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Calif. TV Loves a Recall: Great Story, Great CPMs

Suddenly California newscasts are awash in politics, and stations will soon be awash in ads. Since Arnold Schwarzenegger announced his gubernatorial candidacy on The Tonight Show two weeks ago, the star has been given more California airtime than he could get in a TNT Terminator marathon. But Schwarzenegger and some of the other 135-odd candidates soon will be paying for time, too.

Estimates of the coming political advertising blitz range from $50 million to $100 million, concentrated in the two largest population centers, Los Angeles and the San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose market, where a 30-second spot in a newscast can cost up to $5,000.

TV executives predict significant buying by Gov. Gray Davis, in his defense against the recall, and top challengers, notably Schwarzenegger, investor Bill Simon Jr., former baseball commissioner and Olympics guru Peter Ueberroth, political commentator Ariana Huffington, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante and, possibly, State Sen. Tom McClintock.

As for the coverage, Paul Taylor, the former journalist who founded the Alliance for Better Campaigns and is now with the Pew Charitable Trusts, estimates that there was more coverage of this recall race in the past week than there had been in the previous two gubernatorial races in total.

'Train wreck'

"All it takes is a movie star," says Taylor. "It reminds me a little of the 2000 presidential campaign, where the real interest and the real coverage began the night of the election." Both the 2000 election dispute and the current California recall have "a train-wreck quality," Taylor says. "The recall has that quality even without Arnold, but then Arnold comes along and takes it to the next level."

Marty Kaplan doesn't quite know what that level is. "I'm not sure I'd call it political," says Kaplan, associate dean of the USC Annenberg School for Communication, and director of the Norman Lear Center for the study of entertainment and society. "But there's certainly more coverage."

Kaplan's group monitored the final eleven weeks of Gray Davis' winning 1998 campaign and found that local news devoted a half of a percent of its programming on gubernatorial campaign coverage, or a total of about 37 hours in the state's top four markets, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego and Sacramento, and No. 8 market Bakersfield.

More volume, certainly, says Kaplan, but so far it's been a content-free zone. Some other candidates are struggling to get substantive messages out there, but the majority of attention is going to Arnold. "It's the same kind of attention that would be paid to a freeway chase," he says.

Los Angeles's longest-tenured news director, KTLA(TV)'s Jeff Wald, was making no apologies. Newscasts are tailored to their audiences. "Look at Chicago," he says. "Politics is a much bigger story in Chicago. People seem to care less here than in Chicago. There's probably more interest in politics in Northern California than in Southern California."

'Heavy with TV' ads

But he defended the prominence of the Schwarzenegger story. "I can't remember the last charismatic candidate we've had running for governor. … We've had Pat Brown, Ronald Reagan and Jerry Brown. That's three in the last 50 years."

Elliott Troshinsky, general manager of Sacramento's KCRA-TV, which has been lauded by public interest groups for its political coverage, agrees. "It's been a historic occurrence to say the least," he says. "That in itself has precipitated a lot of the coverage. As we move forward, we have to press the candidates."

And what about the recall haul?

The campaign strategies are "like wet clay right now, not yet massaged into a full sculpture" says Phyllis Schwartz, general manager at NBC's KNSD(TV) San Diego. "Everybody's waiting, even the pundits. The candidates with money will have to go heavy with TV. They won't have the time to go heavy in any other way. The message has to be just right."

Station executives say they were receiving inquiries as to rates and availability of spots, and expected some spending to begin this week. They predict that spending would likely come from a handful of candidates and increase as it gets closer to the election.

Some sales executives in California's major markets say that by now, a station's September inventory is largely sold, filled with seasonal advertising like "back-to-school" sales and new cars. A significant amount of political advertising, they say, may preempt regular advertisers and force political ads on programming other than news.

Debate coming

"Of course, I doubt that any station will end up with less," says KABC-TV General Sales Manager Spencer McCoy. "But I don't see it as a big windfall either. Inventory was already extremely tight. If we had the opportunity to create inventory and put more minutes in the day, we probably would. But that's not reality."

Cathy Jacquemin, vice president of sales at NBC-owned KNBC(TV) Los Angeles, says, "It's hard to say right now how much anybody's going to be spending. Who knows how much they can raise in that short a time? The agencies haven't given any indication of what they're going to spend. Certainly, some inventory's going to be displaced."

The California Broadcasters Association last week announced a gubernatorial debate for Sept. 17 at California State University at Sacramento. The 90-minute debate will be open to six candidates.

Numerous federal courts have upheld a forum's right to exclude fringe candidates, and the CBA debate will be open to six candidates who show 10% of voter support in the statewide Field poll prior to Sept. 5. If six candidates fail to qualify under that criteria, CSU will survey undecided voters to determine which of those polling more than 4% are preferred.

CBA will also distribute a half-hour program on the recall election, including a statement from Gov. Gray Davis. Davis will not participate in CBA's debate.

Oakland's Cox-owned Fox affiliate KTVU(TV) Oakland-San Francisco also plans a debate, and more invitations are expected down the road. The Tribune-owned Los Angeles Times and KTLA have sponsored debates in past statewide campaigns.

Will the ads and campaign get ugly? It's already ugly. "Recall," notes Stan Statham, head of the CBA, and a former Republican legislator, "is a synonym for mud."