Summarized by Rosemary Pollock
Reid Benefits From TV Windfall
Washington Post pgA01 1May00 N2
By Dan Morgan: Washington Post Staff Writer
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA -- Senator Harry M. Reid (D) recently hit the Las
Vegas television market jackpot while facing a tough run for the
governor's seat against Rep. John E. Ensign (R), Jan Jones (D) and
Kenny C. Guinn (R). Las Vegas' KVBC-TV station manager, Gene R.
Greenberg, compared the final weeks of the campaign to the
pressure-cooker atmosphere of the Chicago commodities exchange.
"I've never been on the trading floor, but a lot of times it seemed a
little like that," he said.
The Nevada NBC affiliate was selling the most valuable commodity
in American politics: advertising time on TV. One dollar in five raised by
all federal candidates now goes to TV advertising, according to campaign
finance analyst Dwight Morris. Political commercials are the third-largest
in the TV advertising category, trailing automotive and retail ads. The
money to purchase air time is flowing in from political parties and outside
Political spots are expected to add $600 million to stations' revenue, up
40 percent from 1996. Broadcasters, whose companies enjoy pretax profit
margins that routinely range from 25 to 50 percent, hold a special public
trust. The government imposes obligations in return for granting free use
of the airwaves. Stations must offer federal candidates "reasonable"
amounts of commercial time at discounted prices.
In practice, there is a finite amount of time slots and a surging demand
for TV stations to sell to the highest political bidder what the government
has given them for free. Stations regularly ration time to federal
candidates or charge more than the discounted rates for air time slots. As
a result, the industry has been plunged into the thick of the debate over
tightening campaign finance laws. "When it comes to serving as a public
trustee, the industry doesn't see beyond its own bottom line," said Paul
Taylor, who lobbies for free air time with the Alliance for Better
When the Ensign-Reid race tightened, Cathy Austin, a buyer for
International Communications, placed ads for Reid. "We were getting bumped
left and right at the beginning, paying pre-emptible rates," she said. The
availability situation was out of control. The limitations were much
greater because so much was coming in. It was a tough situation for
everyone to be in."
Reid, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, spent
nearly $5 million. Half of it went for advertising, including 148 spots the
last day of the campaign alone. That was none too few, it turned out. Reid
beat Ensign by just 401 votes.
"We said here's our rate card, here's what's available, buy what you want,"
said KVBC's Greenberg. "We offered them pre-emptible, but for the candidates
that can't take that chance as it gets closer to Election Day, they were
buying fixed." Records show that KVBC booked $429,450 from a single issue
advertiser. Nevada hotel magnate Sheldon Adelson's committee spent a total
of $2 million in an effort to unseat two Democratic members of the county
"The stations are salivating," said one media buyer. A few years ago
candidates were satisfied with 700 rating points in the final week of an
election. "Now candidates feel they need 1,200 point in the last week to
burn their message in...You have to keep pace," said Republican Tom Edmonds
of Edmonds Associates, a Washington media consulting firm.
"There's a whole new world that's exploding out there, and that, taken
together with a vibrant economy, means higher prices and less capacity to
have all the choices you'd like to have," said Democrat Jim Margolis of the
Washington consulting firm Greer, Margolis,Mitchell and Burns.
According to Jon Hutchens of Colorado-based Media Strategies &Research,
"Politicians are no different from Coke and Nike." "Even though viewership
habits change, the requirement for politicians to reach half the audience
The National Association of Broadcasters argues that requiring stations to
provide free air time would be unconstitutional and wouldn't end the race in
paid advertisements. "Someday we may look back on these ads as a relic,"
Taylor believes, "the way we look back at torchlight parades in a past era
in American politics."