Political Ads Shatter Records on Way to $2 Billion

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Political advertising spending has zoomed past projections and is headed toward $2 billion-plus this year, some 17.6% more than in the presidential-election year of 2004. And that number doesn't even include spot cable.

Evan Tracey, who tracks spending on national broadcast and cable TV stations for TNS Media Intelligence's Campaign Media Analysis Group, said spending surpassed his $1.7 billion projection the week before Halloween and continues to escalate, with at least $200 million to $300 million more expected by Election Day. Mr. Tracey had originally forecast spending to total between $1.4 billion and $1.6 billion this year.

Record spending in spot cable could ad another $250 million to the pot. National Cable Communications, the media-rep firm set up by Comcast, Cox and Time Warner, reports that its sales of political ads will hit $135 million this year, up from $70 million two years ago and quadruple the $30 million in 2002. Andrew Capone, senior VP-marketing and business development, said that figure actually underreports cable buys because some are placed directly with local systems. He estimated that as much as $250 million in political ads will appear this year on local cable.

Mr. Tracey said the surprisingly high outlay in a year without a presidential election reflects the number of state ballot initiatives and races for governor as well as the heated U.S. Senate and House races around the country.

With a power shift seen as realistic in both houses, both Democrats and Republicans have fought near-epic battles in key states and districts, with Democrats trying to gain control and Republicans defending their turf.

'uncharted territory'

Mr. Tracey said the increased spending also reflects changes in campaign-finance laws that allow bigger contributions. Added to this is the tightened availability of broadcast time, which has pushed up prices.

"We can't keep up with the ad prices," he said. "We have a higher multiplier to try to figure out what issue and party groups are getting charged [above normal ad rates] to buy at the end, but it's uncharted territory because of the intensity."

He said he heard of one Los Angeles TV station raising its spot rates $25,000 virtually overnight but was unable to confirm it.

Mr. Tracey also attributed some of the spending to more airtime for candidates, the decreasing cost of putting together a TV spot and candidates clamoring to use TV spots even in districts that haven't advertised before.

All the while, spending continues to mount, even on the national level. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said last week it has bought national cable TV time on CNN and other networks for a "significant" buy for an ad that questions the country's direction in Iraq.
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