Marcia Owens-Reder is MMi's Local Insights Lead

In the movie No Country for Old Men, the line “you can’t stop what’s coming” is the perfect description for political advertising dollars that wreak havoc for media buyers and advertisers everywhere in the country.  Most clients ask their agencies “how can you protect our media investments during the political window?”  Agencies need to be prepared that every two years there will be an election, the rules for political advertising have not changed, and they need to plan accordingly.  

The marketplace uncertainty has further exploded due to changes in programming and viewing habits brought about by COVID-19.  The coronavirus has introduced additional complexity, but again this simply requires additional research and contingency planning.

Local Political Advertising Rules

First, a quick recap of the rules regarding political advertising.

  1. Stations must accept ads from candidates for Federal offices only.  State and local candidates are at the discretion of the station.  However, if they accept one, they must grant equal opportunity and reasonable access.
  2. Federal candidates are entitled to the lowest unit rates (LUR) in the “class” of time they purchase in political protection periods only.  These are 45 days prior to a primary and 60 days prior to a general election.
  3. PACs (Political Action Committees) are not covered by any lowest unit rate rules.
  4. Stations CAN run bonus weight/under-delivery during a political protection window so long as the station clearly identifies it as such.  UD spots are a separate “class” and are not subject to the lowest rate rule.

Delivering Ratings Estimated/Purchased

Political Advertising is NOT the cause of the media buy not posting to Final Buy (i.e. purchased).  This is driven rather buy the buyer’s ability to correctly estimate ratings and steward the buys.  Blaming poor posts vs. Final Buy on political ad windows often means inadequate preparation.  The following guidelines will help buyer’s post whether in a political window or not.

  1. Knowledge is power.  Know the station’s history.  Do they give fair and equal rotations?  Are the makegoods within the same dayparts or upgrades, or do they pre-empt without notice -- leaving the buyer with no opportunity to shop the dollars elsewhere in the market.  A buyer does not have to accept an inferior makegood.  Don’t accept less than you (and your Client) deserve!
  2. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket; spread the wealth, and diversify your Client’s risk!  Independent stations have much more local inventory, giving them more flexibility to be negotiable.  Gone are the days of dominant ratings on one or two stations.  While ratings may be lower across the board due to audience erosion, with the updates in Nielsen methodology,  there are now opportunities to buy that may not have existed in the days of the diary. While one station may decline a few share points, another may pick up that viewership.  Diversify your portfolio!
  3. With the transition to all markets being electronically measured (since July, 2018), buyers have more data available to re-rate, re-evaluate and re-negotiate. LPM markets have daily demo ratings.  Metered and Code Reader markets have daily overnight Household ratings, and RPD+ markets have monthly books.  No longer do buyers have to wait until a week before the quarter ends to know how the media buy is delivering. Active stewardship can help to alleviate gaps in estimating and other unforeseen circumstances.  Don’t put off tomorrow what you can do today!

Delivering Ratings Planned

Political advertising could affect the overall delivery to the plan thereby disrupting the communication goals put in place.  This should not be treated as a surprise, because it happens in every major election window.  Employ strategies to combat the inevitable.

  1. Consider “over-buying” the media plan by a reasonable percentage based on the historical pre-emption rates in each market.  For example, in Florida markets, if there was a 5% fallout rate due to political advertising 2 years ago, then execute a plan to 105% of communication goal, and manage the pre-emptions down.  This allows the buyers to just say no to a makegood that is unacceptable while managing overall delivery vs. plan.  Buyers can demand credits from stations for spots that did not run as ordered without prior notification.
  2. Avoid cookie cutter market plans.   Plan heavier broadcast weeks on the outside of political windows.  Evaluate a media mix with a higher percentage of cable, OTT, digital, and radio during political windows. Adjust the daypart mix to reduce news and increase dayparts with more local inventory.
  3. Cost per points should be planned based on historical data, compared to SQAD as a benchmark and planned weight levels and daypart mixes. Unreasonable cost per point increases are no guarantee that spots will not get pre-empted during a political year.  

The Coronavirus Factor

The COVID-19 outbreak and ensuing economic impact introduces far-reaching additional complexities into the TV ad marketplace on top of the elections this Summer and Fall.  They are not, however, insurmountable.  Once again, preparation is key.

  1. TV consumption shifted dramatically during the prolonged stay-at-home period in many markets, and some of those shifts may lead to lasting changes in viewership by daypart and station in some DMAs. This requires close analysis of more recent audience data.
  2. Programming has been significantly impacted by the epidemic.  Live sports has disappeared for a time, and some may not return until 2021 at the earliest.  Other sports may return with different schedules or formats, and unknown audience appeal.  Production for Fall programming experienced a lengthy hiatus, which will impact the availability of new scripted or produced programming during the normal Fall premier window.  It is imperative to understand the impact of these programming shifts on schedules and on audiences.
  3. The virus is not eradicated, and some public health experts have suggested that spread could increase again in the Fall.  This could lead to additional lifestyle changes (i.e. new stay-at-home orders, etc.) which might further impact TV consumption.  Agencies and advertisers who plan for contingencies such as these will be a step ahead of the rest of the pack.

The 2020 Election is Nearly Upon Us, But It Isn’t Too Late

  • is a good resource to find out what is happening.  It should be noted that TVB is the trade association representing the local broadcast television industry (i.e. sellers), so insights should be viewed through that lens:
  • Ratings services like Nielsen and Comscore offer a wealth of opportunities to look at trending from 2016, 2018, etc.
  • It is more crucial than ever for buyers to understand what is going on in their markets.  This means everything from local ratings trends to local races and political issues to COVID-19 impact on TV in their market(s).

Get in the know and familiarize yourself.  The more you know the wiser you become, and the better job you will do for your Clients during what is shaping up to be a turbulent second half of 2020.

Photo credit: © Waingro |