Political ads on cable networks skyrocketed 800% in the first six months of 2008 compared the same period in 2004, said Tim Kay, NCC director of political strategy.
During the first 6 months of 2004, over 60,599 spots ran on cable across approximately 15 networks. In comparison, 464,578 spots ran on 35 networks in 2008, Kay said. Of all the political ads that have run this primary season, 75% ran on cable; 25% were on broadcast.
Case in point: In the period leading up to the New Hampshire presidential primary, from Jan. 1 to Jan. 8, Sen. Hillary Clinton ran 83% of her presidential campaign ads on cable, and she aired 1% on broadcast. Sen. Barack Obama aired 87% of his ads on cable and 13% on broadcast.
Kay said cable worked well in the Granite State because two of the three broadcast stations serving New Hampshire are actually out of state and that 82% of viewers of those stations aren’t New Hampshire residents and couldn’t vote. The trend continued in other states, Kay said. For instance in Iowa, Clinton ran 77% of her ads on cable and Obama ran 81% of his ads on cable prior to that state’s caucus elections.
The trend took a right turn Ohio when Clinton ran the majority of her ads on broadcast (63%). Obama ran more ads on broadcast as well (43%) but the bulk of his ads (57%) continued to run on cable, according to NCC’s study.
“Campaigns recognized the shift in viewing and they needed parity between broadcast and cable to reach hard to find likely voters,” the NCC study concluded.
But in Pennsylvania, the candidates returned to cable big time. Clinton’s campaign ran 62% of her ads on cable. Obama also increased his usage of cable, running 78% off his total spots aired on cable.
By the end of primary season, Clinton’s media buys in Montana were spotty while Obama’s remained steady and strong, said Kelly Enright, regional vice president of advertising services for Bresnan Communications. Neither candidate spent much money in Wyoming, but Obama’s campaign regularly bought ad time from Bresnan until after the primary was over June 3.
“We don’t budget a lot of money for political ads and our sales weren’t as high as we would have liked,” Enright said. “But the addition of the political dollars we collected clearly helped us make our June numbers. In Montana, it looked like Obama never gave up. He consistently spent money advertising in the state throughout the process. Clinton focused on what was in front of her at the time. Her spending was more spotty. Obama advertised regularly for months; Clinton would advertise in a market for a week and then be gone.”
Kay attributes the overall increase in political ads on cable to several factors. First, there are simply more people watching cable than broadcast, he said. Local People Meters from Nielsen Media Research also provided media buyers with a more accurate measurement tool for determining demographics and showed more people are watching cable than broadcast, Kay said.
Cable’s ability to target voters geographically with a DMA using niche markets has also become popular with political media buyers. Moreover, a separate Nielsen Media Research study found that by reducing the local news schedule on a broadcast buy and replacing it with targeted spot cable candidates increase their reach and the number of voters who see their ads. Finally, cable operators have worked hard to make it easier for political media buyers to use cable, Kay said.
“The cable indsustry has stepped up to the plate,” Kay said. “They have opened up their inventory for political ads and are getting ads into rotation faster. We’re just processing the business better and [political media buyers] are recognizing that. It’s just easier for them to use cable this year than in years past.”
Kay expects the trends in the primary season to continue through the general election this fall. In addition to the presidential election, there are state and congressional elections being held around the country. Enright is also counting on more political dollars this fall in his markets. Wyoming and Montana both have significant state and federal elections occurring he expects to garner the favor of political media buyers for those campaigns.
“It’s not heating up yet,” Enright said. “But we hope to see a significant amount of political advertising later t his summer into fall. The local elections in out markets are important and we’re counting on the dollars to follow but it’s a little early to call how much they will bring in. We’re holding our own this year with local ad sales, but we’re hoping political dollars will put us over the top.”
If candidates continue the trends they used during the primary season, that hope may just become reality for cable operators.