Monday, October 02, 2006

Exclusive: Portland Market Political Ad Buys

Here's something I didn't know before I started blogging: by law, television stations have to maintain a "public file" on premises for review by, well, the public. Part of what has to go into the file is the record of advertising purchases by political candidates and PACs, which means that what campaigns spend on ads, and where, is part of the public record. Someone pointed out to me what a newspaper in Ohio had done to compile those records and publish them, and thought, "Wouldn't it be a great idea if someone did that here?"

I realize now why the suggestion was for "someone;" if you're not getting paid to do it, sitting in a TV station lobby copying down figures is both time consuming and makes you look like a very, very strange person. But I have to say, I found the experience enlightening and rather interesting. For instance, did you know that thirty seconds of air time during Desperate Housewives the Sunday before the election will cost you $13,000? Obviously that's because a whole bunch of people watch that show, many of them the core female demographic that can swing an election, but it still struck me as a lot of coin for 30 seconds in one market on a regular night of prime time.

More on that later, but the real news is pictured below. Carla and I went through the public files for the main broadcast networks--KATU (ABC), KOIN (CBS), KGW (NBC), KPTV (FOX) and whatever network combo KPDX comprises these days. (I did intend to include Comcast's file in the mix, to cover all cable buys in the Portland market, but the woman in charge of the file was in no mood to squeeze me in at 430 on a Friday. I still plan to get it, and will update). We wrote down each contract buy for a political candidate or campaign, including the time period covered, the number of spots, and the total sale for the buy. We did it by hand, so while we tried to be careful, figures are official to the best of our transcription. But here's what we found:I apologize for the crappy quality. This is a jpeg of a web page of an excel sheet, because Blogger doesn't upload files, and it also wouldn't accept the wacko way MS Office makes web pages out of its files. You can click on it, and get a bigger view. Click on that, and it gets much clearer.

The first thing that should jump out at you is the name at the top of the list. As I said when the Oregonian poll on the goobernor's race came out last week, getting only 38% of the vote--with leaners--after the ad blitz Ron Saxton has run, is downright embarassing for him. I know Ted's people threw out the $2 million figure spent in their response to the poll, but going through contract after contract for Saxton this weekend really hit home as to how much he was spending.

Two caveats are in order here. First, these totals reflect ad buys not only to the date we checked the files, but from here on out to Election Day. As you can see from this monthly breakdown of expenditures (which I'll link to instead of reproducing here)*, over $1 million of Saxton's ads haven't even been seen yet--which means Ted's people were playing a little PR sleight of hand in their comment, since his number is at 38% after only $1 million of ads--to be followed up by another million's worth. Of course, if you've seen any of the ads you realize that--as with almost all GOP candidates this cycle--the money isn't being spent to push their candidate up, it's designed to pull the other guy down. Maybe the other million will show us what a great guy Saxton is, but I doubt it.

The other major caveat is that there's no guarantee that the spending is over; anyone can call up a station at any time and boost their order. So as large as the payouts look now, they stand to go even higher as the month progresses, and camps get more and more desperate to move opinion. Nonetheless, this is a good representation of what kind of money we're talking about when it comes to TV commercials...big money.

Before I hit the next two groups on the list, let's talk about the other person who's been notably active on-air already: Mike Erickson, challenging incumbent Darlene Hooley in the Oregon 5th. Erickson has vanity-funded over a half million dollars in ads this cycle, but unlike Saxton you pretty much have seen him blow his wad. Almost all of Erickson's ads so far have already aired--over $440,000 prior to October. He spent almost $200,000 in August alone, more than every other buyer combined. Once again, almost all the money has gone in for trashing Hooley's rep like the cranky biology teacher's yard after a big football game. As with Saxton, the payoff so far is mixed and cloudy--but unless Erickson plans to get out the wallet and kick in some more airtime, he's out of gas before the finish line.

Back to the top three, and what I think is the most surprising entry: almost $1 million in ads to block Bill Sizemore's insurance rate Measure 42, preventing credit scores from being used to set rates. Maybe it's a little rash, but that right there tells me which way to vote. If the insurance industry is going to pump nearly 2,000 ads down the virtual throats of viewers just so they can continue setting rates using a credit check for guidance, there is more than convenience and actuarial efficiency at stake here. That which the insurance industry fights to keep control over, is that which is incredibly profitable for the insurance industry, and thus credit checks must be an enormous money maker for them at our expense --therefore, Vote NO YES on 42. [Corrected! D'oh!]

It's also fairly surprising to me that No on 41 and 48 has booked such a large buy, but they are getting two measures for the price of one, and their backing as evidenced by the preliminary Voter Guide {pdf} is widespread and deep pocketed. That backing has given the coalition the ability to target their advertising. Note the relatively few number of spots--one-half of Erickson's, and one-third of Saxton's. But No 41/48 is spending an average of $1075 per spot, compared to $662 per spot for Saxton and $364 for Erickson. Let's hope for our sake it works.

