It’s media buying season for political candidates running in California’s June 3rd primary. But how do politicos get the biggest bang for their buck?
In Southern California, the second most expensive media market in the country, if you’re talking about television, you’re talking about cable. And that gives candidates and their media consultants a lot of options of where to place ads.
Some TV viewing choices are obvious: media strategists agree that Republicans watch more Fox News; Democrats watch more MSNBC. CNN, by the way, has a somewhat higher percentage of Democratic viewers.
Women watch more of Lifetime, HGTV (Home & Garden), the Food Network, OWN (Oprah’s channel) and the Travel Channel. Men watch more of the History Channel, ESPN and TNT.
Political strategists use data that also track the political leanings of the audiences of particular shows. For example, Republican media consultant John Thomas says last week’s season finale of AMC’s post-apocalyptic drama, “The Walking Dead,” had an unusually high number of viewers between the ages of 35-55 who “lean conservative.”
Democratic consultants say it’s harder to pinpoint what Democrats watch. (Though one would think “Downtown Abbey” would attract lots of Democratic political ads if PBS would take them.) Democrats also say Republican strategists have an easier job: there are fewer GOP voters in California — they’re older, whiter, more conservative, and easier to target. Democratic media buyers say their voters are more diverse, and more spread out geographically.
Live is gold
Sports channels are truly bipartisan. Voters from all parties watch golf, the hometown Clippers playing in the NBA playoffs, the Dodgers (at least Time Warner customers). Longtime Democratic strategist Bill Carrick says sports are also popular with political media buyers because they are live events. Carrick is consulting with Ted Lieu’s campaign in the 33rd Congressional District, the second richest in the country. That’s important to media buyers because it means most voters have access to DVRs that allow viewers to skip through the ads. But Carrick says audiences watching live sporting events won’t be “zapping commercials.”
How do you buy TV?
John Thomas, media strategist for GOP congressional candidate Elan Carr in the 33rd district race, offers a tutorial.
TV stations and cable and satellite companies charge by a complicated system of rating points that boils down to: How many times do you want the entire viewing audience of a particular network to see your ad? Thomas says you need at least half-a-dozen viewings of the same spot to drill the message home. The cost of each airing works out to about $130,000 on broadcast TV stations; placing the ad on cable and satellite costs half that amount.
There are also some real cable bargains. For example, as many viewers tuned in for the season finale of "Top Chef" as tuned in for "Dancing With the Stars," but ads on the Bravo cable program cost about a quarter of the price of running one on the ABC network show.
Candidates in the 33rd district — or their political action committees — have already “reserved” time right before the June primary to run ads on broadcast stations. "Reserved" means you don’t have to put any money down now, but stations expect you to pony up. If not, don’t expect to be allowed to reserve time for your next campaign. The most popular shows for political ads on broadcast channels? Morning and evening news programs.
More TV ads this year?
There’s likely to be a lot of TV ads this election, with the U.S. Supreme Court decision lifting caps on contributions to political parties. The House Majority PAC, a Democratic political action committee, has already reserved more than $800,000 in TV advertising time in California for the weeks leading up to the November 4th general election. Perhaps it will make you feel better to know that PACs and party committees pay twice as much as candidates for TV time.
But my mailbox is still stuffed
Because of the cost of TV commercials, Southern California candidates have traditionally relied on fliers, postcards and voting slate mailers. Bill Carrick says despite the cable purchases, mailers will be used heavily this year, particularly in the West L.A 33rd district race where 18 candidates are qualified for the ballot. As Carrick put it: “No mailbox will be safe in this district.”