Politicians and outside political groups made their own contributions to the economic recovery – by purchasing billions of dollars in air time on local television in the run-up to the midterm elections. On Friday, the Nielson Company released numbers which showed that October was the busiest month in history for political ads on TV.
Television stations hit American viewers with 1.48 million political ads, said Nielson, up from the 1.41 million political ads aired in October 2008.
In Ohio, where Democrats and Republicans went toe-to-toe in a tough election environment this year, viewers faced a deluge of political ads. Cleveland saw the brunt of it, with the state capital, Columbus, coming in a close second. Nielson found about 1-of-every-4 paid TV ads aired on local stations in October in both cities was from a political candidate or an outside political group.
Politicians and third party groups spent an estimated $564 million in Ohio, according to the non-partisan Campaign Finance Institute in this election, driving up the demand, and the prices, for local TV advertising.
Tony D'Angelo, director of sales at ABC 6 and Fox 28 in Columbus, Ohio, said politicians and outside groups are just like any other business trying to sell a product.
"They're Christmas is Election Day," said D'Angelo, "and someone either buys their toy or they don't."
Borrell Associates, a research firm, predicted TV ad spending nationwide will reach $4.2 billion in this election. And Kantar, a media consultant group, said spending will top $3 billion.
Peter Gusmano, a managing partner with media company GroupM Matrix, negotiates clients' advertising rates in local stations across the country. He said coveted ad slots, like those in the 11pm newscast, were nearly impossible to buy because political ads were taking up three-quarters of the inventory. Moreover, Gusmano said, they gobbled up air time for longer as much as two months before the election.
"Basically we're seeing now with political ads, (campaigns) are digging into their own pockets and are willing to saturate the airways well before we're inside the political window," he said.
Gusmano said political ads drove prices up to double and even triple their regular rates, higher than he had ever seen in previous elections.
Kathy Doyle, director of local broadcast for Universal McCann, which also places local ads across the country, said the high prices were enough to scare some people away.
"We had some clients that avoided local TV until after the election."
ABC affiliate KOMO News, in Seattle, Washington, was on the receiving end of the cash flow. The city was home to one of the most competitive senate races of the election cycle, and rounded out the top five cities in Nielson's list.
"The highest estimate that we had put on the market was $23 million," said Janene Drafs, KOMO's general sales manager, referring to the midterm elections, "and it should end up around $46 million."
Advertising managers at local TV stations acknowledge a downside to the increased revenue, pointing out that negative political ads hurt viewership. People don't want to watch TV because it's just one political ad after another, they said.
Peter Bristol, a Seattle-based designer, didn't alter his regular TV schedule, but he didn't appreciate the surge of negative ads.
"The ads were terrible, there was a lot of slanderous stuff going on," said Bristol.
The ads weren't bad enough to make him miss a new episode of "The Office," but he didn't have to listen to the political jabber, either. Instead of turning it off, he just tuned it out … by hitting the mute button.