Political Season Heats up the Airwaves

During Arnold Schwarzenegger's triumphant campaign in last fall's California recall election, Ken Kohl, Clear Channel Radio's director of news and talk programming for northern California, began noticing an interesting phenomenon. "All those stations that were aligned with the recall or were focused on the issue saw their audiences go up in the October monthly, and we saw that again in early November," he says. "The sense we all have is that Arnold has created an interest in politics above and beyond the traditional core listener."

That trend has carried over to television as well, as stations around the state have responded to increased viewer interest by rushing to re-establish bureaus in the state capital of Sacramento for the first time in years.

Of course, not every political story comes complete with its own action movie star. But the fact is, the general public's interest in politics may be at an all-time high. In radio alone, conservative hosts Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Neal Boortz, and Michael Savage have a combined weekly audience of more than 36 million, according to the trade magazine Talkers.

Alarmed by the their growing influence, as well as the success of the conservatively slanted and now top-rated cable news station, Fox News, progressives on the other side of the political spectrum are scrambling to come up with their own ideologically-based news programs, beginning with Progress Media's planned launch of a liberal radio network in five major markets this spring.

But somewhat lost in this grand debate over whether political shows are becoming less news and more propaganda is the fact that virtually all of this radio and TV programming is advertising supported. With 2004 promising to approach 2000 as one of the contentious political years in memory, media buyers and planners are now taking a close look at whether these shows move not only hearts and minds but products and services as well.

Despite the predictions of pundits from across the ideological spectrum, no one can say definitively how things will turn out this November. The only thing certain is that it will be a banner year for TV and radio news shows both in terms of viewership and advertising. "Political years are always profitable for news organizations because the ratings do grow," says Stacey Koerner, executive vice president/director of global research integration for Initiative Media.

Many news organizations are well aware that this could be their time in the spotlight and have been busy courting potential advertisers for months. "You have networks such as CNN who are inviting advertisers in to discuss the type of content they can be involved in and offering sponsorship packages throughout the election year," says Koerner. "The marketers behind news-oriented media have become much more savvy about how they co-opt advertisers into their content."

But 2004 may be even more of an opportunity for media buyers and planners eyeing politically-themed programming simply because of where the country is right now. "We've been going around the country speaking to political and entertainment leaders and no one under the age of 80 can remember a time when the nation has been as divided as it is right now - along economic, along educational, along ecological, along political, and along military lines," says Progress Media chief executive Mark Walsh. "And when there is division there is a media opportunity."

Not everyone is convinced this year's races will be so compelling that virtually every American will be paying attention. "As far as the audience broadening, I don't think that's going to happen until right before the election," notes Aaron Cohen, executive vice president and director of broadcast for Horizon Media. "We're not even certain yet as to what type of coverage is going to be given to the conventions. The networks have not announced their schedule and the only gavel-to-gavel coverage will be C-Span and possibly one of the cable news networks. So the level of interest in this campaign has yet to be proven to me."

One of the major rubs facing media planners looking at politically-themed news shows is that they can never predict whether they are buying Chris Matthews of "Hardball" debating a hot-button story such as impeachment or a sleep-inducing discussion on corporate tax reform. During the Iraq war, for example, the combined audience of Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC nearly tripled to more than 7 million, only to settle back down into the 2 million range once the bulk of the fighting had ended.

But Kristi Argyilan, executive vice president and media director for the Boston-based ad agency Hill/Holliday, suggests that even during slower news cycles, the quality of the viewers tuning in still makes these shows a compelling media buy.

"The advantage of these politically-based programs is the audience that these shows attract," she says. "They tend to be more educated, be at a higher professional level, and have higher incomes. For a lot of clients it's an audience that's really hard to reach in other ways. If you look at some of the corporate image advertising that's out there, some of the financial category advertising that's out there, and even the more expensive automobile advertisers, it's the perfect place to reach these people."

The only concern for media buyers may be that consumers of political news tend to skew slightly older than many brands may be targeting. But Argyilan notes that even that could change this year. "In an election year you will tend to attract more people who are young, and I think that your household income skew will tend to drop a bit," she says. "But you still have somebody who is very interested and active from a political standpoint."

An affluent demographic that's truly interested in the content should make political shows an ideal advertising vehicle. But some brands still remain skittish about the potential for controversy erupting on these shows, and with good reason. Though it's tempting to view elections as grand theater and politics as just another form of entertainment, an ad or sponsorship on a political show is simply not the same as a 30-second spot on "Everybody Loves Raymond."

"Any time we get into programming like this we have a very deliberate conversation with our clients and explain to them how the different consumer groups react to that environment," says Hill/Holliday's Argyilan. "For some clients it may actually add to the mystique of their brand if they want to be edgy or provocative as a company. For others it may be something that they completely don't agree with so they're going to stay away from it altogether."

Argyilan adds, "You also get personal biases, whether internally or from the client, and we have open discussions about those as well. But in the end we have to put those aside and decide what's best for the values of the company."

But most news shows, even those with a distinct political viewpoint such as "The O'Reilly Factor" or "Rush Limbaugh," are still comfortably enough in the mainstream that most advertisers won't have a concern.

Clear Channel's Kohl says, "It's a numbers game, and the smart advertiser will realize that when Rush gets into an ESPN flap they should be rushing to the Rush's show because the listenership in the following weeks will be among the all-time highs."

Some even argue that the passion the audience has for political content makes them better advertising targets, especially on radio. "The talk radio listener tends to listen for longer periods than other formats, they tend to be much more engaged with the host, with the information, and with the programming, and that includes the advertising," says Peter Schulberg, media columnist for the "Portland Tribune" and co-author with his late father of "Radio Advertising: The Authoritative Handbook."

Of course, for every rule there is an exception, and right now that seems to be conservative personality Michael Savage. Savage's short-lived TV show on MSNBC was dropped by many advertisers and then quickly cancelled after he told a caller to his show to "get AIDS and die." Although Savage still has 7 million loyal listeners on radio, Kevin Young, vice president/general manager of Portland-based Pamplin Broadcasting, owner of the local KPAM radio station, says, "It's very common for someone like Michael Savage to be on a Do Not Buy list because he is so outspokenly conservative. "The Savage Nation" is the only national program in which I've heard a house ad saying if you want to advertise on this network call this number. I've never heard of any other network doing so poorly that they had to run such an ad."

Schulberg points out that while most advertisers simply want to attract customers regardless of their political affiliation, on radio right now conservative-oriented shows are the only way to go.

That could change depending on the success of Progress Media, although many doubt whether there's truly an audience out there for liberal-themed content. "One of the things that make many people in radio skeptical of their efforts is there have not been very many successful liberal talk show hosts around the country," says Young. "San Francisco has a guy named Ron Owens who does very well against Rush Limbaugh, but he's a bit of an exception. My own belief is that those who are left of center tend to spend more of their time on the FM band, so that's where their focus should be ...on the people who are listening to NPR."

Despite the unpredictability of the news cycle, Young suggests that 2004 should be as close to a sure thing for political programming as media buyers are likely to find. "There are so many breaking issues out there, whether it's a recall or a Wall Street panic or a terrorist attack, that I don't think the media buying community in general looks closely enough at how this affects the audience for the next week or the next month because they're still looking at last fall's ratings. So this is an opportunity for media buyers to look forward instead of backward."

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