Reaping a Midterm Harvest

Political ads help a heartland market rebound

Politics typically begin to roil the cornfields and county fairs of Des Moines, Iowa, in the run-up to the presidential caucuses. But the state capital has been in the midst of a hot political season leading up to this week's midterm elections. And the influx of political-ad money has helped reverse last year's drop in revenue in the nation's No. 73 market.

A slowdown in retail and automotive advertising in a non-election year led local broadcasters to slide through 2005 with gross revenues of $58.5 million, down from $65.5 million in 2004, according to BIA Financial.

But things are looking up for 2006. “For reasons we don't particularly understand, we've had an enormous amount of money come into the political cycle,” says Jim Boyer, president/general manager of New York Times' NBC affiliate WHO.

“We've had more state races than many of us can recall in years past,” says Paul Fredericksen, president/general manager of Hearst-Argyle's CBS affiliate KCCI. “I don't know why this season has seemed to have so many more [ads]. I think people recognize what the power of television can do.”

Besides politics, steady insurance and telecommunications markets in the city have picked up the slack from the declining auto market. And while automobile advertising may be declining on-air, stations are still looking to stay involved in that sector. KCCI, for instance, has set up a sponsored auto marketplace section on its Website.

KCCI remains the dominant player in the area's news, consistently claiming victory in the noon and 5, 6 and 10 p.m. frames. But WHO has made inroads. While the CBS affiliate's early-evening news has long enjoyed an Oprah Winfrey Show lead-in, WHO is hoping that The Rachael Ray Show at 11 a.m. will provide a boost to its noon newscast.

Meanwhile, Sinclair-owned Fox affiliate KDSM, in the middle of a retransmission battle with Iowa's largest cable operator, Mediacom, has cut itself a news niche at 9 p.m.

“The time is right,” says KDSM General Manager Mike Wolfson. That newscast, produced by sister station KGAN in Cedar Rapids, has been growing in its time slot with new anchor Lindsey Grahms, earning a 3.0 rating/7 share in households in July.

Grahms isn't the only new anchor in local news. Last year, WHO poached KCCI weekend anchor Erin Kiernan for its team. Although a year-long non-compete agreement kept Kiernan from appearing on WHO until June, that didn't stop her from delivering the news.

During the seven months she waited to return to the air, Kiernan provided the voice for “Newsbot 13,” an animated online-only newsreader on WHO's Website (see B&C, 11/14/05).

“It was an interesting experiment from our point of view, and it got some initial attention,” Boyer says. “But it never really caught on.” Newsbot 13 was “retired” when Kiernan went on-air.

Auto classifieds and animated news anchors aren't the only interesting things showing up on station Websites. A few weeks ago, WHO started running raw video feeds that don't make it to the full newscast, including footage of a “pretty exciting police chase” in which a news car was “almost wrecked by a police car,” says Boyer.

And even though 2007 is not a major election year, political-advertising prospects look good for next year. With the '08 presidential election and Iowa caucuses just around the corner, station managers have high hopes for upcoming political advertising.

“We think that political advertising for the caucuses should start mid '07,” says Fredericksen. “But that's just an educated guess.”