Like all media buyers, Lisa Ennis of Wenstrom Communications in Clearwater tries to help her clients plan around the quadrennial influx of presidential campaign ad dollars.
But nothing quite prepared her - or local TV stations - for the deluge of political dollars playing havoc with traditional advertisers' schedules.
"The stations are trying to take care of us, but now is crunch time," said Ennis, whose company buys advertising time for such businesses as restaurants, health care companies and others. "You try to roll with the punches and be calm. But in some cases they can't offer us anything because there's nowhere to go."
The Tampa Bay area ranked fourth in the nation for presidential campaign ads run from Sept. 24 through Oct. 7, according to a survey by Nielsen Monitor-Plus and the University of Wisconsin Advertising Project. And there is no indication the spending will slow down before Nov. 2.
Ad managers for local stations are estimating that spending for political ads - presidential, senatorial and issue-related - could total about $35-million for the Tampa Bay market this season, compared with $18-million in 2000.
Liz Cerrato, director of client services and media for Marshall Advertising in Tampa, says she thinks the worst is yet to come.
"I imagine come next week, the major stations here will have a difficult time keeping normal advertisers on the air," she said. The inundation of presidential political ads in the bay area, topped only by Miami, Albuquerque, N.M., and Reno, Nev., is tied directly to the four markets' status as swing areas in major swing states. Such laser-like targeting by the presidential candidates means citizens in states seen as solidly in the Democratic or Republican camp are being ignored.
Atlanta, for instance, may be a larger TV market than Tampa, (Atlanta has more than 2-million households with TVs, while Tampa has about 1.7-million) but that means nothing to people doing media buys for the presidential campaigns.
"There's been zippo in spending for the general election," said Robin Patterson, national sales manager of Atlanta's NBC affiliate, WXIA-Ch. 11, which is owned by Gannett. "I look at Gannett stations in other states that can't get out of the way of political money and I'm a little bit envious. They have not spent a dime here."
Patterson said the Atlanta TV market pulled in about $8-million in political ads in 2000 and expected this year's total, for national and local races, to be about $15-million. But since Georgia is seen as being solidly for President Bush, the total spending will be $10-million at best, she said.
"I see some political ads that run on cable, but they almost look strange to me," Patterson said. Andy Alford, general sales manager for Atlanta's CBS affiliate, WGCL-Ch. 46, worked at an Orlando station in 2000. He said being overlooked by political media buyers is a mixed blessing. Though stations are required by law to offer the candidates the lowest unit rate in the time period, there is no such requirement for the issues groups that make up about half of the ad buys.
"They are moneymakers because they drive demand in the marketplace," Alford said. "At the same time, not having the ads makes life easier to accommodate the needs of traditional advertisers. And I don't think our viewers miss them at all."
Executives with TV stations in the Tampa Bay area downplay the headaches they're experiencing as they try to find slots for politicians as well as regular accounts.
"Things are pretty tight, but we do find holes," said Sarah Tyrrell, general sales manager at WFTS-Ch. 28 in Tampa. "We've got a lot of people working a lot of overtime on this."
Since TV ad rates are highly negotiable and based on a number of factors including time slot, frequency and contract length, station executives have to do a delicate tap dance as they bump long-time advertisers - as they must, by law - to make room for the politicians. That job is made even more difficult this year with pent-up demand from local businesses who delayed advertising during the protracted hurricane season.
"It's been a crazy quarter," said media buyer Cerrato, who said an advertiser trying to get onto local TV today could be paying rates comparable to those charged in a much larger market like Atlanta.
"If an advertiser doesn't have to come in right now, it would be beneficial to stay away because of the pressure in the marketplace," she said.
Cerrato said some of her clients have decided not to run ads from Oct. 25 until Nov. 2, believing it's better to avoid the clutter and expense. Others bought extra spots months ago, expecting to be bumped from some of them. Still others are willing to shift to comparable time slots or different weeks.
"The fallout from all this political advertising is huge," she said, adding that, with all the "pre-emptions" or bumping of ads this month, the advertising crunch is not likely to ease in November. "But smart clients prepared for it. They built their campaigns around it."
Joe Pomilla, director of sales at WFLA-Ch. 8 in Tampa, said the scramble to accommodate regular advertisers is not nearly as desperate as it might seem. Though the amount of political advertising in the market is nearly double that spent in the area in 2000, four years ago it was concentrated into two months; this year, political ads started in March, he said.
Political campaigns are also spreading their ad dollars this time beyond the major networks to more stations, including local UPN and WB affiliates.
"There have been pre-emptions (of regular advertisers)," Pomilla said. "But all those clients don't leave. There's not a great deal of money we can't find a home for. Politicians come and go, but our clients are with us 52 weeks a year, so we try to minimize the impact."