With the race between Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore perhaps the closest since 1960, the heightened drama has broadcast and cable networks anticipating strong ratings on election night.
As a result, CBS last week said advertising inventory was selling briskly for tomorrow night, with companies such as Compaq Computer Corp., Enron Corp., Fidelity Investments, Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co., T. Rowe Price and Samsung Electronics buying multiple units. Industry analysts said networks have been selling 30-second prime-time units for $50,000 to $200,000, depending on the hour of the broadcasts that could go into the early morning hours.
`AN ACTUAL HORSE RACE'
"The fact that there is an actual horse race here [is great]. You'd have to go back to 1960 for this," said Mike Nowacki, VP of news and late-night advertising for CBS. "You are starting to see some people who were standing on the sidelines come in." Though the network was "getting close" to being sold out, inventory was available late last week.
The average prime-time spot goes for $271,000; the average prime-time show has an 8.1 rating, according to Nielsen, for the four major networks.
Overall, networks were feeling pretty good about their election night ad sales position. ABC has a deal with DamilerChrysler. NBC inked a big deal with Apple Computer. But Ford Motor Co., for the first time in many presidential elections, will not be a sponsor with NBC.
NBC'S EARLY SUCCESS
"We had success early," said Jim Hoffman, VP-sales for NBC News. "We had this sold since the conventions. We have more than met our plans." Other NBC advertisers include the National Association of Realtors, MasterCard International, Morgan Stanley, Samsung Electronics and Toyota Motor Sales USA.
CNN has five major sponsors: Akamai Technologies, DaimlerChrysler, Ditech Funding Corp., PaineWebber and Pharma, a trade organization for major pharmaceutical companies. All CNN sponsors get category exclusivity, billboards and an Internet presence on CNN.com (see related story above).
"There will be a lot of viewing on this," said Larry Goodman, president of advertising sales for CNN. "You are also going to have a longer duration of viewing, which translates into higher ratings."
Fox also hopes to make advertising gains as the network airs its first presidential election coverage. Marketing analysts said most of Fox's efforts are to help promote its Fox News cable network.
Election returns are must-see TV for many voters, but that doesn't mean a network can count on having viewers all night.
"There is going to be more interest," said Doug Seay, senior VP-director of national broadcast for Publicis & Hal Riney, New York, "But it will be dissipated across all the major news outlets."
Added Donna Speciale, senior VP-national broadcast for Grey Global Group's MediaCom, New York: "I don't think ratings are going to be much higher. Given the landscape vs. 1996, there are too many places for viewers to go."
A VISIBLE PRESENCE
Hoping to combat this, CBS' Mr. Nowacki said most advertisers have not only bought multiple units but also have TV billboards that start each news segment when election coverage returns from commercial breaks. "They are basically looking for a visible presence," he said.
For the broadcast networks, election coverage typically skews older, more affluent and male than other prime-time viewing. This draws in financial, automotive and corporate advertisers. CNN's Mr. Goodman said his network actually skews a bit younger on election night.
Because of the similarity of programming, analysts tend to view this night from an overall viewpoint. Nielsen Media Research calculates combined ratings for the networks on major election nights, and has included CNN in the data since 1996.
For that presidential election, the four networks and CNN posted a 25.8 rating/42 share, which was down significantly from the 1992 three-network average 39.8 rating/57 share. The 1992 election saw a close race between first-time presidential candidate Bill Clinton, Vice President George Bush and Ross Perot. That year was also the first time ratings increased over the previous presidential election night since Nielsen started keeping tabs in 1960.
Networks look to improve numbers from the miserable ratings in the 1996 presidential election. In 1996, ABC pulled in a Nielsen 7.4 rating, down 28% from 1992; NBC grabbed a 5.8, off 35%; and CBS posted a 4.9, a fall of 48%. CNN scored an 1.8, down 49%.
Pharmaceutical marketers, one key to making the night a success, "were loath to be in news coverage where every sound bite, in and around a period of time, from the Al Gore camp was a negative story," said one network advertising executive.
KEEP VIEWERS WATCHING
"We will not project winners from exit polls, but we'll project winners from key precincts," said an ABC News spokesman. This could keep people watching into the early morning hours.
"We have a lot of interest in late-night coverage [from advertisers] because people think the race will go late into the night," said CBS' Mr. Nowacki. "People have actually wanted to be in spots post-11:30 p.m." The network, he added, is sold out between 11:30 p.m. and 2 a.m. ET.
Contributing: Jean Halliday