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Published September 11 2012

Political ad blitz dominates North Dakota airwaves, squeezing out local businesses

BISMARCK - Kim Simonsen’s advice for his advertising clients in the run-up to a contested election: Don’t bother trying to get a word in edgewise.

“They know it’s not going to do any good,” the media director of Fargo’s H2M advertising agency said. “They know they’re going to get knocked off.”

As the election approaches, a bonanza of spending on political ads will make it harder and harder for local advertisers – the ones who just want to sell you a pair of shoes or a nice dinner – to hold prime-time slots.

And while TV stations say they do their best to accommodate all comers, federal rules give campaigns the right of way on the airwaves.

Campaigns and political groups already have more than $5 million in advertising slated to run on local television stations between now and Election Day, on top of millions more already spent this summer.

“Almost everyone has been buying early,” said Wayne Kranzler, chief executive of Bismarck-based advertising agency KK Bold. “There’s all kinds of time locked up already in October.”

He said the sustained intensity of the political ad frenzy is “really unprecedented in this state,” and that he expects both spending and competition for ad time to hit new highs.

The factors that determine the cost of that time are complex. By law, candidates are guaranteed the lowest rate a TV station charges other advertisers for the same access.

But independent political action committees and interest groups don’t have the same protections, so stations can – and do – charge them a premium. And those groups, bolstered by recent court decisions that loosened rules on PAC spending, have far outspent the candidates.

At KVLY, for instance, Republican and Democratic Senate PACs are on the books for about $667,000 in upcoming ad buys – about three times more than the parties’ respective candidates, Rick Berg and Heidi Heitkamp.

The confluence of demand and spending has driven up prices. Television ads are already as expensive as they were a week before the 2010 election, Kranzler said, with a 30-second spot on a 10 p.m. newscast in Fargo going for $1,400 or more.

“If this wasn’t an election year and you were a commercial advertiser, you’d probably pay about one-third that amount,” he said.

He said rates will continue to climb as the election nears.

Kranzler’s firm handles advertising for a number of Democratic campaigns, including Pam Gulleson’s U.S. House bid and Ryan Taylor’s gubernatorial run. He said he tells his other clients to lay low during the election blitz.

H2M’s Simonsen does the same for his clients. He said the alternative – waiting for campaigns to swoop in and scoop up airtime out from under a client’s nose – isn’t worth the headache.

Political advertisers might pay top dollar to preempt another advertisement. And fairness rules mean stations must try to give candidates equal opportunities to advertise, so if a candidate wants to make a last-minute ad buy, a station might be forced to bump other ads to accommodate both candidates.

He said H2M stopped handling political campaigns years ago after its political ad buys kept wreaking havoc on other clients.

“I’d send an order over to a TV station or a radio station, and they’d call me back and started bumping out my regular clients,” he said.

Now, most of the agency’s clients go on hiatus in the three weeks leading up to the election.

Pat Finken, president of Bismarck-based Odney advertising, said his company anticipates the crunch and tries to plan around it.

“I think the reality is that all of us adapt,” said Finken, whose firm handles ads for a number of Republican campaigns.

He said he many of his non-political clients lay low during election season because of the cost.

Shauna Wimer, national sales manager for KVLY parent company Hoak Media, said the company does its best to minimize disruption to its local advertisers.

“There’s plenty of local advertisers on our airwaves right now,” she said. “It’s very important to us.”

She said thus far, the election season has disrupted less than 1 percent of scheduled ads.

Carol Anhorn, general sales manager for WDAY-TV, said the blitz of political ads has been lucrative but hectic.

If the station has to bump regular clients, “none of us enjoy that at all,” she said.

Legally, the station can’t turn down ads for federal races. Anhorn said WDAY does turn down ads for many state races.

“If we took all of them, we wouldn’t have anything else on the air,” she said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502