It was a nice surprise for Gary Sousa, exec VP-ad sales for News Corp.'s Fox Cable Sports properties, to discover a crop of ads for the Bush-Cheney '04 campaign among the usual beer and car marketers backing stock car racing this spring on its FX and Speed Channel.
His wasn't the only cable operation adding new streams of political ads, as local politics has also discovered cable this year, especially in some GOP primary races where local availabilities of Fox News Channel have been hard to find.
Then again, the surprise could be that cable is just being discovered by political strategists.
In the 2000 presidential election, George Bush and Al Gore did little if any national broadcast advertising, and there was no national cable advertising from the presidential candidates, though cable did draw some political action committee advocacy ads.
This time, cable has played a significant role from the beginning. The Bush campaign not only bought an overlay on national cable when it began its targeted advertising in early March in 17 states, but it spread money beyond opinion leader news channels to include spots on Speed Channel, TLC, Golf Channel and ESPN, among others.
The Kerry campaign responded by buying into cable, mostly on the major news channels.This year, the amount of political advertising continues to rise-TNS Media Intelligence's Campaign Media Analysis Group estimates political ads in measured media will top $1.3 billion in '04. The estimate was made before a Federal Election Commission decision that could increase spending.
CABLE `JUMPS OUT'
Cable could get as much as 10% to 15% of the bounty, says Evan Tracey, the analysis group's chief operating officer. "Cable is the first thing that jumps out this year" in changes, says Mr. Tracey. He especially notes the presidential campaigns.
"There are a couple of benefits in getting a national audience. There is a theory [that] had George Bush's campaign spent more on national cable, he could have won the popular vote four years ago. It also helps fund-raising," says Mr. Tracey. "It also gives you the ability to be everywhere and target into a demographic and at a price not as expensive as prime-time programming."
"For a lot of reasons that we have researched, [cable works]. ... the efficiencies, the audience and all that kind of stuff," says Matthew Dowd, senior strategist for the Bush campaign. "It's not like sometimes people think of Nascar dads. There is also an audience watching The Learning Channel that we are advertising on. [Cable is] a very efficient way to reach them."
Tad Devine, a strategist at the Kerry campaign's ad agency, Shrum, Devine & Donilon, Washington, says national cable "does a tremendous amount of good for us. It helps us for not just winning the key states, but to achieve success" in recognition and fund-raising.
STARTING MUCH EARLIER
Also helping cable is that both campaigns are airing ads far earlier than four years ago. Both campaigns can also raise and spend money nationally (four years ago, Vice President Gore accepted public financing, restricting his ability to raise money). And both are as concerned about turnout as about winning votes.
Cable offers more opportunities to target specific niches of voters, say Mr. Tracey and Kerry and Bush campaign managers.
While spending on local cable availabilities is harder to track with detailed data, campaign insiders say extensive buying in the GOP primaries was seen this year. In Pennsylvania, Sen. Arlen Specter faced a conservative challenger, and in Illinois, there was a Republican battle for the nomination to replace departing Sen. Peter Fitzgerald.
Chuck Cowdrey, VP-political strategy for National Cable Communications, the company formed by Comcast Corp., Time Warner and Cox Communications to streamline local cable ad buying, says cable got as much as 22% of the money for the Pennsylvania Senate primary and in Chicago between 10% to 12%.
Mr. Cowdrey points to a falloff in local broadcast news ratings and increased popularity of cable news as another factor fueling this year's increased campaign spending on local cable channels.
Hank Oster, Comcast Spotlight's senior VP-managing director of sales, believes spot cable spending levels ought to be higher, based on the medium's reach.
"Comcast, as well as the rest of the cable industry, has delivered the standards and buying criteria that the political agencies require ... to date, I have not seen the kind of activity from the political agencies that spot cable warrants, given its effectiveness and efficiency," he says.
PUSHING FOR SPOT CABLE
"We believe that the recent media buys for the presidential campaigns have, for the most part, left out one key component: spot cable. Buying national cable is a good plan. Buying local broadcast is predictable, but it's only local cable that can fill the targetability gap and waste left by broadcast and network cable underdelivery in these local markets," says Mr. Oster.
Several cable networks admit some surprise about the influx of campaign money into national cable advertising.
"I can't say we were expecting it, but I'm not surprised because of who we reach," says Gene Pizzolato, senior VP-sales and marketing for Comcast's Golf Channel. "Our audience is filled with a number of influencers, and we had looked at the possibility of pursuing" political ads.
Greg D'Alba, chief operating officer-sales and marketing at CNN, part of Time Warner's Turner Broadcasting System, says that while his network has received political advocacy ads in the past, the ads from the campaigns themselves were a surprise.
"It's not something that we had planned for, but I had a good feeling," which he attributes to the extensive campaign coverage on the network and the growth in the news ad market this year.
Roger Domal, VP-national sales director for Fox News Channel, which launched in 1996, says the network received just a few political ads four years ago, but expected more this time.
"It was not planned, but it was not unexpected. We heard some undercurrent. The good news is it's all on the upside," he says, while cautioning that the campaigns from the two presidential contenders are unlikely to represent more than 2% to 3% of its total advertising.
David Leavy, a spokesman for Discovery Communications, whose TLC was included in the Bush buy, declines to make a prediction about future campaign buys, noting the candidates' needs may change. "It testifies to the power of cable," he says, "but political advertising isn't in our top 10 ad categories."