TV and radio stations are not required by law to sell ad time to candidates seeking state or local office, but they must treat them equally. Under "equal opportunity" provisions of federal communications law, if a station sells time to one candidate in the California governor's race, it must stand ready to sell time to all others that approach it with dollars in hand-even if the number of candidates is 135.
Some broadcasters have already decided they want no part of a stampede for ad time. Viacom's Infinity Broadcasting, with 36 California radio stations, said it won't run any commercials for candidates in the California governor race. Experts believe other station managers could do likewise.
"We will not take any candidate advertising," said George Nicholaw, VP-general manager of Infinity Broadcasting's KNX-AM. "But we will take proposition and PAC [political-action committee] advertising. Are you going to be able to provide enough time for all the candidates? You have a situation with a limited amount of time."
Candidates for governor who approach Clear Channel Radio, the state's biggest radio conglomerate with 71 stations, are being told it is primarily taking political ads through its California network of stations, called the Political Action Network. Candidate/advertisers can buy the whole network, or as few as 20 stations.
Michael Preacher, director of sales-California for Clear Channel Radio, said some individual Clear Channel stations may also take political candidate advertising. He added, however, "I would imagine that there are several [non-Clear Channel] stations who will refuse political advertising."
Radio station executives are more concerned than TV station executives over the rush of political ads, since media buys can be cheaper on radio than on TV. That means more candidates can use radio. Still, some TV stations are also looking to curtail political spots.
"We're trying to limit the amount of inventory you can buy," said Mike Kincaid, VP-ad sales for Viacom's two Los Angeles stations, KCBS-TV and KCAL-TV. "September is a really tight market. We'll have to displace inventory. It's going to be really tough."
Currently, for example, ad revenue for Clear Channel's group of eight Los Angeles radio stations is pacing up more than 20% vs. a year ago, said Greg Ashlock, VP-general manager of Clear Channel's KFI-AM in Los Angeles.
In strong advertising markets, political ads aren't necessarily a boon to stations because they can force stations to turn away higher-paying advertisers, such as movie studios, automobile marketers and other consumer-product advertisers. Since 1972, TV and radio stations have been required by law to sell candidates ad time at their lowest-unit-rate-the lowest price they offer to their best ad customers.
dollar in, dollar out
"September is not a month when we usually go begging for advertising," said Ron Longinotti, VP-general manager of Viacom's KPIX-TV in San Francisco. "Assuming we have normal demand, it could just be a dollar in and a dollar out. It's the lowest unit rate. [But] we don't have any plans on limiting political advertising."
Already six candidates are asking for TV and radio ad rates. Those include Democratic Gov. Gray Davis; Republican front-runner Arnold Schwarzenegger; former Republican candidate for California governor Bill Simon; columnist and political pundit Arianna Huffington; former Major League Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth and Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante.
Experts said the deeper-pocketed candidates turned away from radio and broadcast TV are likely to buy outdoor and local cable, although cable ad inventory, too, is very tight.
Clear Channel's Mr. Preacher expects a total of seven candidates to spend significantly on radio. This week, he said, one will break a major ad campaign on its stations. He would not identify the candidate, but said, "You are going to see some unique uses of our medium."