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Hate Politics, Love TV, Live In S.C.? Not Your Week

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum is seen on a TV screen at a restaurant in Florence, S.C., on Sunday.
Eric Thayer
Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum is seen on a TV screen at a restaurant in Florence, S.C., on Sunday.

Scott Sanders will be eating lunch at his desk again. Sanders is the general sales manager for the NBC affiliate in Columbia — South Carolina's capital — so all his time is devoted these days to handling ad traffic ahead of Saturday's Republican primary.

"It's been crazy this week," Sanders says. "It will be hard to watch TV, because there are so many ads."

All five major GOP candidates have ads running during the station's nightly news programs. Their messages are also being amplified and augmented by supportive superPACs.

That means the usual run of furniture store and car dealer ads that viewers might expect to see during program breaks have largely been replaced by attacks about various candidates' position on issues such as abortion and job loss.

Broadcasters and cable companies have some discretion over the types of ads they'll run — but not much. Because of federal law, broadcasters have to give favorable placement — and rates — to political candidates.

"It could be a mudslinging campaign that our viewers don't like, but we can't do a thing about it," Sanders says.

Not A Torrent But A Flood

There's nothing new about viewers feeling inundated by political advertising during the waning days of a campaign. The air wars are especially intense this week in South Carolina, however, because most of the GOP hopefuls view the Jan. 21 primary as their last, best chance to halt the momentum of front-runner Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor.

According to an analysis by The State, Columbia's major newspaper, Republican candidates and the superPACs will spend $11.3 million on television ads in the state, with most of it devoted to the last two weeks ahead of voting.

This close to the primary date, candidates and superPACs are not especially drawn to the most-discounted rates, which are in time slots where they can be pre-empted by other advertisers paying higher rates.

Instead, they often opt for a guaranteed time slot to ensure that their message gets on the air when they want it. For a newscast, says Sanders, the cost could start at $300 for a 30-second slot, but rise up as high as, say, $1,000 as advertisers buy and bid up the "fixed" advertising time slots.

"Since airtime is limited, we cannot print more pages, as with newspapers, so most time periods can end up totally sold out," Sanders says. "This is especially true in a prime program, where the network only lets us air four to five commercials."

Still, South Carolina does not have especially expensive TV markets. Most advertising is concentrated in the Columbia and Greenville areas, with ads also running in Charleston, Myrtle Beach and other markets.

That means an average viewer in the Columbia market alone may see political ads 182 times by the time of Saturday's primary, according to The State.

Airwaves Worth Battling Over

Spending by candidates themselves is actually down about 25 percent compared with the 2008 campaign, says Sanders, the general sales manager at WIS in Columbia. But that decline has been more than made up for by superPACS.

Most of the ads are running at the last minute — or as close as the campaigns can come. Rather than spreading out their messages over a period of weeks, as has happened in the past, it's all about getting in the last word during the short period following the New Hampshire primary, which was held Jan. 10.

Because Romney was so heavily favored in New Hampshire, the amount of political advertising there actually declined, compared with four years ago.

"You're watching a week before the primary and they were running ABC promos — all the sort of stuff you would have expected would be bumped for a political ad," says Dante Scala, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire, who has studied the impact of political advertising. "People just weren't buying."

Wall-To-Wall Messaging

That's certainly not the case in South Carolina. Programs that draw the attention of the most engaged citizens and likely voters — such as the Sunday political talk shows and the CBS newsmagazine 60 Minutes — have been chockablock with political ads.

Federal law gives certain preferences to political advertisements. Stations have to make time available to campaigns, at the best available rates.

But those are high just now. Romney's campaign paid $3,000 to air a 30-second spot during 60 Minutes on WLTX in Columbia on Sunday — twice the normal rate. Ads were also much more expensive than usual during this past weekend's NFL playoff games.

Just about every ad that runs during news programs this week will be political. But other programs are marbled with campaign ads as well, including sitcoms and daytime talk shows. Fox News is a popular venue for candidates and superPACs seeking to reach conservative audiences.

"When they compact it into the last two weeks before the primary, they want to have as many spots as they can to reach the most eyeballs they can," says Sanders, the WIS sales manager.

Local stations have no control over the order of ads, so viewers might see an attack against Romney sponsored by the superPAC backing former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, followed by an attack on Gingrich sponsored by Romney.

Short Season For Big Business

Viewers don't like seeing so many negative ads in a row. And salesmen like Sanders don't like having to tell their regular customers that they aren't going to be able to buy time to promote their big sales events this week.

For a short time, though, political advertising rules. Steve Conway, the local sales development manager for WLTX, used to work for the CBS station in Cincinnati, where he recalls political campaigns emerging in the autumn months as his main customers.

When Ohio GOP Gov. Bob Taft ran for re-election in 2002, he went from being totally absent from the air to becoming by far the station's leading advertiser — all in the space of four weeks. Two years later, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth spent even more freely on ads challenging the war record of Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee in 2004.

"We could have sold that station 2 1/2 times over again to that group alone, at rates that made no sense," Conway says.

What Bang For The Buck?

For TV stations, selling ads to political candidates and superPACs is a different game from their usual methods of making sales pitches to businesses based in their communities. Instead, the ad teams from the campaigns generally come to the station, knowing which slots they want to buy.

The stations don't make the same sort of "return on investment" pitches to campaigns that they make to local merchants. Airing a bunch of ads may promise to increase a store's sales by X percent, but there's no good breakdown on how many votes a negative ad buy could cost a rival candidate.

"We put something in front of a plumber or store saying this is going to pay off for your business," Conway says. "We can't make those arguments for something political."

Still, he isn't complaining about the extra business.

"In the end, it paid for my kids' education," Conway says of his Cincinnati days.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.