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With our history so closely tied to advertising and broadcasting and our mission focused on enhancing democracy, the Benton Foundation has always had an eye on the impact of media on elections. So we take a moment this week to reflect on advertising and the 2012 elections.

Television advertising buys are typically the single largest expenditure of a presidential campaign. Back in March, a study by the research firm Borrell Associates projected that election spending in 2012 will reach $9.8 billion (compared to about $7 billion in 2008). The figures include 13,000 statewide, congressional and municipal races, as well as the presidential election. Spending by political action committees (PACs), national political party committees, and “ super PACs” is projected to be $4.76 billion, or 48% of all spending. Super PACs were created after the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision, in which it determined that spending by corporations and unions can't be restricted.

The vast majority of political ad buys flows to local, broadcast television stations. In the wake of the Citizens United ruling, the Federal Communications Commission, which licenses and regulates U.S. television broadcast stations, updated its existing broadcast television disclosure procedures to move the stations’ public files from paper to the Internet. The decision requires television stations to post their public files online in a central, FCC-hosted online database rather than maintaining paper files locally at their main studios. The rule modernizes the filing process, making it easier for consumers to access information about their broadcast services without having to travel to the station’s main studio. Since August 2, 2012 broadcasters affiliated with the top four national TV networks in the top 50 television markets (Designated Market Areas or DMAs) have been required to upload their political files to the FCC’s website. (Other stations have until July 1, 2014 to begin sharing the political files online.)

Arguing for the new rule back in April, former FCC Commissioner Copps wrote here, “If a special interest group masquerading itself as “Citizens for Purple Mountain Majesties and Amber Waves of Grain” is in reality the mouthpiece of a company refusing to clean up a toxic dump or an industry pouring sludge into the Great Lakes, don’t we as citizens need to know that? Don’t we have a right to know that? Identifying the true sponsors of these ads—liberal as well as conservative, Democratic as well as Republican—ought to be high on democracy’s 2012 agenda.”

AdWeek’s Katy Bachman wrote, “Public interest groups are practically salivating that starting August 2, television stations will have to begin posting online their political disclosure files containing information about who is spending what in the 2012 election. And they're organizing to take full advantage of the more easily-available information.” The files are available now for public review. “But don't get too excited,” Bachman warns, “The files that will be available will be in PDF form, meaning it will take a lot of work to make some real sense of the spending.”

Bachman’s take, however, downplays the impact the FCC’s new rules could have moving forward. Of the $1.1 billion in broadcast TV ad spending and $200 million in local cable ad spend that Kantar Media's CMAG now expects to see in the presidential race, we're nowhere close to the halfway mark, writes Kantar’s Elizabeth Wilner in AdAge She predicts $1.3 billion in presidential advertising alone will be squeezed into just 67 DMAs.

And we’re already seeing the disclosures generate articles in local markets:

  • In Cincinnati, The Enquirer’s Angela Travillian visited local stations to get their pre-August 2 data from the stations current paper files. In the process, Travillian found that WLWT (Channel 5) and WCPO (Channel 9) were not including all of the required information in their files. Specifically, they didn’t include the “class of time” purchased. (1) Looking at all orders from all stations for the entire year, slightly more than 47 percent were either missing this information or it was inconsistent. For ads that haven’t aired yet but for which time already has been purchased, nearly 40 percent of the orders don’t list the class of time clearly if at all.
  • In Washington (DC), City Paper’s Will Sommer looked at online files to find that Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS Super PAC is the only Super PAC ad purchaser disclosed so far in the forms and it has spent $995,152.50 on ads in the Washington area in August. That number doesn't include the entire month, since the buys only go through August 21, nor any ad buys at Fox 5, which has created a folder for Crossroads but hasn't uploaded any forms yet. NBC affiliate WRC-TV is receiving the most money from Crossroads, making a net $480,675 between July 30 and August 21. The stations are also making big ad sales to the official presidential campaigns. Barack Obama's campaign paid $209,100 for ads on WJLA, while Mitt Romney's campaign paid the station $203,235. Romney outspent Obama at NBC 4, buying $174,675 of ads compared to Obama's $127,500. Romney's campaign spent $170,295.50 on ads at CBS affiliate WUSA 9 for August ads. The CBS affiliate has, for some reason, disclosed Obama campaign ad buys through Election Day—the president's campaign is committed to spending at least $657,709 through November.
  • Obama’s team plunked down more than $181,000 in ad time on Tampa-area network affiliates for the last week of August, to ensure that the President isn't completely out the spotlight when Mitt Romney is crowned as the GOP standard-bearer. Obama for America will air more than 160 spots on shows as varied as "Dr. Phil," "Undercover Boss" and "Bachelor Pad,” including $73,720 for 49 spots on the Tampa CBS affiliate, $54,500 for 75 spots on the ABC affiliate and $53,750 for 42 spots on the NBC affiliate, according to public disclosures posted this week to the Federal Communications Commission’s website. The Obama ad buys are set all day and into the night, from spending up to $4,500 per ad on "America’s Got Talent" to spots on “Rachael Ray,” a cooking show, and the fantasy show "Grimm" — all in addition to morning and evening news buys. The content of the ads is not known.

