TV stations get boost as Missouri campaigns rack up big ad bills

As Missouri’s presidential primary approached back in March, Curtis Varns was a bit surprised.

The general manager for KMIZ, the ABC affiliate in Columbia, hadn’t received many calls for political advertising spots on his station despite the primary being a few weeks out.

But by the time the election was a week away, he was “flooded.”

“We probably did double … what our budget would have been for that month just in about 10 days,” he said. “That’s when we knew it was going to be a big year.

The presidential race was not the only campaign that would be a moneymaker for the state’s television stations this year.

Missouri leads the nation in spending on TV advertising for a gubernatorial race, and the flood of money being spent on ads in the state has provided an unusually large lift to the stations running them. 

According to Center for Public Integrity data updated Oct. 31, the campaigns for Missouri’s gubernatorial candidates, including the contestants in a contentious Republican primary, have combined to spend roughly $33.7 million on TV ads. The campaign for Republican nominee Eric Greitens, a nonprofit leader and former Navy SEAL, has spent about $11.4 million. The campaign for Democratic nominee Chris Koster, Missouri’s attorney general, has spent about $9.1 million.

Missouri’s lack of limits on campaign contributions is a primary contributor to the aggressive ad spending, according to Terry Smith, a political science professor at Columbia College.

“For state races, there are no limits on how much people can give and spend,” Smith said.

“Missouri is the Wild West,” he added. “It’s wide open.”

According to Marty Siddall, the general manager of KOMU, the NBC affiliate in Columbia, the state has drawn record numbers not just because of the governor’s race, but also because of other key races and issues on the ballot. 

Siddall has seen revenue come from advertisements about proposed cigarette tax increases, and he said competitive races for several offices have fueled spending. 

Varns has been at KMIZ for 21 years and said that this is the most he has seen spent on political ads in a calendar year. The station has benefitted from it greatly, he said, with increased revenue allowing KMIZ to invest in things like new equipment and building maintenance.

At the start of the year, KMIZ budgeted about 20 percent of its revenue for the year to come from political advertising, Varns said. When it’s all said and done, the ads will actually account for between 35 to 40 percent of total revenue.

“We are going to run about 250 percent for what we budgeted for political revenue,” he said. “It blows me away.”

Varns said candidates for state-level office usually start placing orders for ads about a month before Missouri’s August primary. This year, he started getting calls in June, which he took as another sign of a lucrative political season.

The governor’s race accounts for 25 percent of the total political ad spending going to KMIZ, Varns said, with Koster’s campaign spending the most with the station despite not starting to air ads until Aug. 2. Koster started his campaign running 60-second advertisements rather than 30-second ads, which Varns called very uncommon.

What surprises Varns and Siddall the most is how they’re drawing record numbers at a time when Missouri, for decades a presidential bellwether, is no longer a focal point for presidential campaigns. Neither Republican Donald Trump nor Democrat Hillary Clinton have made campaigning in the state a priority this year.

“It’s tough to compare political year to political year because the races are different, and how competitive those races are (is) different, and the issues change,” Siddall said. 

The increased interest in advertising inventory doesn’t come without some challenges for the stations.

They must find a way to balance the influx of political advertisements they get during election season with the normal advertising business they get from local companies the rest of the time. Varns compared that balancing act to a coach trying to find playing time for all the athletes on a team.

Siddall said it’s important to find a balance between political advertisers and regular ad clients to try and keep everyone happy. But that can be easier said than done.

“That’s very difficult to deal with, quite frankly,” he said. “You have to service and maintain your sustaining advertisers. You can’t just sweep them off your schedule. They have businesses that are going to be around the other three and a half years that we don’t have political advertising adding pressure.”

Observers acknowledge that Tuesday could bring a significant shift in the state’s election spending dynamic.

Amendment 2, which is being put to voters Tuesday, would institute political donation caps in Missouri, limiting contributions to $2,600 for individual candidates and $25,00 for political party committees.

“I’m thinking that Missourians are going to vote for that overwhelmingly,” Smith said. “So this is going to be the last time you see this.”

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