As in most previous election years, there's a three-way dance among politicians pressing to air their low-price commercials; TV stations trying to get the most they can for their inventory, whether from politicians or package-goods marketers; and major advertisers looking to get a break in the spot market.
The dance traditionally begins 45 days before any primary, and reaches its most frenzied state in the 60 days before the November general election. Those are the periods, established by the Federal Communications Commission, when stations must sell airtime to politicians at their lowest unit rate. That rate is based on what commercial advertisers are paying.
Some stations have been putting out the word that third-quarter spot time isn't available to major marketers whose upfront buys have earned them a relatively low unit rate, a representative of a major rep firm said.
The representative said stations, especially in markets expecting heavy political ad volume, instead want to sell available spot time to marketers that will pay higher rates than preferred customers like Procter & Gamble Co. and Kraft General Foods.
"If they're selling time in the third quarter to a Procter & Gamble for $100 for a spot, then the stations are going to have to sell it to politicians for the same lowest unit charge," the representative said. So "a P&G, which should get a low rate because of its upfront buys, either will pay a higher rate than it should, [or] will get pushed off the station it wants to be on."
Tom Edmonds, a Washington political consultant who has also bought time for non-political clients, said the practice is nearly as old as politics itself.
"This happens all the time-stations keep customer rates from dipping too low in the third quarter so they will be able to charge more in the fourth quarter," said Mr. Edmonds, president of the American Association of Political Consultants.
Milton Gross, chief of the FCC's political branch, said he was not familiar with attempts by TV stations to affect political ad rates by turning down customers. "If there was any indication that stations were changing rates temporarily ... we'd investigate and would view such a violation most seriously," he said.
At the National Association of Broadcasters, Director of Media Relations Doug Wills blamed the federal requirements. "Broadcasters would love to sell airtime to their best clients ... who can be charged premium rates ... but if they don't keep time for politicians, they will risk a lawsuit and a fine," Mr. Wills said.
Joe Mandese contributed to this story.