Buying Reality: Political Ads, Money and Local Television News

By Professor Danilo Yanich

Even in the age of the Internet, political ads on local television are the most important way candidates in the United States convey their messages. That has been true for a half of a century. Political campaigns in the U.S. are based on money—a lot of it. The estimated cost of the 2020 election is $11 billion, up from $9.8 billion in 2016. Much of that spending has been in the form of political ads on local TV newscasts. As a result, political ads on television are very big business. That is exactly what happened in the 2016 election, especially in battleground states. There were stark differences in how the Presidential and Down Ballot races (those campaigns for the Senate, House of Representatives, Governor, Attorneys General, etc.) appeared on local TV newscasts. In the presidential race, Hillary Clinton and her supporters bought 75% of the political ads. Previously that would have translated into a victory. In fact, Clinton won the popular vote. But, Donald Trump won the election with more Electoral College votes, in large part, because he reaped the benefit of $5 billion in coverage for which he did not pay. Trump’s tweets were irresistible to the television networks as he made one outlandish statement after another. Statements that would have been disqualifying in the past. It was an unprecedented campaign. But, for the Down Ballot races it was business as usual. Those candidates did not enjoy the celebrity of the presidential contenders. They relied on political ads on local TV newscasts, not tweets, to convey their messages. That being the case, what did the public learn about those races? Who controlled the political rhetoric of local campaigns?

Why Local TV News?

But why local TV news? There are important reasons. First, its audience—on an average day it has over 18 million viewers. That dwarfs the 1.9 million the combined average daily viewers of CNN, Fox and MSNBC. Second, its ubiquity—6,400 hours of local newscasts are presented in the U.S. everyday and viewers spend an average of 2.5 hours/day watching it. Third, trust—it is the most trusted source of local information, greatly outpacing social media. The COVID pandemic vividly demonstrated that point as local TV viewership jumped 35% when the public desperately needed information about their local situation. Fourth, the voters—viewers of local TV newscasts are the most likely to vote. That is where the “undecideds” are, as President Obama’s campaign manager called them. Fifth, local TV news has become vitally important for local information as local newspapers disappear in the U.S. Sixth, and crucial for my purposes, that is where the money is. In 2016, over of the campaign, local television stations got a total of $4.4 billion to air political ads.

Imbalances

The book focuses on political communication through a comparison of the political ads, money and political stories between the Presidential and Down Ballot races on local television news. I looked at ten television markets, nine of which were in battleground states during the last two months of the 2016 campaign I found three significant imbalances. Two were the result of decisions by the political candidates and the PACs that supported them. The third was the result of decisions made by local television stations about how they would cover the campaign:

Imbalance 1:The volume of ads: Hillary Clinton sponsored three times more ads than Donald Trump and lost. Trump did not need the ads because he recognized the campaign as a reality show and got more free media coverage than any other candidate in history and won.

Imbalance 2: The target of ads and the money: In the ten markets, the stations aired over 200,000 ads for which they were paid over $220,000,000. But, neither the ads nor the money were evenly distributed between the Presidential and Down Ballot races. Two-thirds of the political ads on local TV were directed at the Down Ballot campaign. Two-thirds of the money also went there. This was the “business as usual” aspect of the campaign. Political ads, not tweets, were the primary mechanism that candidates and PACs used to persuade voters for local races.

Imbalance 3: The coverage of the campaigns: Although the overwhelming majority of ads were directed at the Down Ballot races, local television newscasts almost ignored them in their political coverage— only 13 percent of the time devoted to political stories addressed local races. Rather, the local TV stations directed their attention overwhelmingly to the contest between Trump and Clinton. The time spent on political ads outnumbered political stories by 22 to 1. As a result, voters were left to their own devices to fill in the space—the bought reality—between what the ads said was real and what the political stories covered.

What about 2020?

But what about 2020? The short answer is that is it 2016 on steroids. Although a contagious president still holds rallies, the COVID pandemic greatly diminished retail politics. So, political advertising has become even more prominent. The conventional wisdom was that it was going to move to the Internet. That has happened to a point. But, between January and mid-September 2020, the money tells the story. Local TV got $2.4 billion; digital ads generated $781 million and network television came in at only $110.5 million. That imbalance will become more pronounced as the final tallies are made.

Why does it look this way?

This version of politics, money and media should not be a surprise. We set it up this way. There are three factors which I call a “perfect storm”. The first is that our politics are based on what Francis Lee describes as “insecure majorities”. Control of our political institutions, particularly the Presidency and Congress, is now tenuous from one election to another. When the majority is insecure and the possibility of control over the institution is in play, politics is played as a zero-sum game in which bipartisan efforts are the victim. Second, we have a political campaign finance system that almost guarantees that version of politics as it makes money the central concern of candidates. Third, we have a media system that benefits greatly from the first two features. Media scholars Robert McChesney and John Nichols have called it the “money-media election complex”.

What does this mean?

What does this mean for political communication and for what citizens learn about the candidates and advocates who vie for their attention, support, and money? The short answer is that political reality is bought. Political ads spout their versions of the truth and, with all that money, the sponsors make their claims over and over again. The repetition works. But, there seems to be a perverse calculus in play. Stations make ever increasing profits from content that, by its very nature, does not represent a neutral reality. That is the right of the political advertisers. But, the station owners’ public interest obligation as license holders should press them to offer critical analyses of that very content. The local television journalism that I examined in the ten markets, either by incapacity or unwillingness, did not challenge those claims. In so doing, citizens were left to their own devices to ferret out fact from fiction. But, their devices are fundamentally dependent on an active and challenging press. Our democracy depends on that very arrangement. Which citizen can follow a candidate around to determine if her actions match the positions she espouses on her ads? Which citizen can file a claim for public information to verify one or another reality? Which citizen can take the place of journalism?

It is true that citizenship requires effort. It should. And there is the argument that citizens have untold ways now to pursue information. That is also true. But that does not abrogate the public interest obligation that television station owners have, and claim to protect, in the defense of their broadcast licenses. I do not begrudge the media firms’ pursuit of profit. They are private firms delivering a public good called news. But, from my examination of these ten markets, political stories could not compete with political ads, particularly for the Down Ballot races. As a result, on those newscasts, political reality was dominated by those who had the resources to buy it.


Danilo Yanich is a Professor at the Biden School of Public Policy at The University of Delaware. His most recent book, Buying Reality: Political Ads, Money and Local Television News was published by Fordham University Press in 2020.

You can hear Professor Yanich speak more about his research, the 2016 and 2020 Presidential elections on Friday the 30th October at 10am Australian Eastern Daylight Time, via this link: https://latrobe.zoom.us/j/9401097454

Image Credit: Reuters.