Darlene Hooley appears to have needed to jump in earlier than she would have liked; around $200,000 of her $333,000 total was spent in September, combating Erickson's (and as with Saxton, running about $600 per ad). Hooley has tried to keep pace, but by contrast it seems Kulongoski is content to stay the course (ahem) and let Saxton punch himself out. Can we assume Ted is going to buy more time, or will an incumbent get outspent on ads 6-1 by his non-personally funded challenger?

On the other hand, he's got to figure he'll get some collateral points from the ads being run by his PAC, "Quality Education for Oregon." I love the names of some of these things--in another display of amazingly ironic irony, Yes on 43 (parental notification before abortion) has the official name "Committee to Protect Our Teen Daughters." I guess "Committee to Protect Us From Deep Social Embarassment Over the Jezebellian Harlotry of Our Daughters" was already taken.

Speaking of Yes on 43, when I listened in on a conference call given by the sponsors of "Oregonians for Choice" (No on 43), I got the impression that they figured the Yes people would very likely outspend them. That may turn out to be the case overall, but at least so far, you're going to see almost twice as many ads for No as Yes. We cover the issue in a separate story, but that's good news in our opinion.

The rest of the buyers are a mishmash of local levies and candidates, including Greg Walden's shallow toe-dip into a market almost entirely out of his district, and Ben Westlund's "sign my petition!" buy in July. If anyone knows who the Committee for Fair and Responsible Reform is, and what they are pushing (M46/47 for campaign finance?), let us know. Also notice the purchases from the summer by the "Center for Union Facts," a hit group tasked with making unions look bad. Maybe that will help move votes for Portland's Fire and Police Disability reform measure, which as we see has a pretty tiny buy. It may not need the help, given the near-universal recognition of the pension fund's drain on the City budget, and the appeal of anything marked "reform," but it won't be because of a massive ad purchase.

Another curious point is who's NOT on this list: Earl Blumenauer, David Wu, and Karen Minnis. Blumenauer is running unopposed, so maybe that's a smart move on his part. Wu is facing former state legislator Derrick Kitts, and you can see the difference between this race and OR-5, where Hooley and Erickson are battling over the airwaves. Kitts doesn't have the personal stash that Erickson does, and thus has no ads to run. Since Kitts isn't running any, apparently Wu doesn't see the need to, either. Again, probably smart. As for Minnis, she is merely a state legislator, but considering she's in a fierce battle for her seat, and she'll likely spend about a million bucks on this race, I expected to see some TV buys from her that she would know Brading couldn't match. Not so far.

At right is a breakdown by station, showing just how much of a cash cow election season is for the TV networks. Surprising to me was the amount of time sold by KOIN, which is generally considered the #3 network in town, as far as news and local coverage goes. They're certainly not third for lack of money, but maybe people are tired of watching 27% more political ads than at KGW or KATU. Also notable is Fox's relative lack of either interest or salesmanship, running just over a third as many ads as KOIN. They also have the lowest per-spot average of the four majors, at $581. KOIN is not much higher at $600, while KATU and KGW are at $680 and a whopping $724, respectively.

And so the final number of note to me is this one: $6,603,949. That's what local TV stations stand to gain--at minimum--in political ad revenue this election season. And if I'm reading KATU's contracts right (they were actually very kind to me and made free copies for me to take home), the net receipts are 85% of that total. Six million dollars contributed, collected, spent, aired...and evaporated to the ether, just like that. Two things come to mind: what could we as a community in the Portland area have done differently with that $6 million; and how much do you think local TV has invested in the question of campaign finance reform? Imagine a world where tough restrictions on campaign contributions result in war chests half or even a third of the size they are now. Whose company cars would suddenly go from Beamers to Bugs in that climate? If you said "TV ad sales managers," give yourself a star.

Update, 3pm--
In response to my point about Ted's people playing "fudge the numbers" regarding what Saxton has spent to date, their office has kindly reminded me that there are in fact other places to spend money besides Portland. They assure me that, all told, there's no doubt that Saxton has spent $2mil statewide already. They're likely right, so apologies to the Boys of Mahonia for that one.

*in the chart, time periods labeled with initials, such as "S/O" refer to buys split across multiple months--in this case, September and October. Where we could we split them out by month, but some stations are better than others at organizing their public files. KGW did the best job of breaking them down, but KATU and KOIN were also pretty organized--and as we said, the folks at K2 were very, very friendly and helpful. (As a side note, while I waited for them to copy the files, I asked the receptionist whether they'd gotten any calls about Path to 9/11. They had. More than 1,000? They had. Were most of them against running the show? They were.)