Iowa Stations Cash In...Eventually

Primary coming to your town? Be forewarned, ad money may arrive late

Rick Santorum may have gained the most politically among GOP presidential candidates in the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, though the real winners were Iowa TV stations. But if you are at a station with this election circus coming to town, be warned: Dollars came in late in Iowa.

In the end, the political ad spend reached the level local TV executives expected in Iowa, where multiple sources estimate the ! gure at about $17 million. But it didn’t come easily. Local TV execs cite a number of factors for the inconsistent spending, including the late announcement of Iowa’s caucus date and the high number of Republican candidate debates.

“If you had asked me a month ago, I would’ve been a little leery about when and if the money would come in as we’d budgeted for this year,” says John Huff, general sales manager at KWWL Cedar Rapids. “But the past few weeks, it arrived.”

While many sales executives in the state’s TV markets expected a consistent flow from the Republican hopefuls throughout 2011, it was a deluge in recent weeks—driven by so-called Super PAC (Political Action Committee) cash—that finally brought the numbers up to the forecasted levels.

“Four years ago, Romney had six months of advertising,” says Dale Woods, president and general manager of WHO Des Moines. “This time, it was four weeks.”

Stations hit their political numbers despite a relative dearth of candidates spending on TV, thanks in part to an incumbent president. The 2007-08 caucus lead-up involved both the Republican and Democratic parties, and had around 10 candidates spending on Iowa television; only a handful of candidates spent significantly this year.

Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry—who was never in the race on Jan. 3—spent the most money on television advertising heading into the Iowa caucuses, according to an informal poll by B&C of local TV station executives. Execs say that a Super PAC that independently supports front-runner Mitt Romney was the second-largest spender.

Iowa TV executives also say PAC money, which typically pops up in the general election, ended up accounting for close to half of the recent total political spending in the state. This time around, there is no limit on what the Super PAC’s (like the Restore Our Future Super PAC that backs Romney) can spend, as long as they operate independently of a candidate.

Much of that spending went towards negative advertising. While conventional wisdom says meanness does not play in Iowa, the PAC ads’ often attacking nature seems to have worked, with various groups talking down candidate Newt Gingrich, say local TV execs, more than they talked up their own preferred choices.

“It’s normally never negative here, but that’s one dynamic I’ve seen change with the PAC money involved,” says WHO’s Woods. “The candidate buys are positive, but the PAC money is negative. I think that’s a dynamic you’ll see all over the country.”