcasters are required to log, among other things, political ad buys) at six area television stations, candidates Cartwright and Holden and assorted interest groups together spent more than $1.1 million in March and April on 30-second ads in the race for the 17th district, a jagged new area capturing big D cities of Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, and Easton. (Note: These and all figures in this post come from my review of the stations’ files and have not been independently confirmed with the candidates or outside groups.)

This translated into more than 3,300 spots. Most of the money and the lion’s share of ads
—1,673 spots costing $728,100—ran on WNEP (ABC), the region’s dominant local news source, and its second-feed station, WNEP2.

Interestingly, the margin of victory for Cartwright (57.1 to 42.9 percent) was nearly the same as the margin of spending to his advantage. Cartwright and political action committees opposing Holden accounted for 57.93 percent of this spending. (And, also interestingly, outside groups accounted for more than half of the ad spending to Cartwright’s benefit and outspent the Holden campaign itself. See here—PDF—for more data about the ad buys.)

Think of it this way: In a matter of less than eight weeks, more than a full day’s worth of ads ran on these stations, or nearly 28 hours of television time.

And that’s just for the Holden-Cartwright tussle. Imagine if the presidential campaign of Mitt Romney really did plunk down the $2.9 million in ads it was reportedly prepared to buy had former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum stayed in the race.

Or, don’t imagine that.

Along with the day-plus of political ads that aired on these stations, viewers got less than a half-dozen news reports on this race—totaling a small number of minutes, even accounting for airings on multiple broadcasts, and typically offering little substance or context. And while viewers could see political ads on all six of these stations, only WNEP and WBRE (NBC) produce their own local news—WYOU (CBS) and WOLF (FOX) use WBRE’s services, and WSWB and WQMY don’t offer local news.

When I asked WBRE News Director Jim DePury—who started his role at the station in March, as this campaign kicked in—about this ad-heavy, reporting-light dynamic at his (and other) stations, he noted advertising sales and editorial operations are separate and therefore he isn’t focused on the volume of ads each candidate and interest group buys.

All told, more than seven hours of ads ran on WBRE; another six-plus hours ran on the stations that also air its news broadcasts. Along with that, viewers got the very occasional news report on the race (typified by this segment from April 19, noting but not exactly adjudicating the latest in the “trad[ing of] barbs” between Cartwright and Holden).

“We looked at the tone of the campaign and how people perceived that,” DePury said, adding the station may do more political coverage this fall. (Here’s hoping.)

Efforts to reach WNEP News Director Carl Abraham were unsuccessful.

(The news operations and ad buys on WFMZ, an independent station in Allentown-Easton, were not included in my analysis. The station, which broadcast at least one unremarkable news report on the race, also aired a 30-minute “Meet Congressman Tim Holden” program on April 2—a discussion with local business leaders—where the candidate was given a good bit of free rein).

Northeastern PA is hardly alone. Markets in swing states and those with close races are typical big-ad-buy targets. And local TV news operations generally offer few substantive—or even less-than-substantive—reports on these races.

A couple of other points: First, the ad money stations get is not completely added revenue. That is, stations selling air time for political ads don’t simply add the political bucks to what they’re already getting from car dealers and drug companies. Some ad reshuffling (and dropping, in some cases) can be involved, offsetting some of the stations’ gains. (CJR’s Erika Fry will have more soon on this angle.)

Second, by law stations can’t mark up candidate ads, though they can—and do—charge outside groups whatever the market will bear.

While TV ads were the prime way candidates and outside groups reached primary voters here, they were not the only way. (The League of Conservation Voters alone, for example, said it made 20,000 phone calls to prompt people to vote against Holden.)

That said, this is no doubt a happy time for television station managers, who root-root-root for the contests. It’s also a less-than-pleasant time for viewers, who endure the ad barrage with little context or vetting.

Regardless of a person’s position on the ownership of public airwaves or the obligation of stations, there would seem to be little debate broadcast journalism can and should do better.

Much better.

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Ken Knelly served as metro editor at The Times-Tribune in Scranton and as senior editor for government and business at The State in Columbia, S.C. He owns Clearberries, a communications consulting and training firm, and works for a Christian college in Northeastern Pennsylvania.