Recall-Vote Ads Generate a (Small) Windfall for TV

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The unprecedented California gubernatorial recall election contributed ad dollars to cable systems' coffers, but executives say it wasn't as lucrative as they'd hoped.

Feedback from stations indicated that press coverage of the unique election — free media, in other words — likely curbed ad buys, according to Kevin Coe, director of media relations for the California Broadcasters Association.

"The media coverage was high, the [Sept. 24] candidates' debate got high ratings," Coe said. "There's a story every day. I guarantee [stations] got less advertising than expected."

As of Sept. 4, reports to the state put political spending on TV at just $4 million.

A Cox Communications Inc. spokeswoman said its California systems (in communities such as San Diego) appear to have gotten about 10% of what they anticipated before the campaigning started.

The election's uncertainty might have had an impact. At one point, it appeared a federal court would delay the election due to a challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union over the validity of the punch-card ballots. That uncertainty lasted until two weeks before the Oct. 7 election.

According to the California Secretary of State, Gov. Gray Davis raised $14.4 million to try to keep his job. Lieutenant Gov. Cruz Bustamante raised $5.5 million. Victorious Arnold Schwarzenegger raised $18.1 million. Their campaign reports do not separate spending on broadcast from cable, and not all the reports are completed yet.

Campaign funds went for more than just TV advertising. Schwarzenegger went on an old-fashioned bus tour, and Democrats relied heavily on phone banks, with recordings by luminaries from Barbra Streisand to Bill Clinton urging "no" votes.

Ads did come in a flurry over the last weekend of the campaign, when it seemed every commercial break contained a Schwarzenegger ad followed by a "No on Recall" spot.

Rick Oster, vice president and general sales manager for Adlink, the Southern California interconnect, said operators got $1.1 million from the election. That includes direct campaign spending and indirect political ads.

An example of the latter: Democratic candidates were criticized for taking campaign donations from Indian gaming interests, and at least one tribe bought ads touting its right to participate in the political process.

"Before the election, I heard estimates of $50 million, but no one really knew. We didn't get our hopes up," said Oster.

Valuable lessons were learned, and key contacts made. Schwarzenegger's cable ads on Adlink were placed by Target Enterprises, which could be a player in the next presidential election.

"We took this as an opportunity to update them on our delivery," Oster said of political-ad agencies.

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