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Campaigns throw down cash for TV

Ka-ching! If local television stations used cash registers, that's the sound they'd be making, now that campaign season has peaked. With Election Day nearing and statewide races tightening, Idaho's congressional and gubernatorial races are providing big paydays for Channels 2, 6 and 7. Much of this money comes from outside of Idaho. Also, the research that BW did this week will not cover the last-minute ad buys that national groups will throw down; as of Friday, for instance, the Republican Governors Association filed campaign finance reports showing that they were spending $172,980 on polling and advertising aimed at Republican Butch Otter's opponent, Democrat Jerry Brady. Because of several polls showing these races to be tighter than expected, the money train is expected to pick up speed in these final days.

State law requires newspapers, television stations and advertising agencies to keep records of political spending, so BW was able to document what candidates for political office and their allies have been spending on advertising time. Purchased in weekly "flights" since the Republican primary of last June, advertising budgets buy anywhere from 80 to over 100 individual television spots per week.

Leading his race, in terms of overall spending, is Republican Bill Sali. While the position of U.S. Representative pays only $165,200 per year, "Sali for Congress" has spent a total of $107,776.25 for broadcast ads since the end of September. This amount does not include funds spent by the Republic National Committee for October-November buys on KBCI ($30,200.25), KIVI ($49,960.25) and KTVB ($50,815), let alone its expenditures by a PAC called the Club for Growth for Sali's primary campaign ($69,495 on Channel 7 alone), or the cost of Vice President Dick Cheney's trip to Boise to raise coin for Sali.

Ka-ching: Sali's totals for television ads to date run to an estimated $350,000. Aside from buys for air time on local stations, at least 15% of this money goes to advertising and purchasing agencies located in Philadelphia and Silver Spring, Maryland.

By comparison, Grant for Congress, which works through the Fenn Communications Group in Washington, D.C., started buying air time in the middle of September. The Grant campaign has spread its bucks to the three major stations as well, with Channel 2 getting $82,932. Channel 6, located in traditionally conservative Nampa, has netted only $11,586, while Channel 7 pulled in $36,615 from Grant.

Ka-ching: Grant's expenditures come to $131,134.00, or about one-third of Sali's expected tab.

While the governor of Idaho earns $98,500 annually, plus a yearly $54,000 housing allowance, gubernatorial candidates have exceeded those sums by far.

Otter for Governor, which buys through Donahoe Pace and Partners and ESD here in Boise, has forked out a total of $322,355 since May's primary run-off. While Channels 2 and 7 received almost the same amounts ($143,805 and $140,555 respectively), Otter's campaign added only $37,995 to Channel 6's coffers. Ka-ching: Otter's supporters will have spent more than twice what the governor earns per year, during a campaign that observers once expected would be a shoo-in for the former Republican lieutenant governor and Idaho Congressman.

Brady for Governor works through Media Strategies and Research of Denver and The Campaign Group out of Philadelphia PA. To fight the good fight, Brady will spend

$22,200.50 for ads on Channel 2, $27,535.75 on Channel 6 and $72,095.00 on Channel 7. Using Channel 2 as a benchmark, Brady's money bought him nearly 200 individual broadcast spots.

Ka-ching: $121,831.25, again, about one-third of his opponent.

These numbers represent just three Treasure Valley stations, and not expenditures in northern or eastern Idaho where some channels own sister stations. They also fail to include cable television, radio ads, billboards, direct mail and other campaign paraphernalia.

The dollars and cents sound big, but Idahoans really haven't hit the saturation point, yet.

"In some places around the country, they've even reacted against [political ads], when the flood has been too intense," said Randy Stapilus, a veteran political observer who maintains a Northwest political blog at www.ridenbaugh.com.

Idahoans, Stapilus said, have yet to get swamped, but that time may be coming.

"They may have a few days when, if they turn on a TV set, they'll be inundated," Stapilus said. "It almost sounds as if some people are holding back."

Staff at local stations barely contained their enthusiasm when considering how election years bolster their capital budgets, even when they send most of the profits to national parent companies such as Belo, Fisher and Journal Communications. Moreover, as one manager, who did not want to be identified, said, "The best of it is that it's all cash up front. We never extend credit to political campaigns."

The buying and selling of air time are highly strategic arts, with both sides calculating "access to eyeballs" versus costs. For instance, a guaranteed no-pre-emption placement during Martha Stewart's show costs less than a third of what CBS charges for Jeopardy or Wheel of Fortune, and about a tenth of prime time hits such as any CSI, Survivor or Without A Trace. Similarly, the local NBC affiliate, KTVB, can charge $2,550 per airing for Sunday Night Football but only $150 for Idaho at Sunrise. And rates go down significantly if candidates are willing to risk having their spots pre-empted by other commercials.

Don Rosebrock, a Grant spokesman, said that as outrageous as these amounts do sound, television ads in the Treasure Valley are relatively inexpensive compared to other media markets. Nevertheless, he sees the ads as a campaign necessity, with unique challenges.

"You just aim for name recognition, getting your name and face out there so that people focus and pay attention," Rosebrock said.

Of course, ads can create their own controversies. A Grant ad that used quotes from Republican leaders criticizing Sali included Rep. Dolores Crow, who said later that her comments, while accurate, were not reflective of her support for Sali. The Sali campaign hit back with an ad including Crow on-camera, supporting Sali.

Rosebrock also defends the use of out-of-state agencies. The ads, he said, were shot locally. "Those large media buys are pretty complicated, and Fenn Communications has been around long enough to know what they're doing," he said.

Calls and e-mails requesting comment from the Sali campaign were not returned by press time.

BW took in $4,002 from candidates during the period leading up to the general election Nov. 7.

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