Rick Perry's $1 million buy on Fox News may have just been the beginning.
Political ad buyers have often viewed Fox News as the best place on cable to reach Republican primary voters -- that 's why Gov. Perry chose it to help counter a disastrous debate performance last week -- but a crowded Republican primary, higher ratings in the Obama era and the rise of Super PACs are poised to give Fox News an even bigger election-season boost than in recent cycles.
"Fox News is the watercooler of the Republican primary electorate," said Brad Todd, a longtime Republican media strategist with On Message Inc. "[Voters] have other news sources, but Fox News is at the center of any Venn diagram of the Republican primary. It's the first pick of any Republican primary campaign."
Mr. Perry's big buy seems to have already put Fox News ahead of its pace in the last presidential election season. National ad buys by presidential candidates or party committees on Fox News were relatively small during the 2008 campaign cycle, amounting to less than $1 million according to Kantar Media, and local broadcast affiliates will remain the top spending avenue for most political campaigns. But Fox News has surged in popularity during the Obama presidency, and executives say political ad spending is surging, too.
"It's grown pretty substantially, but that 's largely because of the issue ads," said Paul Rittenberg, exec VP-advertising sales for both Fox News and Fox Business Network. "Any [groups] looking to spend nationally, clearly we'll get a good share of the money."
Like CNN, MSNBC and others, Fox News is set to benefit from the proliferation of third-party political and issue advocacy groups including Super PACs and 527s, which can afford national airtime and are gearing up to be major players in 2012 politics. Last year's Supreme Court ruling in the so-called Citizens United case opened the floodgates by allowing mostly unfettered corporate and union spending in elections so long as it was not coordinated with candidates -- giving rise to the Super PACs, which can accept unlimited corporate donations.
Particularly as the general election campaign gets under way, Super PACs will have to decide whether to focus their money on more opinionated media or on bids to reach the center, but Fox News is certain to collect a good portion of their spend. Total viewers for Fox News regularly top the combined audiences of CNN and MSNBC.
"We're going to see these big buys come in from the Super PACs," said John Brabender, a longtime GOP media buyer who works for Rick Santorum's underfunded campaign and advised Rudy Giuliani in 2008. "At a time when most businesses are worried about demand, Fox won't be."
Local broadcasters may not be enjoying much spending yet, but local cable systems and satellite distributors are taking money to put candidates' ads on Fox News in early-voting states such as Iowa and New Hampshire. That money that doesn't go to Fox News, but it boosts the channel's value to cable and satellite companies that pay to carry it. "You're worried about waste factors, just wanting to reach people who will definitely show up, and right now there's nowhere better than Fox for this," Mr. Brabender said.
Sensitive to any perception of Fox News as a right-leaning enterprise, executives said its airtime is a good investment for any candidate to reach a large, politically interested audience.
"It's not just Republicans," Mr. Rittenberg said. "It's a good investment for everybody who wants to reach the largest possible audience. These [advertisers] tend to come to Fox News first because of the size of the audience and their interest in politics."
For now, Republican primary politics are eating up the oxygen -- and the money -- and there's no disagreement among buyers that Fox News is the place to go. And newly formed Super PACs supporting specific primary candidates such as Mr. Perry and Mitt Romney will only up the ante for national advertising.
"In a Republican primary, Fox delivers the Republican-base, high-turnout primary voter," said Will Feltus of National Media Research, Planning and Placement, which focuses on Republican campaigns. "It also delivers nationally the opinion leaders on the Republican side who pay a lot of attention to politics."