Stations Just Say No to Pot Spots

Marijuana could be a lucrative new ad category in legalizing states, but for stations there are many vagaries to weed out
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Television stations normally jump on new ad categories like Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman on a wayward pass, but local sales executives in Colorado and Washington State are playing it safe when it comes to courting marijuana retailers. While both states took the significant step of legalizing recreational marijuana, opening the door for robust retail competition, station execs say the issue is—as of now—too controversial, and too cloudy, to consider taking ad money from the pot peddlers.

Pot smoking may be legal in their state, says Justin Sasso, president and CEO of the Colorado Broadcasters Association, but that’s not the case at the federal level—which happens to be where stations go to get their broadcast licenses renewed. “The Association encourages them not to take retail [marijuana] money,” says Sasso. “All broadcasters are licensed to the FCC, and we just don’t think it’s wise for them to risk their license—or the legal fees required to fight for their license—if the federal government decides to crack down on broadcasters.”

Marijuana ads have run on television before. In 2010, Tribune’s KTXL Sacramento aired a commercial, paid for by medicinal marijuana advocacy group CanaCare, advertising a dispensary. Viewer complaints were minimal, and the FCC did not appear to have an issue with the spot. Hearst TV’s KCRA Sacramento also aired a commercial.

Tribune is under new leadership, and KTXL is unlikely to do so again. “We made the decision to stop carrying [marijuana ads],” says Jerry Del Core, VP/GM (who was not at the station in 2010.) “It’s a cloudy enough issue—we don’t need to be on the cutting edge of it.”

Seeing Green

It is indeed a murky matter, and the historic legalization in Washington and Colorado, including the first actual shops to open in Colorado with the start of 2014, has kept local newsrooms buzzing. The Denver Post has a full-time marijuana editor and a standalone site, TheCannabist.com. At KUSA Denver, political reporter Brandon Rittiman is the go-to reporter on marijuana matters.

Station sales executives, constantly hungering to unearth new revenue streams, are intrigued by the potential of the category. General managers in Denver, Grand Junction, Colo., Seattle and Yakima, Wash., declined to speak with attribution, but several said pot advertising was on their radar screen, especially after the Colorado outlets did stunning sales—37 shops moved $5 million worth of weed in the first week, according to The Huffington Post—to start. “If it’s a viable business, there’s a need and an opportunity for the owners to build a brand and get known,” says one station chief in Denver.

Yet nearly every one said, until the federal government makes its stance on marijuana clearer, they’ll stay far away from pot ads. “On the advice of our FCC attorney, we have decided to pass,” says Doug Holroyd, general manager at KAYU in Spokane.

According to the FCC website, “cigarettes, little cigars and smokeless tobacco are prohibited on any medium of electronic communication,” though it’s not certain if marijuana falls in the cigarette category. An FCC representative referred a query about the matter to the Department of Justice. The DOJ did not return a call at presstime.

Cable, of course, is not subject to the same regulations as free television. No television execs contacted for the story had seen pot ads on cable. Queries to Comcast Spotlight were not answered at presstime.

Taking the High Road

The station chiefs said they’d not yet heard from dispensaries or agencies looking to be on TV. Some say the demand for pot is so great right now that the vendors don’t need to promote themselves, and newspapers have seen little business from the vendors. “There’s tons of demand and very few places to get it,” says one Denver TV vet. “There’s no need to advertise.”

The Colorado Broadcasters Association has actually lobbied to ease the restrictions for broadcasters to run pot ads, and level the playing field alongside print and the Internet. Under state law, a station would have to show that no more than 30% of its audience was under 21 when a marijuana ad runs. But until the legislative picture gets more in focus, Sasso suggests station sales crews put their energies into less controversial ad categories.

“Until the FCC and the federal government see things differently, it’s extremely risky for broadcasters to take advertising money from retail marijuana,” he says. “I absolutely understand the desire to, but it’s never worth the risk of losing your license over.”

BET ON IT: TRIBUNE IS SUPER BOWL CHAMP

While the last NBA Finals, between Miami and San Antonio, was a match made in heaven for Post-Newsweek (which owns ABC affiliates in both markets), the Super Bowl was a win—regardless of who won—for Tribune, which owns Fox affiliates in Seattle and Denver.

As tradition dictates, the stations put up local delicacies in a good natured wager: KCPQ Seattle offered some locally farmed river salmon, while KDVR, recently acquired in Tribune’s Local TV acquisition, offered rack of lamb.

Peter Maroney, VP and general manager at KDVR-KWGN, expected the game to put up a shocking 90 share in DMA No. 17. “It will be a huge number,” he said a few days before kickoff. “The Broncos are the biggest sports draw in this market—always have been.”

While both are NBC affiliates, Gannett’s KUSA Denver and newly acquired KING Seattle enjoyed having a home team in the game—and a little wagering as well. The losing general manager had to don the enemy team’s jersey, and spend the day bragging about the winning team. Both sides also put some fine wine on the line. “It’s a lot of fun inside the company,” said Ray Heacox, KING-KONG president and general manager

Television stations normally jump on new ad categories like Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman on a wayward pass, but local sales executives in Colorado and Washington State are playing it safe when it comes to courting marijuana retailers. While both states took the significant step of legalizing recreational marijuana, opening the door for robust retail competition, station execs say the issue is—as of now—too controversial, and too cloudy, to consider taking ad money from the pot peddlers.

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