Analysis of a swing state: Political ads pack North Carolina local TV

This year has been anything but typical when it comes to politics. The 2016 presidential election has been arguably one of the most contentious in history, the live debates have drawn in more viewers than ever, and combined advertising spend from the candidates and their supporting groups has been much lower than anticipated. In a year when control of the White House and the US Senate are up for grabs, every vote counts and swing states can make all of the difference.

One of the most active battlegrounds has been North Carolina where high-profile and competitive races for President, US Senator and state governor are being fiercely contested. The demand for TV commercial time in the state by political advertisers has been intense and the volume of political ads has sharply increased during the run up to Election Day. More commercials from politicians have meant fewer spots from other advertisers and we have examined our data to learn how other vertical categories are being affected.

For this analysis, we focused on local news broadcasts, which typically account for 60-70% of political ad time purchased on local TV stations. Data are based on the state’s three largest TV markets – Charlotte, Raleigh and Greensboro – and cover the period of January 4, 2016 – October 23, 2016. The time frame enables comparisons between periods of light vs. heavy political ad volume. Our core metric is ad time (rather than number of units) because time is the scarce resource that advertisers are purchasing.

Disruption in the marketplace

Local news broadcasts in the three markets have carried more than 26,500 minutes of commercial time through October 23. Auto manufacturers and dealers had a 26.3% share of this ad time and was the top category, followed by retail (13.7% share) and political (10.5% share).

Of course, political advertising has been timed to the election calendar and therefore concentrated in fewer weeks. There were brief spikes in early March for the Presidential primary contests, in early June for Congressional primary races and in July to leverage voter interest in the national conventions. General election advertising began in earnest at the beginning of August. Category share of ad time in local news broadcasts has evolved accordingly.

Automotive and political advertisers vie for a lot of the same inventory and local news programming is at the top of their respective wish lists. During election years, this has the potential to disrupt the marketplace. Throughout 2016, auto advertisers in these North Carolina markets have stuck to a traditional timing strategy: less weight at the beginning of the month building to a peak in the last fortnight when dealers are trying to reach their monthly sales targets. But since political began its surge in early August, auto share of ad time in local news telecast has been declining and the typical weekly flow of ad weight has also been impacted. For example, during the last week of September auto activity dropped from the prior week when it ordinarily should have been rising to its monthly peak.

Retailers have also been displaced by political advertising. Although retailers generally buy local TV time in a broader range of inventory than politicians, news programming is still a central part of their schedules. As local news inventory became scarcer during August, retailers pulled back a bit in the genre but still maintained a significant presence to promote back-to-school shopping and Labor Day sales events. During the past 6-7 weeks, retail’s visibility has shrunk and its share of local news ad time is at its lowest level of the year.

With the winter holidays approaching, retail TV advertisers in North Carolina have recently been playing a waiting game. Once the election cycle concludes on November 8 and political ads (temporarily) disappear from the airwaves, retailers will predictably re-emerge with campaigns to support their Black Friday and holiday strategies.

North Carolina offers an extreme, but not isolated, example of how political elections can disrupt local TV ad marketplaces and affect other categories of advertisers. The directional patterns highlighted in this analysis have also occurred in dozens of other TV markets where there are tight races and well-funded candidates and groups. It’s just a question of magnitude.

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