TV Stations Prepare for $1 Billion Presidential Ad Onslaught

Dozens of Candidates Create Most Wide-Open Race Since TV Era Began

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A correction has been made in this story. See below for details.

WASHINGTON ( -- The 2008 presidential race is shaping up to be an embarrassment of riches -- and possibly headaches -- for TV markets across the country.
Barack Obama is just one in a field of dozens whose campaigns are expected to spend a combined $1 billion to get their messages on TV.
Barack Obama is just one in a field of dozens whose campaigns are expected to spend a combined $1 billion to get their messages on TV. Credit: Alex Wong
Amid mouthwatering visions of more than $1 billion in spending on the most wide-open race since the TV era began, stations will have to devise some way to handle the rush when close to two dozen candidates come knocking at the same time. And some local TV stations will look to the web for help.

Early start
Even though it's only January 2007 and basics such as the once-set-in-stone primary and caucus schedule have yet to be resolved, Evan Tracey, chief operating officer of TNSMI/Campaign Media, said advertising could well start in force this summer, with candidates trying to introduce or establish themselves early.

Despite the early start, time is still an issue. "This kind of wide-open race is unprecedented, and there is only so much [ad] time," said Jim Boyer, president and general manager of Des Moines station WHO-TV, an NBC affiliate.

The stations face a potentially big problem. With a broad field of candidates, many are likely to want their ads on the 11 p.m. newscast on a particular night. And they'll be jostling for slots with political action committees, independent groups and, oh yeah, regular advertisers.

'A lot more candidate ads'
"My concern is if we get 20 of them at the same time," said Jeff Bartlett, general manager of WMUR-TV, an ABC affiliate in Manchester, N.H. "It's possible that we could end up with a lot more candidate ads but a lot fewer issue ads" as candidates' ad buys push political action committee ads into lesser time slots or "down the food chain."

Still, many station managers aren't sure how extensive ad-allocation problems will be, but they have made clear that while they intend to treat political advertisers fairly, they also won't be giving up regular advertisers.

The financial stakes are obviously high. Mr. Tracey estimated spending on the presidential race alone over the next two years could reach $1 billion. In 2004, $659 million was spent, with $314 million spent before the party conventions.

Mr. Tracey predicts that any ad-allocation problems at local broadcast affiliates will be a boon for cable providers, cable channels and newspapers.

But the broadcasters are doing more than wringing their hands.

Stations to boost websites
Many managers said stations will boost their websites, using them to deliver additional news coverage and more ad availability.

Mr. Bartlett's WMUR-TV is already planning to extend its half-hour broadcast chat with the candidates by adding a half-hour segment on the web touted as the "conversation continues." The website will also offer advertising possibilities and additional news content. "The web will be a big help for us and for viewers," he said.

In South Carolina, Mel Stebbins, general manager of WIS-TV, Columbia's NBC affiliate, said he anticipates being required to limit the number of ads any one candidate can buy in a program to allow everyone equal access.

'Going to be traffic managers'
"We are going to be traffic managers. You have to be careful. Whatever we do, we will have to justify it to every damn campaign there is."

But in the same state, Susan Teagle, general manager of WCIV-TV, Charleston's ABC affiliate, said Democrats' decision to move the state's caucus forward creates an unprecedented situation, and she still isn't sure if the station will be inundated or candidates will choose to spread their attention.

"I can't imagine South Carolina will get out of control," she said.

In Iowa, Mr. Boyer said it remains to be seen whether many of the candidates will have much money to spend, noting that two years ago, despite a large number of candidates, only a handful of Democrats actually spent significantly.

Early involvement unprecedented
In Reno, Nev., Lawson Fox, general manager of KTVN-TV, the CBS affiliate, said the early involvement in the presidential races is unprecedented, but he isn't too worried about allocating ads. (It also helps that he doesn't have a Republican caucus to worry about.)

"It's the kind of problem I like to have," he said.

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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the network affiliation for WHO-TV in Des Moines. The station is an NBC affiliate, not a CBS station.
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