Political push: Calif. recall brings TV blitz, bounces regular advertisers

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Arnold Schwarzenegger's chances are debatable, but one outcome of California's gubernatorial recall race is clear: Local broadcasters will reap a windfall of up to $100 million in political ad spending.

But the state's TV market is so tight that back-to-school ads and other schedules could be terminated to make way for the political spots.

Pundits predict the most intense political ad campaign ever. Certainly it will be one of the most combative, and not just between candidates. The recall of California Gov. Gray Davis will be decided Oct. 7 and, according to some estimates, will benefit local broadcasters to the tune of $50 million to $100 million. Regular advertisers could be bounced to make room for the politicians, a shift that could cause serious problems for some marketers.

"The market right now in California is tight-to-sold-out," said Kathy Crawford, president of local broadcast at WPP Group's MindShare. "Even cable is tight. Radio is negotiable. That means anybody who is on the air between now through Oct. 7 is subject to pre-emption. It's a race."

key windows

While pre-empted advertisers are always rescheduled, often those make goods are in less-desirable time slots. And advertisers with time-sensitive marketing plans could miss key windows.

"Some of these advertisers may be specifically on the air now through October," Ms. Crawford said. "There's no chance of making money back in these cases. These could be back-to-school ads from retailers who must be on the air during this time. So this is not just a great story about new political money in the marketplace."

Local TV stations managers and media buyers scrambled last week to develop plans to handle the expected influx of media buys, with almost no precedent, said one veteran political ad buyer. The first ads in the race could be on the air this week.

unprepared

"The TV stations are totally unprepared for an election, let alone one Oct. 7," said the buyer. "Normally there are only two candidates, except in the primary when there may be one or two more. Here, there will be a campaign against recall, a campaign for recall and then five to seven candidates. There will be a dearth of inventory."

Candidates also want prime slots, including morning, news and prime time. "Stations will accommodate their regular advertisers as much as they can, but they have to make inventory available" to all candidates, said Ms. Crawford.

The short time before the campaign gives little time for candidates to raise funds in time to get ads on the air, but at least half a dozen could tap personal wealth. In addition to Mr. Schwarzenegger-who has already benefited from free national media exposure, including by unveiling his candidacy on NBC's "Tonight Show"-wannabes include columnist Arianna Huffington; Democratic state Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi; Hustler Publisher Larry Flynt; and possibly the GOP loser from last year's gubernatorial race, Bill Simon. The governor is expected to run a campaign against the recall, while another candidate, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, will likely draw on Hispanic support to raise funds.

"If it is really a hot race between Arnold and Gray Davis," said Ms. Crawford, "and the polls say they are really neck and neck, then the candidates will spend a lot of money. This is a week by week media buy, and everyone in the agency business is talking about it."

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