Local television ventures into uncharted waters as the 24-state primary/caucus madness dubbed Super Duper Tuesday approaches.
Barring general elections, never before has a single day wielded so much political heft, and never before have TV stations—their Web divisions increasingly enhanced to better report breaking news—had the resources to truly tackle the Super Tuesday follies. As states ranging from those holding huge numbers of delegates (California, New York) to those offering modest prizes (Alaska, West Virginia) prepare to pull the curtain on their voting booths, broadcasters are in full scramble mode to best to lure viewers' eyeballs—and presidential hopefuls' cash.
“Every station is treating this like a blizzard,” says Fox Television Stations Digital VP Ron Stitt of the 12 Fox O&Os with a primary or caucus in their market Feb. 5.
Indeed, with dedicated online staffers, local television is better equipped to attack a gigantic, ever-shifting story than ever before. The LIN duopoly KRQE/KASA Albuquerque, for one, has six Web staffers to document the New Mexico caucus this week, up from one to two in 2004. They're overseeing the new Website NewMexicoPolitics.tv, featuring candidate information and campaign photos, as well as a fledgling blog aggregator, called Blog Central, assembling the most colorful posts from the market's armchair pundits.
“Politics are kind of a blood sport here,” says News Director Michelle Donaldson; her station will air Barack Obama-bought ads during the Super Bowl pre- and post-game. “We're doing coverage like no New Mexican has seen before—freewheeling, and totally open to ideas and opinions.”
For their part, the Fox-owned station sites feature information from the polling service Rasmussen Reports, as well the Candidate Matchmaker—essentially a game of 20 questions with the candidates to help people find which they're most aligned with. “It's a fun and helpful tool,” says Fox News Senior VP of News Operations Sharri Berg, who expects to see two to three times the normal Web traffic on station sites Feb. 5. “We're trying to make politics fun for people.”
Stations are banking on super-duper ad spending Feb. 5 to offset their dysfunctional relationship with the automotive category. But the candidates are certainly in no rush to make their buys, often waiting to see where they stand in the latest primary, such as the Republicans in Florida last week, before spending on the next showdown. One station manager in Tucson mentions how no presidential ads were purchased in the market until Jan. 19 (Arizona's primary is on Super Tuesday), and how the anxiety level at stations ran high until those first calls came in.
“All the money is being held back until the last possible minute,” says Mark Toney, senior VP of Television at media research firm SmithGeiger. “I haven't heard anyone in a well-contested state say they didn't get what they expected, but they sure went through a lot of angst in getting there.”
Some $2.6 billion is expected to be spent on political advertising on TV in 2008. But the 11th-hour decision-making makes it hard to predict how much the candidates will spend to make a Super Tuesday splash. Evan Tracey, COO of Campaign Media Analysis Group (part of TNS Media Intelligence), sets the broadcast figure at between $6 million and $10 million—about double what was spent on Super Tuesday in 2004, when 10 states held primaries.
While “issues” money is showing promising returns in many markets (Tracey mentions some $50 million spent to argue California ballot measures), some observers caution stations not to count on too huge a largesse from the candidates. For starters, the cost of having a strong presence in more than a few of the 24 states is prohibitive for even candidates with the deepest pockets. They also say the heady amounts spent in Iowa and New Hampshire have kept the candidates from spending heavily on marquee states on Super Tuesday; one likens it to buying the souped-up Buick, heated seats, sunroof and all, instead of the S-Class Mercedes.
“The Republicans are living check to check, and the Democrats will spend some money on Feb. 5, but not nearly enough to dominate the others,” says Tracey. “A lot of states will see occasional TV buys, but it won't be 'retail politics.'”
Furthermore, the escalating cost of campaigning has put a serious crimp on ad budgets. “Hillary's got 350 people on her payroll—that's a company,” says one media buyer who asked not to be named, “and renting that 727 [jet] is expensive.”
Of course, once the smoke clears after Feb. 5, the party-nominations picture may be no clearer—pushing the candidates' focus to the eight primaries in the week following Feb. 5, and the bigger contests in Ohio and Texas on March 4. “If there's no decisive winner on Super Tuesday,” says Tracey, “there could be another bite at the ad-spending apple.”
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