Political Looks Down for the Count

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Even as Florida recounted its presidential-election ballots, many cable executives across the U.S. earlier this month were still tallying their own final ad-sales totals for "Campaign 2000," and they were about as disappointed as Al Gore in how the trend was shaping up.

Most sales executives started the year expecting significant spending on political ads, but expectations faded during the primary season. Generally speaking, despite some last-minute gains, Campaign 2000 will be remembered by cable executives as a disappointment-but one that convinces them to try all the harder at getting their message across in the future.

At Adlink, the Los Angeles interconnect, vice president of marketing and communications Vicki Lins said the interconnect finished this political year with nearly $10 million in its coffers, matching its 1998 political take and slightly increasing its share of those dollars in the L.A. DMA.

On the presidential side, she said the Gore and George W. Bush campaigns had initially assumed a California win so neither the Democratic nor the Republican camp intended to spend there, until late in the game.

Still, Lins concluded, "We [Adlink and the cable industry] absolutely failed to change the thinking of the category." The politicos, she said, stuck with the traditional broadcast TV and radio mix, despite a two-year selling effort by Adlink, among others, that sought to call their attention to cable's major ratings inroads against the broadcasters.

Both Adlink and cable in general "need to start now for 2002" in hopes of changing politicians' outdated view of cable, she added.

Other cable executives concurred, but only without attribution. As one put it, "The cable industry doesn't do a good job telling our story [to the political community]. They don't seem to realize that a percentage of every broadcast TV station dollar spent, say in New York, went to waste since [the buy] also covered New Jersey and Connecticut." Another said he has urged the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau to "keep up with the new political advisors, year after year," since many of those buying time this year were "surprisingly unaware how much cable's audience has grown" just in the past two years.

Last spring, Cox Communications Inc. vice president of ad sales Billy Farina had said much the same, observing that cable needs to "get ahead of the curve with the media planners and buyers, to tell our story sooner."

At Time Warner Cable, vice president of ad sales Larry Zipin said the MSO garnered $10 million from the various campaigns, up to and including Bush-Gore. He blamed that lower-than-projected outcome-about the same total as four years ago-on the candidates' advertising buyers' pursuit of broadcast TV to reach mass audiences.

Unlike the Charles Schumer/ Al D'Amato Senate campaign, which spent millions in local cable across New York State last year, this year's Empire State Senate race between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rick Lazio proved to be a major letdown, he said.

In New York City, though, Time Warner CityCable president Larry Fischer said, "We did OK-less than anticipated but not insignificant. We got a lot of local and state Congressional races and some Democratic and Republican 'soft' money." He felt that his system and its New York 1 News would have drawn more ad dollars had New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani stayed in what would have been "a more hotly contested race."

At National Cable Communications, executive vice president and director of sales Andrew Ward said the leading spot cable ad sales rep firm amassed $25 million in political ad dollars, supporting presidential and other races as well as issues. In the presidential race, he said Gore's campaign and the Democratic National Committee accounted for all the national dollars spent through NCC; those dollars were allocated primarily to so-called "battleground states," he noted.

Various other MSO and interconnect executives were unreachable or unwilling to comment on the political category at press time.

This year started out with most sales executives at MSOs and interconnects bullish on the political ad-spending outlook. However, after the "Super Tuesday" presidential primaries arrived-involving 15 key states from New York to California-those executives realized that a political bonanza might not materialize after all.

Adlink executive vice president Hank Oster observed at the time, "The [candidates'] old-school, traditional ad agencies fell back into their old ways," opting primarily for broadcast television.

Early on, there also had been a lot of talk from the Bush and Gore camps that minorities would figure prominently in their campaigning. But instead of trying to target such potential voter segments, AT&T Broadband senior vice president Judi Heady said, "They've been looking for broad reach so they've been buying broadcast."

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