Stations’ Health Care Windfall Tops $45 Million

Both sides of issue likely to spend big through fall

It’s as if the election season has come early, as advertising related to President Obama’s plan to reform the nation’s healthcare system continues to flow into station coffers. According to figures from TNS Campaign Media Analysis Group (CMAG), over $60 million has been spent thus far in an attempt to get viewers to pressure their elected officials on health care one way or the other, with around $45 million of that going to local television.

Until Washington works out an agreement on the polarizing issue, CMAG President Evan Tracey says the ad money will continue to gush. “Big issues are typically not resolved quickly,” he says, “and this is a big issue.”

Just like with a presidential election, battleground states have emerged in the debate. They’re typically states with moderate Democratic senators who will play a vital part in deciding how the attempt at reform shakes out. Tracey says the likes of Louisiana, Arkansas, Indiana, Maine and Montana are prime targets.

As Elkhart, Ind., has emerged as an emblem of hard-up America, the South Bend-Elkhart market has gotten a much needed shot in the arm from the health-care debate. WNDU VP/General Manager John O’Brien says he had five separate health-care-related accounts on the air last week, the sponsors ranging from Americans for Stable Quality Care to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “That’s a lot of activity,” he says. “It’s enough money to make a difference.”

Except for Washington D.C., the major markets largely haven’t gotten a major taste of the cash. The stations in the markets where Obama has held his town hall meetings to discuss the issue haven’t necessarily seen the largesse either. “We got a little, but it just didn’t materialize,” says KJCT Grand Junction (Col.) General Manager Kristy Santiago, whose market hosted the president August 15.

General managers say the spending is, in a sense, found money—they didn’t necessarily seek it out, and aren’t sure how long it will last. “We thought there might be the potential for it,” says KTHV Little Rock President/General Manager Larry Audas.

Tracey says handicapping political issues is folly, but he anticipates the debate will continue to snowball—and the ad dollars flow—through the fall. “If I was a betting man, I’d say it goes through the end of the year,” he says. “There’s too much disagreement on this issue, which bodes well for it continuing.”

With any luck, substantial spending from both sides of the reform issue might even last until the midterm election dollars start coming in. Some station execs say it’s already starting to feel like an election year. “You’re in a non-political year,” says one, “but you wouldn’t know it.”