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Providence TV stations poised for a lucrative campaign season

March 30, 2012

As campaigns tally their first quarter fundraising, Providence-based TV stations are poised for a rich stream of political commercials later this year.

The race for the seat held by Congressman David Cicilline is bound to generate lots of TV spots. A chunk of Senator Sheldon Whitehouse’s ample war chest is bound to pay for TV commercials in his race with Republican Barry Hinckley. You can bet there will be advertising to promote the expansion of gambling at Twin River and Newport Grand. And there’s a presidential election, too.

But the thing most exciting to local TV executives must be two high-profile races in Massachusetts: the US Senate fight between Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren, and the battle to succeed Congressman Barney Frank. Since Providence TV stations cover southeastern Massachusetts, they can count on an infusion of Bay State political commercials.

Helped by Super PACs, political ad spending is expected to hit yet another high in 2012, as AdAge reported in May:

A study by the research firm Borrell Associates projects that election spending in 2012 will reach a stratospheric $9.8 billion, vs. about $7 billion in 2008. (The figures include 13,000 statewide, congressional and municipal races, as well as the presidential election.) Spending by PACs, national political party committees, and the super PACs is projected to be $4.76 billion, or 48% of all spending. Super PACs were created by the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, in which it determined that spending by corporations and unions can’t be restricted.

Critics contend that most TV stations reap the rewards of political commercials, making considerable profit margins, without devoting a proportional amount of resources to political coverage. In 2002, I wrote in the Phoenix about a proposal to compel stations to offer free commercial time to candidates:

Thomas E. Patterson, co-director of the Vanishing Voter Project at Harvard’s Kennedy School and the author of The Vanishing Voter: Public Involvement in an Age of Uncertainty (Alfred A. Knopf, 2002), faults broadcasters for surrendering their professional responsibility by cutting political coverage — other than that of scandals — through the ’90s. “I think they were driven almost entirely by the marketplace, by commercial considerations, and didn’t give much of a damn about professional responsibility and public-service obligations,” Patterson says. “They can kind of blame it on the audience and on the politicians, but in fact the root change was . . . profit-seeking.”

Congressional incumbents win re-election at rates exceeding 90 percent, thanks in large part to their ability to raise money — which flows directly into TV advertising.

The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision elevated the power of money in political campaigns, so efforts to level the playing field are highly unlikely to go anywhere.

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