Banner Year for Political Spending

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Spot cable came of age this year as political campaigns, most notably the presidential efforts, spent millions of dollars on local spots, beginning in the primary season and peaking in the last eight to 10 weeks before the Nov. 4 general election.

“It was just unbelievable,” said Bresnan Communications regional vice president of sales Kelly Enright. “Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine we’d bring in the kind of revenue we got from the presidential campaigns. [President-elect Barack] Obama spent heavily with us and he focused a lot of time and money on Montana. That’s never happened here before.

“He went deep and stayed consistent throughout the election cycle and it really helped our year,” Enright said.

Enright didn’t disclose exact numbers, but said Bresnan’s revenue from political campaigns was three times what the company initially budgeted and was enough to make up for any falloff from the general ad market, enabling Bresnan to meet its annual overall budget this year.

Comcast Spotlight ran 5 million political ads during the course of the election this year, said director of political ad sales Dan Sinagoga. A large chunk of those ads came from the campaigns of Democrat Obama and his Republican rival, Sen. John McCain of Arizona. Comcast surpassed its political budget this year by 30%, he said.

For the first time, the presidential campaign really played an important role in that success. In 2004, Sinagoga noted, 1% of the money spent by the presidential candidates, President Bush and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), went to local spot cable. That number was a whopping 18% this year, he said.

“We positioned ourselves so we could compete,” Singagoa said. “The story we have been telling them for years finally resonated. Our business is built for political ad spending. Zoning is perfect for sending particular messages to smaller areas and specific homes, while our interconnects are able to reach wide areas effectively. The campaigns finally used our business to meet their needs.”

Cable operators really have Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean to thank for much of the revenue they received during the election. To be sure, battleground states benefited from the election as always, but Dean’s approach of contesting all 50 U.S. states meant that each one received attention — and advertising monies.

For instance, national campaign funds have rarely, if ever, spent time or money in Montana. This year, Obama’s campaign consistently bought advertising in the state starting in the primary season and running through the general election. It was that way in other markets as well.

Singagoa said Comcast’s Denver and Indianapolis territories — neither of which had been pivotal in prior elections — reached 200% of their proposed budgets this year as the presidential candidates flooded the market. Indiana and Colorado became fierce battleground states and it was a boon for Comcast.

Cox Communications experienced similar results in its markets.

Take Nevada. Cox operates the Las Vegas system and the state — particularly Las Vegas, where the bulk of the population lives — was hotly contested in 2008, both during the Democratic primary between Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), and later in the general election, said Cox Media national sales manager Brian Davis.  

That is quite different from years past, when Nevada was clearly a “fly-over” state that received little attention or ad dollars from the candidates’ campaigns.

Missouri was the only presidential battleground state for Mediacom Communications, said Steve Litwer, senior vice president of advertising sales at OnMedia, Mediacom Communications’ ad-sales unit. The Show Me State also had quite a few contentious state and local races. Still, the company raked in more political dollars than anticipated.

“OnMedia/Mediacom did almost 12% more between the ’04 and ’08 presidential years,” Litwer said.

In 2002, OnMedia garnered a total $1.4 million in political dollars. By 2004, that number rose to $4 million. In 2006, OnMedia brought in $4.4 million in political spending during the midterm election cycle. In 2008, that number grew to $4.5 million.

“We didn’t do anything different than in 2006,” Litwer said. “We have five very aggressive managers that were dedicated to developing that business, as they did back in 2006.”

Charter Communications also did well this year. Charter operates in several historic swing states and senior vice president of ad sales Jim Heneghan said the presidential campaigns, combined with several gubernatorial and congressional races, made this election cycle the best for political dollars in Charter’s history.

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