Wilner highlights some big dates ahead in election advertising:

  • The National Football League’s season kicks off on September 5. The game that night between the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Giants will likely be the start of presidential advertisers' blitz of major sporting events. Why? Football Night in America offers the greatest live audience in 2012 advertising, second only to the Olympics. There will be no hotter ad slot this fall than during the Monday Night matchup between Philadelphia at New Orleans on Nov. 5.
  • September 7 is 60 days from Election day meaning lowest unit rate kicks in. Overnight, the ad rates paid by President Barack Obama, Mitt Romney and other 2012 candidates will shrink considerably in comparison to what group advertisers pay (as well as many non-political advertisers, which may be why stations fought so hard to block the FCC's new online disclosure requirement).

Of course, as noted above, not just candidates are buying political ads during this cycle. “Super PACs” are also trying to make a big impact on the election. For example, campaign strategist Karl Rove’s American Crossroads launched a new wave of Senate ads totaling over $7 million in TV time. The ads target Missouri, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota and Virginia. The price tag is about $7.2 million. Those five states are at the top of the GOP's takeover list for the 2012 cycle, and Republicans will have to win most of them to take control of the Senate.

But new research from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and The Washington Post finds that the public is hearing little about increased spending by outside groups in the 2012 election. Just 25% have heard a lot about outside spending by groups not associated with the candidates or campaigns, while three-quarters are hearing a little (36%) or nothing at all (39%) about this. In fact, the term “super PAC” itself is not widely known: Just 40% can correctly identify the term, nearly half (46%) don’t know what it refers to, while 14% give incorrect responses.

This week, the Wall Street Journal raised an interesting question – will more TV ads really make a difference this year? Just 8% of registered voters remain undecided, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released in July. Some political strategists say it will be a challenge for any candidate or PAC this fall to break through the clutter since so many political ads are running. "It's fair to say Ohio voters have about reached the saturation level by early August," said Scott Reed, campaign manager for former GOP Sen. Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign, who spent the weekend in Ohio. "There's just an incredible amount of noise going on."

But strategists say no candidate can simply withdraw from the battle on the airwaves. If campaigns believed TV ads were no longer effective, "you wouldn't run television ads," said Stuart Stevens, a top strategist for Romney's campaign. The Romney campaign plans to use television spots this fall to let "people know more about Gov. Romney, more about the direction he'll take the country, more about the choice" between Romney and Obama, he said. "There's a great deal of last-minute Christmas shopping," Stevens said, drawing a comparison to undecided voters. The Obama campaign has put a lot of money into ads this summer aimed at casting Mr. Romney in a negative light. The campaign is in part betting that its message will take better hold now than later, when the ad environment becomes more crowded. "Ultimately we are betting that an investment in the largest grass roots campaign in history fueled by our supporters working their networks will counter the special interest noise that will have saturated the air by Election Day," said Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt.

Cable subscribers in Hawaii may be seeing a glimpse of our political TV future: an entire channel devoted to one candidate. LL12 is devoting very minute of every day to one topic: Linda Lingle, a Republican running for the United States Senate. Lingle has created her own cable station. It provides viewers with a feast of Lingle speeches, Lingle advertisements and Lingle endorsements, as well as video issue papers, televised forums and testimonials delivered in 10 of the languages spoken on these islands. Lingle says that if she wins the general election, she intends to hold on to the station as a way to communicate with constituents.

By every indication, LL12 is a first-of-its-kind venture in campaign advertising in this country, reflecting the continued push by candidates to break through the rising clatter of political advertising. It is also taking advantage of the fact that one cable company, Oceanic Time Warner Cable, covers about 95 percent of the market in Honolulu, making the project a little easier to pull off. But the effort is also evidence of the extent to which Republicans are prepared to pour money into even what Lingle described as an uphill fight to be elected to the Senate. The Democratic primary is between Representative Mazie K. Hirono and Ed Case, a former member of Congress. The July poll showed that both Democrats enjoyed double-digit leads over Lingle among likely voters.

In 1937, near the peak of radio’s “Golden Age,” William Benton argued, "If the great universities do not develop radio broadcasting in the cause of education, it will, perhaps, be permanently left in the hands of the manufacturers of face powder, coffee and soap, with occasional interruptions by the politicians." Although we leave the full implications of that quote for another day, we see that for the next 12 weeks at least that those “occasional interruptions by the politicians” will be more frequent than ever. We invite you to follow along with us the developments in Media and Elections and Election 2012 and we’ll see you in the Headlines.

1. Each station has different classes of time. Generally, a P-1 level order is the most expensive and least likely to be bumped in the event of a scheduling conflict.
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