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Political TV Ad Spending Expected To Top $1 Billion


As we just heard from Don Gonyea, South Dakotans are inundated by political ad right now. And frankly, the same goes for anyone living in a state with a tight race - places like Alaska, Colorado, Iowa, Arkansas. You can't even watch an episode of "Scandal" in peace these days without the hammering of the often equally dramatic commercial.


SENATOR JONI ERNST: I'm Joni Ernst. I grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm. So when I get to Washington, I'll know how to cut pork.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Mark Udall protects our right to choose, our access to birth control.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Begich acts like Mr. Alaskan when he wants our vote. But the truth is, he votes with Obama and his D.C. friends. I'm tired of the phony politicians and Mark Begich's lame tricks.

CORNISH: For local TV markets, it might as well be Christmas. The amount of money spent on TV advertising this midterm election cycle is expected to blow past the billion dollar mark before Election Day. And nearly 30 percent of these ads are paid for by super PACs or outside political groups. They're spending even more than they did during the presidential campaign two years ago.

Now all this has opened up a kind of Wild West of pricing for savvy TV stations who still hold the key to voter access. And to help us understand what's happening, we turn to Elizabeth Wilner. She studies this industry for Kantar Media. She also writes for the Cook Political Report. Welcome to the program.

ELIZABETH WILNER: Thanks so much for having me on.

CORNISH: So, Elizabeth Wilner, a billion dollars sounds like a lot of money, but give me some context here. Maybe it's not so much.

WILNER: It certainly is a lot of money. And it's a big sexy number. For context, it's about what General Motors spent in the first six months of this year on its ad budget.

So in the grand scheme of advertising, it's not a lot. But when you consider that that billion - and ultimately what we expect to be about 2 billion - when you consider that that's being spent in just a certain handful of local markets around the country and that it's really clustered around certain types of programming and then you consider the content of the ads and the fact that many of the ads can be abrasive - when you consider all of that, it feels like a lot of money.

CORNISH: Now, candidates are protected by campaign regulations that guarantee them, you know, access and equal airtime. But those rules don't apply to outside groups. So what kind of the gap are we seeing in spending - candidates versus super PACs - when it comes to TV advertising?

WILNER: We're seeing huge disparities between what a candidate is paying right now, which can be a couple hundred dollars. It can be a thousand dollars or maybe a bit higher than that. But for an outside group who has no such protections that candidates do, you're talking about five times as much, 10 times as much, 20 times as much if that group really wants that ad - that spot.

CORNISH: So you've talked about this as a kind of eBay model, like auction system that the TV stations are using in terms of getting that ad space. What does that look like and what does that mean for spending?

WILNER: Basically, you get into a bidding war because there is a limited amount of ad inventory. And technically, a spot isn't sold until the ad actually airs in that timeslot. So up until the last minute, it's possible for some well-heeled group to come in and say I'm going to pay 10 times more for that spot than someone else who's already said they'll pay. And so you get into this eBay-like situation where the rates just get bid upward and upward. And the stations love it.

CORNISH: So stations are arguably a big winner here. Who are the losers?

WILNER: If you are a voter or a viewer and you don't particularly like to see political ads - particularly negative political ads - I suppose you might be considered the loser. The other losers are the other advertisers - the car dealers, the restaurants, the other folks who need to get their ads on the air, whose ads are being bumped for political advertising because the political advertisers are just paying a lot more than those regular advertisers are willing to pay.

CORNISH: Elizabeth Wilner, thanks so much for talking with us.

WILNER: Thanks again for having me.

CORNISH: Elizabeth Wilner is an analyst with Kantar Media. The spending numbers we mentioned came from data that was analyzed by the Wesleyan Media Project. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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