NEW YORK -- Tuesday might spell relief for millions of campaign-weary voters. But the Big Three television networks will be sighing contentedly: A tight race and Ross Perot have combined to make this a runaway record year for paid political advertising.
What appeared 12 months ago to be a dud for election advertising has turned into a small gold mine for the three networks -- ABC, CBS and NBC -- and newcomer Fox Broadcasting Co., which has received its first political buys.
All told, by Tuesday, spending on TV advertising in all local and national races will reach $330 million -- $60 million nationally and an additional $270 million on local television advertising. That would be $100 million more than in 1988.
"I guess they're going to have to wheel the armored cars up to the networks' doors," said Doug Watts, a media consultant who heads Watts & Company Communications.
Estimates a year ago projected that only $230 million would be spent on television during the 1992 campaigns, the same amount spent four years ago, said Harold Simpson, vice president for research at the Television Bureau of Advertising bTC
Inc., a trade organization.
Back then, a bad economy, combined with George Bush's apparent lock on re-election, made the presidential race seem uninteresting, Mr. Simpson said. When few of the top Democrats announced late last year that they would run, he said, the bureau's projections seemed to be confirmed.
But the drop in Mr. Bush's approval rating, combined with Bill Clinton's strong performance, led the Democrats to spend more once they realized they had a chance to win.
Then, when Ross Perot re-entered the race, Mr. Simpson said, the money really started to pour into the networks' New York headquarters.
The Texas billionaire has already spent $35 million on television advertising and has said that his entire campaign, most of which has consisted of advertising spots, would cost $60 million -- more than the $55 million that Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton will each receive from the Federal Election Commission.
Among the high-profile TV advertising tactics used by Mr. Perot are his 30-minute spots that cost at least $350,000 and a blitz on ABC-TV's "Good Morning America" every day until Election Day.
Mr. Clinton and Mr. Bush are to buy half-hour spots only once: on election eve.
As of yesterday, the three candidates had spent a total of $40 million on national advertising. No figures exist for local advertising; they will be tabulated after the campaign ends.
But already, clear patterns have emerged in the buying strategies. For example, the networks report that Mr. Bush and Mr. Perot are favoring national advertising, reflecting a general weakness in the polls and, thus, their need to reach as many viewers as possible. Mr. Bush has spent $17.5 million and Mr. Perot $19.8 million on the Big Three networks.
Mr. Clinton, by contrast, has followed a less orthodox route in buying many local ads to target swing states. He has spent only $5.4 million on national advertising, including nearly $1.6 million on Fox Broadcasting, a newer network that caters to a younger audience.
For those looking for additional significance, Mr. Clinton's ad consultants have been buying part of that time on Fox's "America's Most Wanted."
Neither of the two other candidates has bought advertising on Fox.
Of the Big Three, ABC has been the favorite, receiving $23.5 million of the three candidates' $40 million worth of national buys. Although that network trails CBS in viewership, it reaches a younger audience -- the sort of viewers who do not watch news and are least likely to have heard the candidates' messages.
Curt Block, an NBC spokesman, said his network has been able to accommodate the additional political advertising without sacrificing existing ad contracts.
Even Mr. Perot's half-hour commercials, he said, have been aired without losing customers who had already bought time in that slot. Advertisers have been content to make way for Mr. Perot and the other politicians by taking a different time slot for their commercials.
Unless a party offers to buy an entire half-hour or hour slot, however, the networks are offering the best available slot, meaning they are generally not bumping other advertisers. Although younger viewers are preferred, the candidates want time on adult shows, said Stephen Battaglio, an ABC spokesman.