Democrats in particular, from President Barack Obama's campaign to vulnerable Senate incumbents and promising House challengers, may aggressively press stations for equal time to counter the GOP's widely anticipated, outside-group-fueled dominance on the air.
Some savvy broadcasters have seen this coming within their own markets, and many media buyers may have been promised choice make-goods by certain stations already.
Here's why widespread bumping could be in store: Under U.S. communications law, federal office-seekers have a right to "reasonable access" to advertising opportunities, a little bonus Congress carved out for itself and for candidates for president. No other advertisers -- not commercial advertisers nor political groups nor even state and local candidates -- are given the same guaranteed access to a broadcaster's airwaves.
For purposes of measuring equal opportunities, national party committee ads that are coordinated with a candidate's campaign also are considered candidate ads and count toward a candidate's advertising opportunity. The Democratic and Republican National Committees already have aired a collective $40 million in ads "approved" or "authorized" by their respective presidential nominees. At the Senate and House level, the amount of coordinated advertising will explode after Labor Day.
Hypothetically speaking, the Obama campaign cannot demand equal opportunities from a station based on the amount of airtime that station has committed to Republican outside groups. It can, however, try to level the battlefield by demanding equal time based on the station's commitment to Romney's own campaign, or on the station's commitment to the RNC for ads that have been authorized by the Romney campaign.
In either case, the station isn't able to use the excuse of having sold too much time to outside groups or commercial advertisers as a defense. It can't simply reply, "Sorry, but we're booked up." If the Obama campaign's claim proves legitimate, then other ads must get bumped to make room for Obama's.
You might think stations will be loath to bump the commercial advertisers they'll be counting on in 2013 and beyond, and will bump the outside groups instead.
But they've been counting on that outside-group ad revenue for months or even years. These groups have a fixed goal post of November 6 and a willingness to pay whatever it takes – a willingness that national retailers, regional banks and local car dealers don't have. Stations can and will charge outside groups as much as they dare.
Sophisticated campaigns turn laws into weapons. The Obama campaign -- again, just for example -- could conceivably start monitoring the amount of time the Romney campaign and RNC receive, station by station in key markets, in order to demand equal opportunities on the chance it would not only help ensure them equal access but also curb the amount of airtime given to GOP outside groups.
The same hypothetical could wind up applying for congressional Democrats facing heavy incoming ad traffic from Republican groups such as Crossroads GPS, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Americans for Prosperity, and the 60-Plus Association. Senate and House candidates will push for equal time which may come at the expense of station commitments to either outside groups or commercial advertisers.
Prior to 2012, equal time wasn't an issue at the presidential level and surfaced only in a scattershot way at the congressional level. The presidential nominees in particular were able to afford the typical fall rate increases and broadcasters, through careful planning, were able to carve out sufficient ad time. Equal time was somewhat more of an issue further down the ballot in cases where one candidate in a race had plenty of money for advertising while another did not.
This cycle, however, the higher number of well-resourced advertisers seeking to influence the elections means stations will have a much bigger struggle getting the balance right up front.
Another squeeze on airtime will be the advertising needs of state and local campaigns. Unlike federal candidates, broadcasters are not legally required to sell ads to state and local office-seekers. But once they do, the equal time provision kicks in.
State and local lawmakers have certain legislative levers they can pull to make broadcasters' lives more difficult, such as zoning permits and local fees -- which can be pretty compelling reasons for stations to sell them airtime.
The likely result will be a spike in awkward phone calls from station sales reps to non-political marketers. Media buyers, have your wish lists for make-goods handy.