March 28, 2012 7:37 pm

Attack ads excite TV station owners

For those people in Madison, Wisconsin, who had tuned into NBC’s Today Show, Wednesday morning’s advertisement was a familiar sight.

The ad, one of many bombarding the state as it prepares for its Republican primary vote on April 3, featured a fierce attack on Rick Santorum, the closest rival to Mitt Romney in the battle to capture the White House in November. The slot was not paid for or endorsed by Mr Romney but by an outside spending group, or super-political action committee, called Restore our Future, run by Mr Romney’s supporters.

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The message was harsh. It attacked Mr Santorum for a gaffe in which he said he did not “care what the unemployment rate’s going to be”. It hit him for raising the national debt ceiling as a US senator, and “billions of dollars in wasteful spending”.

Finally, in a line tailored towards Wisconsin Republicans who have been battling to support efforts by Scott Walker, their governor to curb union rights, the narrator said Mr Santorum had opposed national legislation to allow workers to opt out of paying union dues.

How such messages resonate with voters remains to be seen but there are certainly plenty of them – and they are exciting owners of local television stations. Les Moonves, chief executive of CBS, said in February he expected “an extraordinary year in politics”.

CBS stations made $150m from political advertising in the 2008 presidential campaign but this year could get close to $180m, he said, because of the “great divide” in national politics. The rise of “super-PACs” set up after two 2010 court decisions abolished limits on campaign donations has “changed the amount of money in the marketplace,” Mr Moonves said.

The 2010 rulings “should mean this will be a record presidential [election] year,” echoed David Lougee, president of Gannett’s broadcasting division, at an investor meeting.

But, despite the intense campaign so far, analysts warn that the final payday for broadcasters may not be very different from 2008. Kenneth Goldstein, president of the campaign media analysis group at Kantar Media, said he has lowered his forecasts for political spending this year.

He expects spending from candidates’ campaigns and outside groups to reach $3bn, compared to $2.4bn-$2.5bn in 2008, rather than the $3.5bn-$4bn that some had forecast.

Just one party is holding a primary contest this year, ads have been booked late, and no other Republican candidate has come close to matching the spending by Mr Romney’s campaign and his supporting outside groups, Mr Goldstein said. “It has been extraordinarily, phenomenally one-sided,” he added. “Romney and Restore Our Future have almost had complete air superiority.”

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ProPublica, a not-for-profit news group, estimated this week that Restore Our Future had spent nearly $37m on advertising so far, more than twice as much as any other super-Pac. Restore our Future has poured $2m into the Wisconsin race in recent days, heavily outspending the Red White and Blue Fund, a super-Pac backing Mr Santorum, which has put in $300,000.

The protracted Republican battle is also delaying the start of a more lucrative two-party fight, Mr Goldstein said. Primaries account for a fraction of all campaign spending – “the sorbet before the main course” – he said, and the longer they last, the less advertising stations will have to sell for the general election battle.

Campaigns are devoting some resources that might have been spent on television to online media, Mr Goldstein said but that has yet to make a dent. “I always get asked, ‘Is this going to be the year of something other than local TV?’ At some point I’ll be wrong, but this year two-thirds of the money’s going to be spent on local spot [short-notice] TV.”

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