November 5, 2014 Last Updated 8:46 am

Broadcasters appear to have won this election cycle as newspapers see few gains in ad spending

With campaign ad spending climbing due to Citizens United ruling, broadcasters are the ones seeing dramatic gains in spending, newspapers none at all

The mid-term elections are over and now our mailboxes will be a little less full of campaign flyers, and our television programs can return to being filled with ads for Viagra and Cialis. For broadcasters, this has been the good season, with revenues climbing dramatically over the same quarter last year. But for newspaper publishers, the election cycle did little to stem the declines they are seeing in print advertising.

For those outside the U.S., our elections cycles are a bit odd. Every two years every member of the House of Representatives must face reelection, every four years voters election the President, every six years members of the Senate are up for reelection (that means every two years one-third of Senators face reelection).

Nixon-campaign-flyerThe Presidential cycle is the biggest for advertising, and the longest cycle. The two years after this cycle is modest in comparison, but still better than those off years when only local elections are held.

That means newspaper ad directors must take into account the election cycle when budgeting, looking not only at what they did last year, but in a comparable time period. In the past, election advertising provided a nice bump versus the same quarter in an off year. Not this time, though.

The third quarter, plus the first month of the fourth quarter, is when campaign advertising is at its heaviest – and there is still time for some newspapers to report better than last year numbers thanks to campaign advertising. But the big winner this cycle was broadcast and digital – especially broadcast. With the money being spent on campaigns dramatically increasing thanks to the Supreme Court ruling known as Citizens United, broadcasters saw a huge increase in ad dollars in the third quarter.

Just look at the earnings reports from Journal Communications and E.W. Scripps. The two companies agreed recently to swap properties, with Journal Communications gaining the newspaper properties, and Scripps getting the broadcast properties. Journal Communications reported its TV stations increased their advertising revenue 22.8 percent in Q3, while its newspapers saw their revenue fall 5.4 percent. Now some of the gain was in retransmission fees. But the company said that political advertising accounted for $3.9 million in the quarter, compared to $0.3 million a year ago. Political advertising was not even mentioned in the part of the report dedicated to publishing. Scripps reports Q3 earnings after the bell on Friday.

This morning Tribune Publishing, the publishing side of The Tribune Company, spun off in August, reported its Q3 earnings and said print advertising fell 9.7 percent.

Meanwhile, Kantar Media estimated that of the $112 million that was to be spent on just one Senate race in North Carolina, about $70 million was spent on TV advertising alone, two-thirds of that coming from money coming from outside the state. Over 60,000 TV ad spots were broadcast from January 1 to election day.


Where is digital in all of this? Good question (glad I asked). I don’t know. Digital advertising is presumed to go to the same media owners of print and broadcast properties. But a lot of advertising is sold into ad networks. On election day I even saw a couple political ads on TNM coming in from Google.

Were I return to working for a newspaper (unlikely, they only hire their own these days) I would push hard for the launching of ancillary websites covering politics and other topics. This increases the real estate for advertising, while not seriously increasing the cost structure (if done properly).

A few newspapers experimented with new mobile apps during the last election cycle, but these efforts were attempts at adding paid subscriptions. Papers like the NYT might revisit their effort for the Presidential election cycle that will start soon (any minute now), but for the most part these efforts are about paid content, not advertising.

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