Happy days here for local TV

The Baltimore Sun

Traditionally, presidential candidates have spent little or no money on local TV advertising in advance of the Maryland primaries. By the time the day of voting arrived, there was usually little drama left.

But in this year that is unlike any other in the history of national politics, the money is starting to flow to area TV stations - and in ways that it has never flowed before.

Democratic candidate Barack Obama reserved advertising time in Baltimore before Super Tuesday, while representatives for Hillary Clinton started making her buys over the weekend. An Obama ad ran Sunday during the Super Bowl on WBFF (Channel 45). The Clinton ads will start today on three local affiliates and the CBS-owned WJZ (Channel 13).

In the past, candidates placed the bulk of their ads during newscasts or news-based magazine shows where the older voting demographic was found. News programs were also deemed to be more appropriate because they were thought of as more serious than sitcoms, reality shows and TV dramas.

But the Obama campaign is breaking the mold in Baltimore with ads that will be seen during such prime-time youth-oriented shows as American Idol and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (a spinoff of the movies about a teen and his mom on the run from cyborg assassins).

"Obama is buying a variety of programs here - including shows that skew younger," says Bill Fanshawe, general manager of WBFF, a station with a large youth audience by nature of its affiliate relationship with Fox Broadcasting. "He's doing it differently than any other candidate has done it in the past."

In an effort to compete, Clinton is also placing some of her ads during prime-time entertainment programs rather than just during newscasts on stations like WBFF - her buys are expected to include the medical drama, House.

Overall, station managers describe the presidential ad dollars that have been spent so far as "modest" - and estimate that the market's total take from the contenders for the White House probably will not top $500,000.

But they are all smiles about that pot of presidential money because it is arriving along with a windfall from a hotly contested congressional race in the 1st District.

Fueled by national PAC (political action committee) money, the local TV total from that three-candidate battle is expected to be more than $1 million before the Republican candidate for the U.S. House seat is determined.

"I'd still call the presidential buys modest, but it's better than the past, which was zero," says Jay Newman, vice president and general manager of WJZ .

"And you don't know how it will go. The presidential candidates could wind up buying a ton [of time] in the next few days"

So far, no Republican candidates have bought airtime in Baltimore, but Jordan Wertlieb, president and general manager of WBAL-TV, thinks that they will - and that could up the ante beyond $500,000.

"We expect all the candidates will want to make a mark before Feb. 12," says Wertlieb, whose NBC affiliate should reap the most money from political advertisements placed during news shows because it has Baltimore's highest-rated newscasts.

Dave Speicher, general sales manager for WBOC-TV (Channel 16) and Fox 21 in Salisbury, is another Maryland television executive feeling good about the presidential political season.

Though his market is much smaller than Baltimore's, Speicher's two stations, which broadcast to parts of Maryland and Delaware and dominate their market, are getting a double bump. They received primary dollars for Delaware, because Delaware was part of Super Tuesday - and now comes Maryland.

"They're buying over multiple day parts," he says of Clinton and Obama's current ad purchases.

"Barack Obama has a $25,000 contract with WBOC and a $4,000 contract on Fox 21. Hillary Clinton has a $12,000 contract with WBOC and $1,000 with Fox 21," Speicher said.

Beyond television, Maryland radio stations are also reaping unexpected profits this political season.

"We expected to get a reasonable amount of political ad dollars in January and February," says Jeff Beauchamp, vice president and station manager of Baltimore's WBAL-AM, a news-talk station.

"But so far, it has been greater than we thought. This is definitely an up year for us."

While the station is getting a respectable piece of the presidential pie, Beauchamp says it is the 1st District race - with two Republican candidates challenging incumbent Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest - that is driving WBAL's ad revenue higher.

"We're getting significant advertising in that race from each of the three candidates and the PACs supporting them - it's exceeded all our expectations."

So far, no buys have been made at Baltimore's top-rated hip-hop and R&B; station, WERQ-FM, but general manager Howard Mazer expects that will happen in coming days.

"We've had many inquiries, but as of today, we haven't had any purchases," Mazer said yesterday.

"What usually happens is that they get the [advertising] rates, see what they are and start putting it together. It usually happens at the last minute."

Such optimism is well-founded, says University of Maryland media economist Douglas Gomery.

"For once, Maryland still matters, so all the major broadcasters will make money in the coming days," he says.

"I'll bet the executives you talked to are happy as clams. But, why not? This is one of the most important and exciting elections that I can think of going all the way back to 1960 and [John F. Kennedy].

"People are paying attention," Gomery said, "and the candidates are willing to pay to try and reach them."

david.zurawik@baltsun.com joe.burris@baltsun.com

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