That $5,000 TV Ad May Run $100,000 Now for Political Conventions

  • CNN, Fox said to charge up to $100,000 for convention ads
  • Audience for presidential debates has been rising since 1996

The presidential primary season has been a ratings bonanza for cable-news outlets, and it can only get better when the major parties hold their nominating conventions next month. So why not seize the moment?

CNN is charging advertisers $40,000 to $100,000 for a 30-second spot during the Republican and Democratic conventions, compared with about $5,000 for a normal prime-time commercial, according to a person familiar with the matter. Fox News plans to charge similar rates, according to Ken Goldstein, a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco who analyzes polling and advertising for Bloomberg Politics. The cable networks declined to confirm the numbers.

“They will be two of the most interesting conventions in modern political history,” says Sam Feist, CNN’s Washington bureau chief.

To justify those prices, the networks are planning wall-to-wall coverage to capture as many viewers as possible. CNN will dedicate nearly all its 24-hour-a-day programming in late July to the Republican confab in Cleveland and the Democrats’ gathering in Philadelphia. Fox News will broadcast more hours of the events than it did four years ago.

Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, has said he wants his party’s affair, which starts July 18 at the Quicken Loans Arena, to have a “showbiz” feel. The Democrats, meeting at the Wells Fargo Center starting July 25, could also put on a lively display, with Bernie Sanders vowing to rally his troops to influence the party platform.

The cable networks are hoping to continue their momentum from the primary season, when they saw record audiences. In the first quarter, Fox News led all basic cable channels in prime-time and total-day viewership for the first time in the network’s history. MSNBC’s viewership rose 77 percent in the first quarter compared to a year ago, while CNN had its most-viewed quarter in seven years.

All the networks can air the three presidential debates set for September and October, although they’ll seek to attract more viewers than their rivals before and after the contests. In 2012, 67.2 million viewers tuned in to the first match between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, the most since the 1980 face-off between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan drew more than 80 million. Trump versus Clinton could break that record.

“That first debate, outside the Super Bowl, may be highest-watched show we’ve seen in years,” says Jay Wallace, Fox News’ executive vice president of news and editorial.

Debates aside, how will cable keep viewership up? That depends on how Trump, a TV ratings magnet, fares against Clinton, Goldstein said.

“Trump is a double-edged sword,” Goldstein said. “On one hand, his participation continues to draw eyes to television. But if Trump stumbles and “the election become un-competitive, that could draw fewer eyes.”

Trump has appeared on TV more often than his rivals because he makes himself more available, according to the networks. Some have tried to balance his immersive media strategy with coverage of other candidates. In April and May, for example, Trump was on CNN four times, while Clinton was on three, and Sanders on seven times, Feist says.

Dafna Linzer, managing editor of politics for MSNBC, says the network plans to try to draw viewers by reminding them about the historic nature of Clinton’s candidacy. “We’re going to have the first woman nominee for president,” Linzer says. “One important reason why voters are so engaged and there’s so much at stake is because the parties are on the precipice of choosing candidates like they have never chosen before.”

Cable news is better positioned to capitalize on the elections because it’s always on the air. But broadcasters networks have also benefited this season from spending on political ads by all the campaigns. That’s expected to reach $4.4 billion this year, higher than 2012’s record $3.8 billion, according to Campaign Media Analysis Group. “Every network will have a lift,” says Steven Cahall, a media analyst at RBC Capital Markets.

The frontrunners are such polarizing figures, and Trump is making such waves with his unconventional campaigning style, that it’s hard to imagine a network not profiting this season. As Les Moonves, the CEO of CBS Corp., said earlier this year: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”

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