Stations Await Call From the President

White House begins to buy spots and is also delivering message with station interviews

While the GOP candidates and the ubiquitous
Super PACs are spending the big money
in the early primaries, President Obama is
slowly and strategically starting to deliver
his local TV message as well. The Obama administration bought a series
of spots that ran in some key markets, including Cincinnati; Des Moines,
Iowa; and Columbus, Ohio, Jan. 20 to Jan 26, and reinforced some of the
points driven home in the president’s State of the Union address Jan. 24.

For WBNS Columbus, the Obama buy was around $28,000. “He’s
building a little bit of presence here,” says Tom Griesdorn, president
and general manager.

Obama appears to be basing his initial message on energy-related
issues, perhaps tied to his defeat of the Keystone pipeline project. “He
talked about standing up to Big Oil,” Les Vann, vice president and
general manager of WKRC Cincinnati, says of spots on that station.

The Obama camp is sure to target the usual swing states, including
Ohio, Indiana and Virginia, while new battlegrounds pop up each election
season as well. (Station managers in Indiana and Missouri, which are
other key states, said the president had not bought air time yet.) Some
believe Arizona, with the state’s controversial immigration issues (not to
mention the president’s much-photographed tarmac discussion with Gov.
Jan Brewer in Phoenix), may be up for grabs too.

“A lot of people are calling this a swing state,” says
Debbie Bush, KOLD Tucson vice president and general
manager. “That hasn’t happened in a long time.”

President Obama has also been taking his message
to local TV viewers in a less costly way: by hosting
station reporters at the White House. The president
has conducted considerably more station interviews
than recent presidents, say local TV news veterans;
that includes chats with KIRO Seattle, WEAR
Pensacola, KOAA Colorado Springs, WPVI Philadelphia
and WXII Greensboro.
Towson University professor
Martha Joynt Kumar, quoted in
the D.C. publication The Hill,
said the president has sat for 408
general media interviews in his
three years in office, compared to
President Bush’s 136 and President
Clinton’s 166 at a similar point in their terms.

Local TV crews admit they are fairly flummoxed
as to how the White House selects stations
for interviews, other than the administration
favoring strong news stations in battleground
states, and often ones in markets with substantial
military populations. “They came to us,” says one GM. “When they
called, we took the opportunity.”

Norfolk, Va., has proven to be one favored target, with WVEC,
WTKR and WAVY all getting face time with the president. “From everything
we hear, both sides know Virginia is in play,” says Tod Smith,
WVEC president and general manager.

The White House press office declined comment on how it selects
stations for interviews.

For the GOP, with Florida in the rear view, the attention moves on
to Super Tuesday a month from now. Primaries in Ohio, Virginia and
Tennessee, among others, will be contested on March 6.

Says Griesdorn: “The month of February is going to be interesting.”