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Political advertising rules for local TV buying seem to be a constant source of confusion and consternation for advertisers and their agencies.  As agencies begin to plan and buy for 2016 – which all agree will be an unprecedented year for political advertising – it’s important that advertisers are able to differentiate fact from fiction.As a former account executive at a national rep firm and sales manager at a major local affiliate, I’ve heard it all.  Here are some of the most common misconceptions regarding political advertising in spot TV buying:

1.  “Stations are required to accept political advertising.”

  • The rules for political advertising require that stations must accept ads from candidates for Federal offices.  Stations do not have to accept state or local candidates’ advertising.
  • However, if the station decides to accept advertising from a local candidate or a statewide candidate they should be prepared to accept it from that candidate’s opponent (whether from the same party in a primary or a different party in a general election).
  • In many cases they choose to take political because of the revenue windfall that it can provide to the station, rather than because they are required to do so.

2.  “Candidates always get the lowest rates for their commercial time.”  

  • Federal candidates are entitled to the lowest rates in the “class” of time they purchase. When stations choose to accept advertising from local and statewide candidates, they tend to also apply the same consideration.
  • The way that this works is a little complicated, but it’s important for local TV advertisers to understand.
  • As an example, a station has a published political rate card that offers three “classes” of time for the Late News day part, based on likelihood of preemption (the station’s ability to bump the
  • buyer’s spot for another higher-paying advertiser):
  • Section 1:  fixed non pre-emptible – $1,125
  • Section 2:  pre-emptible with prior notification – $750
  • Section 3:  immediately pre-emptible – $500
  • If a station is sold out with regular advertisers in Section 3 (lowest cost, most pre-emptible status), the station can charge the candidate Section 2 in order to clear the order and pre-empt another advertiser (or political) who had purchased as Section 3.
  • If the station has inventory available, then the candidate can order at Section 3 and be cleared. Here’s the kicker:  if the station has an advertiser paying $450 for the news the candidate is entitled to the $450 rate, because it’s the LUR (lowest unit rate). In this example a station will code any rate from $1 to $749 as a Section 3.  So, whatever rate on the books is the lowest for that Section is the rate that the candidate is entitled to pay – if the station has inventory to sell.  Normally, a station tries to publish a political rate card whereby Section 3 and the LUR are the same.
  • One other important qualification regarding the “lowest rate” regulation: Political candidates are entitled to the lowest unit rate in the class of time they are purchasing (Section 1, 2 or 3) in political protection periods only.  These are 45 days prior to a primary and 60 days prior to a general election.

3.  “Political ads can’t be preempted a by other advertisers.”

  • This simply isn’t true.
  • In the above scenario, let’s say the qualifying political candidate has purchased the Late News at $450 and is coded in the station’s system at Section 3. A local carpet store has to get on the air and is willing to pay $750 (Section 2 – or the next highest “class”) in order to run.  In this case, the candidate can be preempted.
  • Conversely, the political candidate will likely not be preempted for another advertiser in the same “class” (so for $450 from another advertiser, the station will normally avoid preempting the candidate).
  • Frankly, all else being equal, stations tend not to want to preempt political schedules, and it is generally easier to preempt non-political ads, because advertisers and agencies tend to accept the explanation that “sorry, it’s for a political ad” and that they didn’t have much of a choice in being preempted.

4.  “Political Action Committees (PAC’s) and party committees are given the same consideration as candidates.”

  • Again, this is absolutely a misnomer.
  • PAC’s and party committees are not covered by any lowest unit rate or pre-emptibility rules or considerations.
  • In recent past election cycles, stations would charge as high a rate as possible to these entities, and these PAC’s and party committee dollars became considerable revenue enhancers for stations.
  • Recently, they have started to negotiate with stations much like regular advertisers (trying to secure the lowest rates possible) but they are not covered by any lowest unit rate guarantees and are subject to preemption.

5.  “Heavy political advertising caused my agency to not post.”

  • This is something that we hear all of the time. It makes Clients crazy, and frankly it generally just doesn’t fly.
  • When a post is conducted, actual performance is generally compared back to what was bought (purchased) and perhaps to what was planned.
  • Post vs. Purchased:  Political advertising impacts available inventory, not the media buyers’ ability to estimate ratings.  Not posting is the difference between the agency estimated ratings and the actualized or posted ratings.  If you experience high preemption levels, those spots aren’t counted in the “purchased” or “posted” numbers, so they have no bearing on a post vs. purchased comparison.  A poor showing here simply means your agency’s estimates were off for the spots that did air.
  • Post vs. Planned:  Inventory demands may indeed impact the ability of the buyer to purchase enough inventory to meet the planned requirements at the planned cost, or high preemption rates may cause some portion of the purchased inventory not to air.  However, this phenomenon plays itself out repeatedly during election cycles – the dates of which are well publicized.  Savvy buying organizations are able to assess political implications in individual markets during primary and general election windows, and to advise planners with respect to planning rates for inventory that will actually make it to air, realistic spot and TRP levels, etc.  In short, this should be accounted for during the planning stage.

6.  “Stations can’t run under-delivery (UD) Restitution during a political window”

  • Stations can in fact run UD during a political protection window as long as the station clearly identifies it as UD. If it is done this way, the station does not have to give the no-charge UD spots any lowest unit rate consideration. UD spots are a separate “class” and are not subject to the lowest rate rule.
  • Stations like to say that they can’t, but in reality it has nothing to do with rules regarding political advertising and rates. As with the “you can’t pre-empt the politician” statement, advertisers and agencies seem to accept the argument that you can’t run UD in a political protection window.
  • It is true, however, that when political demand is high in a market, there might be limited unsold inventory to accommodate a lot of UD. Stations may be reluctant to allocate much inventory to UD if there are a lot of advertisers lining up to pay premium rates for that inventory.  However, there is a difference between “can’t” and “won’t” – namely that in some cases “won’t” is negotiable.

As your agency enters planning and negotiations in the latter part of 2015 for your 2016 local television activity, ask them these questions:

  • What are the key political windows in each of our markets?
  • Outside of the defined (i.e. 45 day and 60 day) windows, what does the agency feel is likely to be the impact of additional political advertising throughout the year (issue, PAC, committee, etc.)?
  • What are the cost implications during various political windows, and what kind of planning costs have been used?  What is the risk of preemption based on the cost assumptions that have been employed?
  • For branding advertising or flexible launch or promotional activity, are there weeks which should be avoided outright?
  • What are realistic UD recovery assumptions during political windows?  For stations which owe a lot of UD, has the agency applied appropriate pressure to try to secure timely restitution – political window or not?

Political windows are undeniably challenging for local TV buying, but a solid understanding of myth vs. reality can help to give spot TV advertisers the best possible chance for success in 2016.

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