Christmas in July for Reno TV stations?

Reno reporter tallies political ad buys in “the battleground county of the battleground state of Nevada”

NEVADA - Every election cycle, as Americans prepare to hit the voting booths, Christmas comes early to television stations across the country when campaigns—and, increasingly, various outside spending groups—open their wallets to buy advertising time. While political ad dollars may not be entirely “gravy” for local stations, as Erika Fry wrote for CJR in May, “they’re still an awfully good deal.”

And, according to a story in the Reno Gazette-Journal on July 7, it looks like Santa will be especially good to TV stations in Nevada’s second-largest city, Reno:

Battleground politics is proving profitable for Reno’s TV stations, as early spending in presidential and senatorial races has put the market on a record pace for annual political revenue.

Even though Election Day is more than four months away, more than $4.5 million has already been spent or reserved in the Reno market by campaigns in the presidential and senatorial races, according to a search by the Reno Gazette-Journal on June 28 of campaign billings.

To get these figures, Ray Hagar, the paper’s political reporter, visited seven local TV stations and reviewed the ad buy logs that each station is required to keep and make available as part of a “public inspection file.” (I did similar legwork in Las Vegas for this CJR piece earlier this year). It’s a reporting task Hagar first undertook eight years ago, when John Kerry was challenging George W. Bush.

In the past, Hagar has left this sort of digging until the end of the campaign season, when TV advertising tends to ramp up. This year, though, the journalist started reviewing the data months earlier after he, like other viewers, was inundated with an early-summer flood of political ads.

Clark County—with metropolitan Las Vegas and nearly two million residents—makes up the lion’s share of this swing state’s population. It traditionally leans Democratic, while Washoe County—which includes Reno and was formerly staunch Republican turf—has moved more to the middle in recent years.

“It seems like a disproportionate amount of money is being spent on influencing voters in Washoe County, because it teeter-totters either way,” Hagar told me in a phone interview. “Politics in Nevada has become so close that Washoe has evolved into the battleground county of the battleground state of Nevada.”

In addition to reviewing Reno ad buy data, Hagar sought insight on the buying spree from Matt Eldredge, the general manager at Reno’s KOLO-TV, who expects the ad buys to continue apace as long as the presidential race and Nevada’s US Senate race between incumbent Republican Sen. Dean Heller and US Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Las Vegas, remain close. Eldredge told Hagar:

At this point, Nevada is pretty much up in the air as far as being a swing state and these (presidential and senatorial) races could go either way. So that is why we are getting the money. If Obama or Romney or Berkley or Heller jumps ahead in the polls, they will probably back off in terms of spending. The PACs could back off as well.

Hagar’s research and reporting of such ad spending—CJR’s Swing States Project has done similar work in Pennsylvania and lauded similar work in Denver—revealed some interesting nuggets. For one, despite the focus on Nevada’s Latino voters (by both Nevada and national news media, campaigns and outside spending groups), Reno’s Spanish-language Univision affiliate, KREN-TV, has seen only a pittance of the political pot—$117,650 in ad buys from the Obama campaign, $18,500 from Team Romney, and nothing yet from Berkley or Heller.

Hagar, in his Gazette-Journal piece, also pointed out that candidates in state and local races, such as hotly-contested but underfunded legislative races, may be squeezed out of the fall ad lineup at local stations. In addition to the presidential and senatorial candidates, car dealers, lawyers, and casinos will be ponying-up big bucks to get their messages across to Reno viewers. Hagar told me he had expected to find ad buys related to one state senate seat in particular.

“[Incumbent Republican] Greg Brower versus [former Democratic Assemblywoman] Sheila Leslie state senate campaign is supposed to be the lollapalooza of senate campaigns,” Hagar said. “But when I checked the records at all of these TV stations, I did not even find a Brower file or a Leslie file anywhere. That was very surprising to me.”

One final nugget from Hagar’s piece: candidates want their faces seen in proximity to Pat Sajak and Alex Trebek, both of whose game shows air on KOLO (which has seen the most political ad dollars to date). Reported Hagar:

[KOLO’s] Eldredge credits the popular TV shows Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune for Channel 8’s political fortunes.

“I think [political campaigns] buy adults, 35-plus,” Eldredge said, referring to the demographic of adults, 35 years old and older. “We tend to skew a little bit older. Some of the [programs] we have are Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune and those do a huge number in that demographic. So you notice that a lot of PAC groups and political groups love to be on those shows because those people are more apt to vote.”

The data Hagar hunted down for this piece may soon be a bit easier to access. In April, the Federal Communications Commission ruled that many top-market TV stations will soon have to make this information available online. On July 17, the FCC will host a “public demonstration of the database it has developed to host the online public inspection file for television broadcast stations.”
Hagar supports this change, at least in principal.

“How is the FCC going to police this?” he asked me in an email. “Is the FCC going to do the shoe-leather work of checking each station’s files to make sure their files correspond with what is online?”

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Jay Jones is a Las Vegas-based freelance writer who has covered political campaigns for various media outlets in the U.S. and for the BBC in the U.K.