Advocacy Ads: Not-So-Easy Money

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Rare for a nonelection year, political advertising in 2005 is shaping up to be a cash cow for stations. Despite the potential profits, however, TV executives are discovering that advocacy ads can be a headache. Because the stakes are high, activists now routinely mount public-relations campaigns against stations that run opponents’ ads, or fail to run their own.

More worrisome, some activists—on both right and left—have hinted they’ll force stations to fend off costly FCC complaints or challenges to their broadcast licenses for showing even the slightest favor to one side of an issue.

"Any time an ad misleads people about the President’s plan, stations can expect a call from us," says Danny Diaz, spokesmanm for the Republican National Committee.

Free market activists have promised to spend at least $50 million promoting private Social Security accounts, mostly on TV. Opponents of the White House plan, including the American Association of Retired Persons and the NAACP, aim to counter them dollar for dollar. Tens of millions more are expected to pour for ads encouraging stands on tort reform, gay marriage and other hot-button social issues. Tens of millions more will flow to ad campaigns when Congress begins rewriting U.S. telecommunications laws this summer.

With all that money at stake, some groups want more than just time for their buy.

Earlier this month, RNC Deputy Counsel Michael Bayes penned an ominous sounding letter to 14 TV stations in Florida, Indiana and Pennsylvania, urging them not to air ads by liberal activist group MoveOn.org warning that Bush plan would cut guaranteed benefits by as much as 46%. Republican cried foul because no one current alive will have their guaranteed benefits cut that much under the President’s proposal.

None of the 14 stations running the ad heeded the GOP’s request to pull the spots, although NBC affiliate WNDU did get MoveOn to agree to changes in the wording. The ads stopped running, as scheduled, three days after stations got the Feb. 3 letter. Nevertheless, Diaz considers the letter a huge success.

"Next time MoveOn tries to buy time, stations across the country will give their claims a very close look," he said.. Jim Behling, WNDU general manager, indeed believes the letter tone was meant to scare. "They were dropping phrases like ‘FCC requirements’ and hinting about what our legal obligations are. Soon our licenses are coming up for renewal. It would be naïve to think the RNC wasn’t aware of the timing."

Would the Republican Party really seek to strip licenses or file FCC complaints against stations airing MoveOn’s ad? Diaz won’t say no and clearly likes the impression it would. "I won’t discuss strategy," he says. But "stay tuned."

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