The Presidential election in 2008 seemingly has a record number of candidates who will apparently have a record amount of money to spend on political advertising. One would think that broadcasters would be celebrating their likely share of this spending. While broadcasters will no doubt be the recipients of much political spending, the timing of this election’s early primaries may also present problems – as political advertising will be running during the broadcasters’ busiest advertising season – the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Many of the largest states are now planning a primary in early February, meaning that the lowest unit rate window for political advertising, which begins 45 days before a primary or caucus, will become effective the weekend before Christmas. And for those states with earlier contests (Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina), the lowest unit rate period will be in effect for much of December.
Of potentially more concern will be the fact that candidates will be entitled to reasonable access to the airwaves even before the lowest unit rate periods begin. Under FCC rules and policies, once a candidate is legally qualified to be on a ballot in a state (or for President, once he or she is qualified in ten states, the candidate is qualified in every state), the candidate is entitled to reasonable access to all "classes and dayparts" of advertising time offered by a station. While the determination of how much time is reasonable is in the discretion of a station, that discretion is not absolute. Stations must provide at least some time in all dayparts to all qualified candidates for President who request such time, so this may put a strain on commercial inventory in the pre-Christmas period in many states with hotly contested Presidential primaries or caucuses.
While the demand for political time may well fill up the January advertising doldrums experienced by some stations, in December, careful planning will be required so as to be able to provide advertising time to Presidential candidates while not unduly disrupting the advertising schedules of commercial clients trying to get their holiday messages out to the public. As stations are planning their fourth quarter sales in the coming months, they should start thinking strategically about how they will deal with this advertising inventory crunch during the holiday season. In states where there is likely to be a hot primary race, stations should be cautious not to commit all their advertising availabilities during the holiday period, as they don’t want to be in a position of having to back out of commitments to good commercial advertisers in order to schedule political spots. It may well be a tightrope walk for some stations to meet all of these conflicting advertising needs in the final weeks of this year.
Update: New York today made it official that its primary is moving to February 5, along with those in a number of other states including California, New Jersey. An Associated Press article on the February 5 date that seems to be emerging as a national primary, can be found here.