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Hunting Elephants, Donkeys and Bucks

Congress has not yet passed a bill to compensate broadcasters for giving up their spectrum, but plenty of House and Senate members, not to mention governors and state legislators, are contributing to broadcasters’ financial well-being through ads.

All the seats in the House of Representatives are up for grabs, along with control of the House itself. And there are big-ticket races such as Meg Whitman’s spend-athon in California. So, even with the failure of a bill that could have taken some of the steam out of the landmark Citizens United Supreme Court campaign finance ruling, Washington is doing its part.

SNL Kagan is predicting that TV stations could reel in $2.5 billion this political season, or 25% more than during the last midterm season of 2006. According to Kagan’s latest analysis of the 2010 elections, political spending on public TV-only groups in the first half of the year was already up to $41.2 million, or 48% more than 2006.

Broadcasters are benefiting from the Supreme Court’s decision last fall to allow corporations and unions to use their own money, rather than political action committee (PAC) money, to buy ads that directly advocate for the election of candidates in the weeks before an election or primary. A bill to boost disclosure requirements and reinstate the ban for some companies that do business with the government ran out of time in this congressional session, failing to turn off what the Washington Post called the “secret money spigot.”

But it’s no secret that cash has been flowing into broadcasting coffers thanks to big-money efforts in swing states, and others with key races. For example, according to Kagan, Whitman has already spent more than $100 million to succeed Arnold Schwarzenegger in California, with a pledge to spend up to $50 million more. Even former broadcast programming exec Linda McMahon is adding muscle to a strong broadcaster showing.

Not surprisingly, the top five TV-only station groups in terms of projected political take are the ones with the most viewers in states with hotly contested races—including Florida, California, Kentucky, Wisconsin and Nevada.

Conceding that an influx of political ad money from corporations was a “shot in the arm” for broadcasters “still reeling,” David Vance, communications director for the Campaign Legal Center, which has pushed for campaign finance reform, questioned whether that was a “healthy thing” for democracy. “People are horrified by the Citizens United decision and these anonymous, massive corporate contributions,” Vance says. “At some point, anger is going to grow because they are being subjected to massive amounts of advertising, as you see from the Kagan numbers.”

But Vance also says that even if some version of the bill passes after the election, he doesn’t think it will take much away from broadcasters’ political ad future: “People will find different ways to get involved… There is just simply more money available.”

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