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How Your Local TV Station Is Cashing In on Politics

Local TV news viewership is falling, but broadcasters are adding hours anyway to chase campaign ad revenue.

About a year ago, Cleveland’s Fox affiliate, WJW, added an extra half-hour of news starting at 4 a.m. That brought the total of live, local programming to 12-and-a-half hours a day—and more than 14 hours including repeats. “During the time you’re awake, pretty much we’re in local news,” says WJW general manager Paul Perozeni.

The station’s expanded lineup is part of a broader effort by owner Tribune Media to increase local newscasts. The goal? To grab advertisers looking for live programming during which viewers might be more likely to see commercials, especially those from the political campaigns and super-PACs collectively pouring billions into television advertising. In 2012, WJW collected more than $30 million in revenue from political ads, about a fifth of Tribune’s total annual revenue from such ads. Perozeni wants to do better this year. “No one is going to DVR the morning news and watch it at 10 o’clock at night,” he says. “From an advertiser’s standpoint, that makes a station like WJW very appealing.”

In the past three years, Tribune’s 42 stations have added 170 hours a week of local news programming, for a total of more than 80,000 hours annually. Tribune executives said in a May earnings call that they expect to increase political ad business by 20 percent this year from 2012.

Other media companies are following suit. David Amy, chief operating officer of Sinclair Broadcast Group, told analysts that his company has added 33 hours a week of local news during the past 18 months at some of its 173 stations, including in West Palm Beach, Florida. Tegna, the spun-off broadcast properties of Gannett, has also added hours in recent years. “Stations with more hours of successful news will tend to benefit more from the political campaigns than stations with fewer hours of news,” says Mark Fratrik, chief economist for market research company BIA/Kelsey. “Is it a bright spot? Certainly yes.”

Local newscasts across the nation have already reaped an estimated $279 million in revenue from political ads since Jan. 1, or about 40 percent of the money spent on ads across broadcast and national cable television, according to Kantar Media, which tracks ad spending through its Campaign Media Analysis Group. “People who watch local news are more likely to vote in the same way that if I watch sports on TV I’m more likely to buy a ticket,” says Will Feltus, senior vice president at National Media, a Republican ad-buying firm. Saturation coverage has another benefit, he says: “Campaigns are never going to complain about having too many spots on the local news because they want to see themselves. All of the donors to the campaign, the candidate’s family and friends, and the people around the campaign all watch the local news.”

The increase comes as local news viewership is falling. Since 2007 the average audience for late-night local news fell 22 percent, according to a June report from the Pew Research Center. Viewership in the morning and early evening decreased by 2 percent from 2014 to 2015, while viewership of early-morning newscasts has increased by the same amount.

Adding news programming is attractive to station managers because it’s usually cheaper than buying syndicated shows to run in the daytime hours. That’s a concern for stations that aren’t affiliated with ABC, CBS, or NBC. “If you’re a Big Three, you’re getting 12 to 14 hours a day from the network,” says Larry Wert, president for broadcast media at Tribune, where only about a quarter of stations are affiliated with one of those three networks. “If you’re a Fox station, you’re really getting two hours plus sports.”

The average number of local news hours running on all stations nationally rose to five-and-a-half hours on weekdays during the fourth quarter of 2015, tying a record set in 2012, according to a May study by Hofstra University professor emeritus Bob Papper for the Radio Television Digital News Association. About 40 percent of U.S. stations added news to their programming last year. “What you see are a lot of broadcast companies, pretty much all of the major players, betting that their future is very much tied to local news,” he says.

Although spending by presidential candidates and the outside groups that support them gets the most attention, much of the ad spending is tied to state and congressional races. David Lougee, Tegna’s president for broadcasting, told analysts in an April call that presidential races represented just about a third of its business during the 2012 election. Executives at Tribune, which owns stations in 21 of the 34 states holding Senate elections this year—including in Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Ohio—told analysts they expect to benefit from competitive contests.

That will help stations prosper despite the absence of TV ad spending by Republican nominee Donald Trump, whose campaign hasn’t bought any spots since May. Hillary Clinton and her allied super-PAC, Priorities USA, spent $82 million in June and July, according to Kantar Media.

Not all campaign consultants are sold on the idea that more local news is better. Jeff Link, a Democratic media buyer for President Obama’s 2008 campaign who is now chief executive officer of political consulting firm Analytics Media Group, says running ads during local news works better for campaigns with unknown candidates—or that really want to hammer a message home. “Qualitatively, it’s more repetition of the same audience,” he says. “It’s increasing repetition, not reach.”

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