Skip to main content

Networks, Affiliates Solidify Spot-Swap Strategy

The crush of 2012 political ad spending, forecasted to be as much as $3 billion by Kantar/ CMAG, has compelled TV networks and their partner stations to modify the spot-swapping concepts that helped enrich both in the 2010 midterm elections. At the fore is ABC, which two years ago debuted its Inventory Exchange System, designed to make the most of demand for spots around election time and boffo shopping days such as Black Friday. With Rebecca Campbell, president of ABC’s owned stations, playing a key role, ABC and its affiliates have expanded the mutually popular concept as this election season heats up.

As part of ABC’s Local Political Avails (LPA) model, stations in high-demand political markets that find their inventory sold out prior to Nov. 6 can request up to 40 additional 30-second avails from the network, to be used solely for political spots, which would then “cover” a network promo. “The use of network positions is only permitted when a station’s normal local inventory is completely unavailable because of prior sale,” ABC said in a memo to affiliates.

While affiliates of any network rarely get a free lunch, ABC actually gives away the extra spots—both as a boost to its owned stations, and as what affiliate leadership sees as a goodwill gesture.

The latest chapter of ABC’s inventory exchange saw affiliates offered a package of 22 primetime and 98 nonprimetime spots at market price. The whole of the affiliate body decides on the offer, which “triggers” if enough opt in. One slated for this fall did indeed trigger.

“The ABC Inventory Exchange System is another example of how the affiliates, owned stations and the network are working together to find innovative ways to collectively generate more revenue,” Dave Boylan, ABC affiliates board chairman and VP/general manager of WPLG Miami, said in an email. “In the past few years, we have all come up with some very strategic ways to exchange commercial inventory that respond to the demand cycles of both the network and local stations.”

CBS also is preparing for the crush of local political spots. Starting four weeks out from Election Day, affiliates get one spot from the network each night in primetime. They have from Election Day until the end of the year to return the prime spots to the network.

“It’s a very good deal for affiliates, particularly those guys in swing states,” said Chris Cornelius, CBS affiliates board chairman and president and COO of Barrington Broadcasting.

The four weeks’ worth of nightly spots is an expansion from the two weeks CBS offered during the 2010 election season.

One key difference between the CBS and ABC deals is that the CBS arrangement is all-in for affiliates, as opposed to a station being free to choose. Cornelius says the majority are in a position to benefit. “Some don’t need it,” he said, “but generally there’s not a lot of discord about this deal.”

UPDATED: On September 7, NBC offered affiliates an additional 31 primetime avails to be used up to Election Day, with affiliates paying back 29 of them after the election. (The extra two, for the Sunday Night Football pre-game show, are a gift from the network.) On October 1, NBC also put an NBC Nightly News ad unit up for sale for its partner stations, to be used up to Election Day.

Jordan Wertlieb, NBC affiliates board chairman, did not return requests for comment .

NBC also partakes in creative spot-swapping outside of election season, including its “9 for Prime” arrangement, in which affiliates have the option to trade nine non-prime avails for a single primetime spot. The network is also giving affiliates a 60-second window—for news, not spots—coming out of the first commercial pod in NBC’s Election Night coverage. “Please use these minutes for your own coverage of important local and state races,” said an NBC memo to affiliates.

Fox, meanwhile, is in a different boat because its affiliates often do not have the full slate of local news that political ad buyers desire. “This hasn’t been on our radar screen like it has been for the Big Three,” said Steve Pruett, Fox affiliates board chairman and CEO of ComCorp of America.

Fox does have a spot-dealing program in place for NFL games, where affiliates can purchase extra avails, then share the revenue with the network.

The network and its affiliate leadership will see how the various strategies go down at ABC and CBS, perhaps introducing their own model the next time politicians, and Super PACs, start spending like parolees on payday.

“As the Fox affiliates add more news, the topic will certainly rise,” said Pruett. “I think it makes sense.”

E-mail comments to and follow him on Twitter: @BCMikeMalone

Michael Malone
Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.