Putting Bucks in The Buckeye State

Tiny Zanesville, Ohio knows from rolling in dough; after all, a massive baking site there cranks out as many as 3,500 sandwich buns a minute for Wendy’s burger joints around the nation. But DMA No. 203 is making bread of a different sort these days. While Ohio has long been on the short list of swing states in the presidential elections, it may just be THE state—the purple-est of the purple states, the swingin’-est of the swing states—as the Obama and Romney camps, and their supporting Super PACs, place colossal bets in TV markets large and small throughout the Buckeye State.

For Zanesville, a straight 50-mile shot east of Columbus along I-70, the election means a veritable circus maximus each day. The market has had visits from both President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney this year, and Vice President Biden as well. When the president can’t be there in person, he makes do with a spot that, at 120 seconds, is more like an infomercial than a commercial. It means a Japanese TV crew showing up at WHIZ, the only station licensed to Zanesville, to shoot a documentary about this peculiar American event known as political spending in a swing state.

Throw in a torrid Senate contest, with Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown facing a furious challenge from Josh Mandel—a race that will see at least $56 million spent on TV, according to the Sunlight Foundation think tank—and it makes for a tsunami of political ads that consumes so much local oxygen that some Zanesville advertisers are holding off on sales events until after the smoke clears in November. “It’s the craziest thing I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot of crazy things in 20 years,” said Doug Pickrell, WHIZ general sales manager. “In addition to the amount of money being spent, and how early it started, there are just so many oddities.”

Indeed, it’s a nutty story up and down the Buckeye State. While Florida, Virginia and Nevada can swing as well, many pundits believe no state is more hotly contested than Ohio and its 18 electoral votes. It was the first state mentioned in an anecdote by Romney during last week’s debate, and that’s no coincidence. With only four weeks left, the battle—and the serious spending—is just getting started.

“The biggest thing is that the cycle started so much earlier,” said Les Vann, WKRC Cincinnati vice president/general manager. “In 2008, it was late summer, and in 2012 it was April. This year, May, June and July look like 2008’s July, August and September.”

The spending is pacing Ohio markets to blockbuster revenue. Cincinnati, say TV insiders there, stands to get $50 million in political this year, up from $34 million in 2008. Cleveland is on course for $85-$100 million, said one sales manager, up from $41-$42 million in 2008. Cincinnati is headed for an estimated $153.4 million in total revenue, according to BIA/Kelsey, 20% better than 2011. Columbus looks to be up 20%, while Cleveland is pacing up 24%. Youngstown is up 18%, Lima 22%, and little Zanesville is up 17.5%.

“That’s way above the national average of 9.9%,” said Mark Fratrik, BIA/Kelsey VP/chief economist. “It’s obviously all political.”

Ohio’s vital role in national elections is hardly new. John F. Kennedy held up a swollen, calloused right hand on Election Night in 1960, as the story goes, and said, “Ohio did this to me.” As pundits are inclined to remind us, no GOP candidate has won the White House without winning Ohio. A key difference between 2012 and previous elections, however, is that strategists decided early in the year the race would likely come down to Ohio and a few other states. “They’re spending an incredible amount to reach that tiny sliver,” Kenneth Goldstein, president of Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group, said at the TVB conference last month. “It’s been phenomenally focused.”

For many Ohio stations, it’s been a steady stream of buys since the Republican primary wrapped back on March 6. Compounding the returns is the fact that the candidates only qualify for the lowest-unit ad rate within a 60- day window of the election. In other words, they paid market rates for an avalanche of spots from early March until early September. PACs, of course, pay full price all the time.

“I don’t know that we ever saw $18.5 million in political in the market in the first six months of an election year,” said Renee Morley, general sales manager at WOIO Cleveland. “That’s the really big story, and that’s a good indicator of what’s to come.”

What’s to come is around $30 million in Cleveland political spending in October alone. “It’s just scary,” Morley said.

Political candidates have always bought the socalled 3-C corridor—Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati. But both the candidates and their Super PACs are going statewide this time around, often with a specific message tailored to each market. President Obama’s two-minute spots, in which he takes viewers through a detailed four-point recovery plan, airs in all nine Ohio TV markets. “If I could sit down in your living room or at your kitchen table,” he said, “here’s what I would say.” (The 120-second spot is also running in other states, including key Florida markets.)

“A vote in Youngstown is just as important as one in Cleveland,” said Fratrik, “and it may be easier to get because the CPMs are lower.”

Where’s Mitt?

Some compelling trends have emerged across the state. The shocking political ad revenue levels have been reached despite the Romney camp holding off on spending in several markets until very recently. Mark Silverman, president at cable’s Big Ten Network, which garners mammoth ratings in Ohio, was flummoxed that efforts to reach Camp Romney’s media buyers were unrequited through September. Romney finally got on-air in Youngstown as October neared. “In my opinion, it’s a huge tactical mistake on his part,” said Jack Grdic, GM at WFMJ Youngstown. “I’m a little shocked he waited so long to start here.”

If there’s any downside to the spending, it’s that stations are challenged with keeping regular advertisers happy while they’re being squeezed out by the presidentials, not to mention Senate hopefuls. Station chiefs say local advertisers, for the most part, understand the drill—especially since Ohio has been in the candidates’ crosshairs for as long as anyone can remember. Some clear communication goes a long way to keeping relationships healthy. “When we saw how early it was coming, we hit the street to meet with our agencies and clients,” said WKRC’s Vann. “The fact that we got out in front of it made a huge difference.”

Viewers too seem to be mostly taking things in stride, even if they are wearing out the mute button while looking forward to the day in November when Obama and Romney get the heck out of their family rooms. While no one appreciates the often-bellicose tone of the messaging (“Certainly nothing has happened to make them more congenial,” said Bob Chirdon, WTOL Toledo VP and GM), viewers, like advertisers, have come to accept it as part of living in Ohio.

Grdic said he received just two phone calls in Youngstown to complain about the onslaught of political spots. “Too often, it’s been about Columbus and Cleveland and Cincinnati,” he said. “There’s a sense here that it’s nice to feel important.”

The Swing of Things

Just before the first debate, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll had Obama with 51% of the Ohio vote, Romney 43%. With the fluid nature of political races, Ohio could swing more into Obama’s camp, making Florida, Nevada or North Carolina the candidates’ new object of obsession. The Sunshine State and its 29 electoral votes has its own colorful history of deciding close races. “They’ve been spending in the state since May,” said Jim Carter, president/GM of WESH Orlando, “so it must be an important one.”

But station executives in Ohio see no signs of the presidential arms race letting up before Nov. 6. “They can’t afford to stop spending because of the investment they’ve made to date,” said Tom Griesdorn, WBNS Columbus president/GM. “The loser goes home.”

Some Zanesville residents look forward to the relative peace and quiet Nov. 7 will bring. For his part, WHIZ’s Pickrell suggested Zanesville won’t be the same without the Japanese TV crews and the presidential hopefuls, the buzz in the newsroom and the cacophony in the sales office. “I’m busier than a one-armed paper hanger right now,” he said with a laugh. “But I find it fascinating, and I like the speed of it. In a way, I’ll miss it.”

E-mail comments to mmalone@nbmedia.com and follow him on Twitter: @BCMikeMalone

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.