We hear a lot about money's influence on elections and where it comes from. We've heard less about the disinterested recipients of that largess who pocket billions each election year regardless of which candidates or ballot measures win or lose.
Who are they? Television stations, and they will rake in a good share of the $2.8 billion expected to be spent on political campaigns this year, according to The Cook Political Report, an independent, non-partisan newsletter that analyzes elections and campaigns.
Of that, about 75 percent goes to advertising, the Cook report says, and 57 percent of advertising money is spent on TV ads in a mid-term year.
In the past, those interested in which stations got how much had to go to those stations to access ad buys. But on July 1, that discovery process got easier under a new Federal Communications Commission rule that requires TV stations from coast to coast to post political ad buys online.
The rule comes as Coloradans prepare to pick a governor, treasurer, secretary of state and a U.S. senator, as well as decide several ballot questions.
Early postings suggest TV viewers will be swamped with ads. Or, as Eric Anderson, CEO of SE2, a Colorado communications firm focused on public issues, sees it, "No doubt Coloradans will want to shoot their TVs well before Election Day."
Which proves, he says, that despite the growth of Facebook and Twitter, TV is still king in political advertising.
It's a mandate
Two years ago, the FCC kicked off a pilot project by ordering affiliates of the top networks — ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC — in the nation's 50 largest TV markets to post political ad files online, reports the Sunlight Foundation, which advocates for government transparency. About 230 stations were under that order.
The new mandate opens more windows on political ads by requiring more than 2,000 stations to post their reports on their websites, as well as with the FCC.
The Sunlight Foundation reports these findings at politicaladsleuth.com:
• The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has already purchased $375,000 in air time from September through Election Day at KKTV alone. Sen. Mark Udall, a Democrat, is trying to repel a challenge by Republican Rep. Cory Gardner.
• Freedom Partners, a political nonprofit affiliated with Charles and David Koch, has secured air time in August and September at KKTV and KOAA in the Springs.
So the cash cow is mooing for local stations, but how much of that extra revenue stays local is unknown. None of the four local stations — KKTV, KRDO, KXRM (FOX21 News) and KOAA — are locally owned. KRDO is owned by News-Press & Gazette Co., a family-owned company in St. Joseph, Mo. Privately held Evening Post Publishing Co., of Charleston, S.C., owns KOAA. KXRM is owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group, of Hunt Valley, Md., which operates the most local television stations in the United States.
To gauge just how big political ads are for TV stations, consider that Sinclair reports a 90 percent increase in political advertising in 2012 from the previous, non-election year. Sinclair's local political revenue increased five times from 2011 to 2012 to $12.9 million, while national political revenue exploded by more than 14 times, to $84 million, according to its 2013 annual report.
KKTV is one of dozens of stations in 34 markets across the country held by publicly traded Gray Television, based in Atlanta. Its 2013 annual report stated that political advertising revenue increased by 537 percent, to $86 million, in 2012 from the previous year.
A bumper year?
This year appears to be shaping up as a bumper year for Gray Television, judging from ad placements at KKTV.
A quick calculation of political ad revenue based on postings at politicaladsleuth.com shows the station has booked nearly $3 million in political ad revenue this year. Some ads don't run until September, October and November, but that's a lot of cash — about 3 percent of the parent company's 2012 total political revenue for all of its stations.
Ads are being placed by issue committees as well as candidates. Don't Turn Race Tracks Into Casinos, an effort to oppose a ballot measure seeking to add casino-style gambling at Colorado horse racetracks, bought 730 ad spots valued at $423,570 from KKTV. Another big spender is Coloradans for Responsible Reform, which paid $489,220 for 845 spots on KKTV to advance the argument that ballot measures that seek to control oil and gas drilling practices pose "a serious threat to Colorado's job base and economic recovery," according to the organization's website.
KKTV general manager Nick Matesi says the new posting rule requires more work, due to having to scan in documents. "I wouldn't say it's a big inconvenience," he says. "It's just different. We've always had to maintain a public political file." By the way, he says, it was rarely accessed by the public.
Look for local TV stations' online postings at the very bottom of their websites.
As for whether this year will be a bigger bonanza than ever, Matesi is circumspect. "It's always tough to have a crystal ball," he says. "If you asked me a year ago, I would say it would be a benign year, but then [Republican] Cory Gardner got into the [Senate] race. And a whole slew of ballot issues popped up. Yeah, I would say it's going to be a pretty significant year."