This Friday, September 8, begins the 60 day "window" during which lowest unit rates will apply for broadcast advertising for the November 7 general election. Stations should already be observing equal opportunities obligations and maintaining their political files, as these obligations exist as soon as there are legally qualified candidates, even outside of the political windows. Reasonable access, the right of Federal candidates to demand to buy time on commercial broadcast stations, also applies as soon as there are legally qualified candidates.
According to reports in many publications, including the Wall Street Journal and Broadcasting and Cable Magazine, this may be one of the most active political broadcasting years ever. With many observers believing that both the US House of Representatives and the Senate are potentially up for grabs, and there being many significant gubernatorial races in large states including New York, California, Texas and Michigan, money should flow into political advertising, straining the inventories of some broadcast stations in battleground states. Now is the time, early in the campaign, for broadcasters to consider how to manage these political buys. Remember that a station must give equal opportunities to opposing candidates to match spots run by their opponents within the prior 7 days. So stations, when approached early in a campaign by candidates with lots of available funds, need to be careful about booking too many large buys from one side of a political race for spots to be run in the last days of the campaign. By booking too many large buys now from only one side, the station may find itself, in the last few days of the campaign, with requests from the opposing candidate for equal time, which will have to be accommodated. Accommodating those equal opportunities may require the preemption of commercial advertisers, something that stations may be loath to do to advertisers who will be around well after the political season ends.
Remember, reasonable access does not mean that stations must sell a Federal candidate all the spots that they may want. Instead, the station and candidate are supposed to enter into a dialog by which the candidate conveys his needs to the station. The station takes into account factors such as the number of other races that are occurring within its service area, the number of spots a candidate has already purchased, the number of candidates who may demand equal opportunities, and the other needs of the station in coming to a conclusion as to how much access is "reasonable." If the station is providing reasonable access to all classes and dayparts, then it is meeting its obligations under the law. A station may be able to book some time for a candidate during the final days of a campaign now to meet its reasonable access obligations, and if the candidate wants more time, the station can ask that they check back closer to the air date to see if more time might be available.
With all the political clutter likely to be on the airwaves, candidates will need to find ways to make their ads stand out. In the past, that often meant negative advertising. But, this year, there are already examples of different types of creative content that candidates are employing to get their messages out. For instance, the ads for Maryland Republican senatorial candidate Michael Steele, here, have a hip, clean feel – conveying the image of "a different kind of candidate." The ads of Eliot Spitzer for Governor in New York also have a different sort of feel – check out the ad "Vote," done in black and white, sounding like an excerpt from a Ken Burns documentary. While there have already been negative ads during some hotly contested primaries, and there will no doubt be more as we near election day, positive creative ads like these seem to make an impression.
As this political season gets underway, we will also no doubt see candidates try other media to get their message out. The articles above mention that spending on local cable is increasing, as candidates try to target certain ads to certain demographics represented by particular cable channels. And the Los Angeles Times today wrote an article about the growing importance of the Internet, particularly video sharing sites such as YouTube, in getting out reports of candidate gaffs, and giving them life far beyond their initial coverage in the traditional media. As the Internet is not subject to the same regulation as traditional broadcast media, we will no doubt see more attack ads and other tactics find there way to the new media. All in all, it promises to be an exciting two months.