Stations Await Call From the President

While the GOP candidates and the ubiquitous Super PACs are spending the big money in the early primaries, President Obama is slowly and strategically starting to deliver his local TV message as well. The Obama administration bought a series of spots that ran in some key markets, including Cincinnati; Des Moines, Iowa; and Columbus, Ohio, Jan. 20 to Jan 26, and reinforced some of the points driven home in the president’s State of the Union address Jan. 24.

For WBNS Columbus, the Obama buy was around $28,000. “He’s building a little bit of presence here,” says Tom Griesdorn, president and general manager.

Obama appears to be basing his initial message on energy-related issues, perhaps tied to his defeat of the Keystone pipeline project. “He talked about standing up to Big Oil,” Les Vann, vice president and general manager of WKRC Cincinnati, says of spots on that station.

The Obama camp is sure to target the usual swing states, including Ohio, Indiana and Virginia, while new battlegrounds pop up each election season as well. (Station managers in Indiana and Missouri, which are other key states, said the president had not bought air time yet.) Some believe Arizona, with the state’s controversial immigration issues (not to mention the president’s much-photographed tarmac discussion with Gov. Jan Brewer in Phoenix), may be up for grabs too.

“A lot of people are calling this a swing state,” says Debbie Bush, KOLD Tucson vice president and general manager. “That hasn’t happened in a long time.”

President Obama has also been taking his message to local TV viewers in a less costly way: by hosting station reporters at the White House. The president has conducted considerably more station interviews than recent presidents, say local TV news veterans; that includes chats with KIRO Seattle, WEAR Pensacola, KOAA Colorado Springs, WPVI Philadelphia and WXII Greensboro. Towson University professor Martha Joynt Kumar, quoted in the D.C. publication The Hill, said the president has sat for 408 general media interviews in his three years in office, compared to President Bush’s 136 and President Clinton’s 166 at a similar point in their terms.

Local TV crews admit they are fairly flummoxed as to how the White House selects stations for interviews, other than the administration favoring strong news stations in battleground states, and often ones in markets with substantial military populations. “They came to us,” says one GM. “When they called, we took the opportunity.”

Norfolk, Va., has proven to be one favored target, with WVEC, WTKR and WAVY all getting face time with the president. “From everything we hear, both sides know Virginia is in play,” says Tod Smith, WVEC president and general manager.

The White House press office declined comment on how it selects stations for interviews.

For the GOP, with Florida in the rear view, the attention moves on to Super Tuesday a month from now. Primaries in Ohio, Virginia and Tennessee, among others, will be contested on March 6.

Says Griesdorn: “The month of February is going to be interesting.”

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.