The Biggest Night in $1.3B Presidential Ad Race? Eagles vs. Saints on ESPN

Mark Your Calendars for These Key Moments on the March to Nov. 6

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Of the $1.1 billion in broadcast TV ad spending and $200 million in local cable ad spend that Kantar Media's CMAG now expects to see in the presidential race, we're nowhere close to the halfway mark. This $1.3 billion estimate assumes no further expansion of the battlefield, currently consisting of eight states plus lower-level bipartisan skirmishing in Pennsylvania and Republican forays into Michigan and Wisconsin. The estimate will rise if any of these three states become as competitive as the Great Eight , or shrink if any of the 11 drop off the list.

If the 2012 air war has lacked major milestones, big-event advertising and government oversight until now, you'll see all of the above as we transition to late summer and the all-important fall. Every "watch list" item previewed below bears the stamp of the unprecedented nature of this air war: more money flowing from more deep-pocketed advertisers into fewer markets, resulting in prohibitively priced inventory.

If you're a retailer or bank that relies on local spot advertising, your agency presumably has prepped for the months ahead, but even the most experienced agencies may not have anticipated six months ago that $1.3 billion in presidential advertising alone would be squeezed into -- at this writing -- just 67 DMAs.

That crack in the planet you just heard was the sound of 200 TV stations posting their political ad sales on the Federal Communications Commission's website for anyone to see -- including CMOs and agencies for non-political advertisers.

As of Aug. 2, the FCC is requiring ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC stations in the top 50 markets to post ad buys online. Panicking over the idea of clients and competitors seeing their precise pricing, broadcasters' Washington allies tried erecting legal and political roadblocks, including raking the FCC chairman over the coals in congressional hearings. Those efforts having failed, all that stands between stations and even more widespread disclosure of political ad rates in 2014 are a pair of FCC and Government Accountability Office studies on the rule's economic impact next year.

The FCC won't rest easy, either, until its website successfully withstands incessant uploading by busy stations.

In an air war that is almost entirely focused on economic issues, the release of any new economic data, such as the July jobs report, becomes potential ammo for ads.

The air war doesn't seem to have entered detente during the Olympics. Of the 18 presidential ad occurrences during NBC network coverage through Aug. 1, only one has been positive so far: the Barack Obama ad that aired during the opening ceremonies. Obama's other eight occurrences and the Republican National Committee's nine were all negative. A positive ad and some contrasting (read: particularly well-done negative) ads promoting Mitt Romney's oversight of the 2002 Olympics may continue to air on local spot as a lingering vestige of Olympics goodwill.

In the "old" days, say 2004, when the conventions were held in July and August, the start of the Republican confab would mean some ratcheting down of Democratic TV advertising and vice-versa. But with the 2012 conventions taking place within 71 days of Election Day, all advertisers will keep at full throttle.

From an advertising standpoint, the most significant moment of either convention will be Romney's acceptance of the Republican nomination on Aug. 30. Once that happens, he can start writing checks off his general election account, meaning that his ad budget will increase overnight by a few hundred million dollars. Think about it this way: as of Aug. 1, Romney's spots accounted for just 37% of all GOP spots on the air; Obama's accounted for 89% of the Democratic spot count. That ratio will certainly change on Aug. 31.

Romney's exponentially larger ad budget will in fact be one of the three most significant events of the fall air war, but it's just the precursor to the other two: the start of regular season football and the lowest unit rate.

September 5 brings the NFL Kickoff: the Dallas Cowboys vs. the New York Giants at the Meadowlands. The game was bumped up a night to avoid conflicting with the President's Thursday primetime acceptance speech; in 2008, the League's conflict with Sen. John McCain's nomination speech cost the Kickoff viewers.

Although appealing to advertisers in and of itself, the Kickoff is precisely that : the start of presidential advertisers' blitz of major sporting events. Football Night in America offers the greatest live audience in 2012 advertising, second only to the Olympics. What it doesn't offer in demographics, it makes up in increasing proximity to Election Day. Assuming a close race all the way through, there will be no hotter ad slot this fall than during the Monday Night matchup between Philadelphia at New Orleans on Nov. 5.

This cycle, the love affair with live sports programming, will be more intense than ever as advertisers, driven by skyrocketing prices for local spot inventory, go long on network and three yards and a cloud of dust on local cable. Adding to the unprecedented nature of Fall 2012 is ESPN's decision to increase the amount of local cable ad time it makes available to political advertisers, allowing campaigns to target particular markets during pro and college games. NCC Media, a client of Kantar Media's CMAG and the exclusive provider of this inventory, says that in certain key markets, their Eagles-Saints slots are already spoken for.

The third shake-up of the fall occurs on Sept. 7 when the lowest unit rate kicks in, 60 days out from Election Day. Overnight, the ad rates paid by Obama, Romney and other 2012 candidates will shrink considerably in comparison to what group advertisers pay (as well as many non-political advertisers, which is why stations are so concerned by the FCC's new online disclosure requirement).

We'll also see the first jobs report to be released post-Labor Day, to which voters who tuned out politics for the summer may pay close attention.

TV news executives have been unable to halt the increasing use of their footage and anchors in campaign ads. There's no reason to think the campaigns won't "borrow" clips from the three presidential debates slated for October if that usage will give them some sort of advantage. Past campaigns have negotiated mutual disarmament pacts to not use fall debate footage in ads, but even if the Obama and Romney camps pinky-swear to do the same (which seems unlikely given recent history), nothing can stop outside groups from doing it.

The World Series isn't football, and viewership does depend somewhat on the line-up, but the Series and the preceding division and league championships nevertheless draw big live audiences of a key demographic. If the Series winds up being Yankees-Dodgers or includes a swing-state team like the Cincinnati Reds, so much the better: All those car, beverage and snack food ads will set off a rare presidential campaign ad quite nicely.

Advertisers will have five days to make hay of the October jobs report.

Some stations used to refuse to sell political advertising on Election Day, believing it was tacky.

Suffice it to say that 's largely no longer the case.

Elizabeth Wilner is VP of Kantar Media's CMAG, which tracks and analyzes broadcast TV advertising content, placement and spend.
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