BY JAMES NASH
Television stations and other media outlets are anticipating a multimillion-dollar windfall of ads, courtesy of the state’s rough-and-tumble politics.
The fight between Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Legislature over state budget authority, teacher tenure and redistricting could pump more than $100 million into media outlets already enriched by the seemingly never-ending political cycle that began with the recall election that put the governor in office.
But while the political ad wars may be a bonanza for media outlets, they could prove a headache for commercial advertisers forced to compete in an unexpectedly crowded and costly ad market.
Product advertisers could be turned off by a nasty political season that juxtaposes their warm-and-fuzzy spots with political smears.
“Are there any off years anymore?” asked Michael McCarthy, the vice president of sales at KNBC Channel 4. “I don’t know. We expect that August through November 8 could be pretty active.”
Besides the Schwarzenegger-backed measures that will pit labor against business interests, others include proposals on energy regulation and consent for minors to get abortions , measures expected to draw thousands of dollars from well-heeled utilities and partisans in the abortion debate.
Unions, meanwhile, are girding for a costly battle against a proposal that would make it more difficult to spend dues on political campaigning.
In all, the election could add up to $100 million to $200 million for television stations, radio stations, newspapers and direct mail companies that handle political advertising.
“They’re clapping their hands,” said Barbara O’Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at Cal State Sacramento.
Fresh from a victory over Schwarzenegger’s plan to reform state pensions, unions operating under the Alliance for a Better California report funds of $8.4 million.
“We’ll spend as much as it takes to win,” said Robin Swanson, a spokeswoman for the alliance.
On the other side, Schwarzenegger has formed an alliance with business interests called the California Recovery Team. It did not report fund raising, but an affiliated group, Citizens to Save California, had $8.6 million as of late June.
Like most statewide campaigns, the battle over the ballot initiatives is expected to be fought largely on television. The medium accounts for more than 75 percent of advertising budgets for most statewide campaigns, with radio and newspapers typically getting about 5 percent each and the rest going to direct mail.
Southern California radio stations are appealing to both sides for a bigger share of the advertising budget. They point to the defeat in November of a measure that would have modified the “three-strikes” sentencing law by requiring the third strike to be a violent crime.
The measure was sunk, in part, by $2.5 million in radio ads in the final days of the campaign that raised fears of violent criminals being released.
The fate of the three-strikes modification measure, coupled with a radio-heavy campaign that derailed Schwarzenegger’s pension reform measure, strengthens radio’s hand in dealing with partisans on both sides of the Nov. 8 initiatives, according to John Davison, head of the three-station ABC Radio cluster in Los Angeles.
Davison said radio also stands to benefit if a flood of advertising overwhelms television stations and forces the campaign committees to seek other outlets.
“We would expect the spoken-word stations, even the sports stations, to see a big difference,” he said. “A rising tide lifts all boats.”
Television stations still would be the biggest beneficiaries of any ad war, to the point that the sheer number of initiatives, and the potential for heavy advertising in the final days of the campaign, complicate matters for the stations.
Stations usually sell advertising weeks in advance, but last-minute attack and response ads could displace commercial advertising.
Initiatives, unlike ads for candidate races, are free from spending limits and do not require stations to offer discounted rates. Ballot measure advertising commands market rates.
The diversity of the initiatives, along with voter fatigue from two years of nearly nonstop campaigning in Sacramento, means that partisans in the Nov. 8 election will have to spend more money to get attention, O’Connor said.
The unconventional nature of the special election also makes it almost impossible to predict who will vote, so rather than leaving things to chance, advocates are expected to flood the airwaves in hopes of finding a receptive audience.
Roy Behr, a veteran Democratic political consultant with GMMB Inc. in Los Angeles, said that might end up turning off traditional advertisers.
“The last thing you want is for your ad to be sandwiched between attack ads of various types,” he said.
James Nash writes for the
Los Angeles Business Journal.