TV broadcasters aim to protect their political ad windfall

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Local broadcast television stations gobbled up almost $3 billion in political advertising revenue during the 2012 elections.

Four years later, their trade association is greeting a new crop of candidates with a simple message: More, please.

The Television Bureau of Advertising on Wednesday began a public-relations campaign called "We get voters." In addition to commercials, it features a website and sponsorship of political events, including one for next week's Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas.

There's a backstory, too — a growing worry that broadcast television won't always be king of politics. Across the economy, ad dollars are shifting from television sets to computer and mobile screens.

Not political ads, if Steve Lanzano can help it.

"Our goal is to send a reminder that television will be the key medium to reaching any voter," said Lanzano, chief executive officer of TVB, as the television trade group is known. He said their campaign is aimed at political operatives — and the donors who pay their salaries.

Television viewers, particularly in the early presidential primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire, could be forgiven for laughing off the notion that such a reminder is necessary.

After all, some 62,462 presidential ads have been on broadcast airwaves already this year, according to advertising tracker Kantar Media's CMAG.

The 2016 hopefuls and their related political groups, such as super PACs, have plans to spend $133 million on broadcast TV by the beginning of March, CMAG information shows. That's almost triple what's planned for cable television, and it dwarfs ad buys on the radio and Internet.

By Election Day 2016, when down-ballot races are factored in, political spending on local broadcast is predicted to reach as much as $3.6 billion.

But according to a 2016 forecast this week by Interpublic Group's Magna Global, ad dollars across all industries are shifting from television to online. And even television's own slice of the advertising pie is increasingly competitive, with local cable providing a way to more narrowly reach audiences at a far cheaper rate than broadcast.

That kind of "noise in the marketplace," Lanzano said, is one reason for TVB's public-relations campaign.

In one 15-second TVB spot airing mostly in Washington markets, a narrator says 95 of the top regularly-scheduled 100 shows, watched by voters ages 35 and up, are on broadcast. "Don't let your message get lost in the dark," the narrator says. "Your voters are here."

A second short ad asserts that Americans "love" talking politics. "Where do we get the majority of our political intel?" a narrator asks. "Local broadcast TV. It's the ultimate conversation starter."

That spot is likely to be on TV — not just in Washington, but in New Hampshire, Iowa and other politically active markets, Lanzano said.

Stations donate the time to TVB, and they've been "extremely receptive" to running the ads free of charge. That makes sense, since it's the local stations that would reap the financial reward of more political advertising.

The commercials augment other TVB efforts, like face-to-face conversations with political influencers and a website filled with statistics that display the importance of local TV.

Before the Republican debate next week, TVB is co-hosting a party with DC heavy hitters the American Gaming Association and PhRMA, chief lobbying group for the pharmaceutical industry. Attendees will be "spoiled with premium libations, fine food and an overall unforgettable evening," the invitation promises.

Taken together, the campaign marks the first time TVB has ever done this sort of political outreach, Lanzano said. It tries to showcase broadcast TV as tried and true when political campaigns are eager to talk up their "micro-targeting" of voters through online and local cable ads.

"We're not saying you shouldn't do digital and any of those other things," Lanzano said. "We're saying you have to make sure to do broadcast television, and do it first."

But Michael Beach of Targeted Victory is part of a new generation of strategists encouraging candidates and political groups to think more creatively, potentially spending first on digital and cable. That can be a wiser use of precious campaign dollars, he said.

Beach's Republican firm counts as clients several of the presidential candidates and super PACs, Federal Election Commission records show.

"When you're going on vacation, flying on a Learjet is always going to be 'better' than flying on a Southwest plane," Beach said. "That doesn't always mean it's the smartest choice."


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