Advertising on Television Rockets, as Super PACs Pour in the Dough: Total Spending $5 Billion

After the votes are counted in November, there will be a big winner in the 2012 election who is not Mitt Romney, Barack Obama nor their top donors. This winner does not want to change anything about how America’s latest national election was run.

The unadvertised victors are media businesses that are seeing political advertising profits reach into the billions. There is no one estimate that combines all of 2012’s campaign advertising across all media, but one of the biggest winners clearly will be local TV stations and regional TV networks in 10 presidential swing states—and in California because of its costly statewide ballot measures.

These TV stations alone will earn $2.8 billion in the 2011-12 election cycle, according to a forecast by Moody’s Investors Service, with a big slice of profits coming from shadowy political groups that sprouted like mushrooms after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in early 2010. They are part of media landscape that last month surpassed the 2008 presidential campaign’s spending record. 

“Based on the new environment of virtually unlimited political advertising, we have long expected that political ad sales would set records in 2012,” Moody’s said. “This year the surge in political spending could translate to as much as $2.8 billion in ad revenue for local broadcast and cable television—more than half of the estimated $5 billion total outlay on 2012 political advertising in all media, in line with our initial high-case forecast for a 19% to 27% increase for the broadcasters.” 

The way this mix of money, politics and media is reshaping and distorting the electoral process is one of the biggest news stories of 2012. As Media Matters reported, “The sheer volume is hard to comprehend. This year, more than 97,000 political ads have aired in the state of Iowa alone; nearly 115,000 have been broadcast in Ohio. That's two and a half times the number that aired in Ohio four years ago."

This story has many dimensions, but one that particularly stands out concerns a conflict of interest at the heart of being a media business. The local television stations that are reaping this advertising bonanza are largely not covering the biggest sponsors of the political ads on their airwaves.

“While many TV stations are covering local and national races, they are ignoring the ever-expanding role money and the media are playing in these contests,” a new report by the progressive media reform group,, found. “It’s clear that the election’s biggest winners are the conglomerates that own local TV stations in battleground states. And the biggest loser? Democracy.”

New Political Money Trail Emerges

One of the central features of the post-Citizens United world is that many political groups were created by known partisans—like Karl Rove and the Koch brothers—and structured in a way that they could collect unlimited donations, not identify donors, and run political ads whose message was clear but did not require them to file reports with the Federal Election Commission. The Democrats quickly copied the tactic.

The emergence of super PACS with no contribution limits and politicized non-profits that are pushing the boundaries of federal tax law—to the point of inviting lawsuits—have been well covered in the media. But the media criticism part of the Free Press analysis concerning local television news in swing states has not.

What’s especially frustrating to the Free Press and other progressive reformers is that there are new tools that investigative reporters and citizens can use to trace the very groups that have figured out how to evade disclosure to the FEC. Since August, anyone buying a political ad on a TV network affiliate in the 50 biggest media markets—including many swing state cities—must fill out a Federal Communications Commission form and post it online. In other words, what the FEC doesn’t see, the FCC does and is making available.     

At the biggest stations, reporters in television newsrooms can simply go online and start downloading the latest advertising buys. At the smaller stations not under this electronic FCC umbrella, local TV reporters still have to walk down the hall and ask colleagues in advertising to show them the public file of who is booking and paying for the latest political ads. Some reporters are being told to get lost, as these Ohio student journalists found. But the information is there.

“Some journalists at ABC, NBC, want to see disclosure and who is funding the ads,” said Adam Smith, communications director of Public Campaign, which supports public financing of elections and full disclosure of political spending. “The parent company is opposing the disclosure.”     

Shining a Light on Shadowy Groups

After years of public-interest lobbying, last spring the FCC issued its rule requiring network affiliates in the 50 largest media markets to put the ad-buying information online. It went into effect even though the TV lobby has sued to block it. Anyone can go to the FCC website, type in a station’s name or city, and see which groups are buying ads.

Here’s the FCC’s link to an ABC station in Cincinnati, Ohio, where the Karl Rove’s non-profit, Crossroads Grassroots Political Strategies, has bought dozens of “issue ads” during prime-time hours. The group does not file FEC reports. In another example from this spring, during Wisconsin’s gubernatorial recall election, the Koch brothers’ group, Americans for Prosperity, did not file campaign reports with the state because it claimed all of its ads were "public education," an old loophole in the law. But the Sunlight Foundation, a non-profit that collects and analyzes campaign finance reports, worked with a Green Bay newspaper and found information at local TV stations that tied the rightwing group to a big television ad campaign. They also reported who else was investing in that election’s outcome.

An intriguing report by the Columbia Journalism Review noted that some very big local TV ad buys were canceled at the last minute after Republican presidential hopefuls dropped out. There is likely to be similar reshuffling of the swing-state ad buys in coming weeks. This money trail, as much as polling, will reveal what is really going on inside the campaigns and shadowy allied groups. Ad buys reveal which voters are—and are not—being targeted.

The Sunlight Foundation will be trying to track these last-minute changes in ad-buying activity at a new Web site, It is hoping that journalists and citizens in swing states—or districts that could tip the balance of who controls the House—will help with crowdsourcing the research. That ability is based on the FCC forms the agency is requiring stations put online. In some cases, stations are uploading their entire ad-buying file; there is no standardization.

These public interest efforts will not stop local TV stations from reaping the windfall Moody’s said is surging in battleground states. But they might enable a few more reporters and local TV newsrooms departments to better inform viewers who is monopolizing the airwaves.


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