- The Washington Times - Friday, October 27, 2000

In their short but intense shelf life, political ads accrue an astonishing price tag.

When all is said and done, candidates will spend $600 million peddling their wares this year, up almost $200 million from 1996, according to the Television Bureau of Advertising.

Thirty years ago, the figure was around $12 million.

Al Gore and George W. Bush alone spend roughly $1 million per day to keep their campaign messages current in key markets across the country, paying up to three times the normal price for spots in battleground states such as Missouri, Florida and Michigan.

Political advertising has become a sophisticated science linked to opinion polls, the issue du jour and demographics of every stripe. More than a half-million of these spots had aired around the country by September, most on local stations in what the industry calls "a geographic market-by-market targeting strategy."

But there are quirks like the "Wheel of Fortune" connection.

This harmless game show has become the nation's top showcase for the partisan soapbox, boasting more political ads than any other program on TV.

According to University of Wisconsin professor Ken Goldstein, some 10,700 political spots were placed on "Wheel" by September, bringing the show close to $18 million in revenue.

It surpassed "Oprah," which featured some 8,500 political ads, and "Jeopardy," with 9,500 ads. "Wheel" also set the record in 1996 and 1998.

Void of public-affairs content, the show is not a pundit's delight. But it is a media buyer's delight.

A hundred million people watch every night, in 40 countries. But "Wheel" has a special hook. The show has a fiercely devoted audience among the 50- and 60-somethings, a group that views voting as a patriotic duty; 63 percent always go to the polls.

And the "Wheel" folks are no public relations slouches, either. During election week, shows taped in Washington will be featured an "excellent adventure," according to producer Harry Friedman, who calls it all "carefully thought-out alchemy."

Still, pesky political ads are none too popular. Though media surveys found TV viewers are four times as likely to see a political ad rather than a genuine political story, a solid majority of voters, 72 percent, said these ads did not make them more "well-informed."

The fatigued can rejoice: It all jolts to a halt on the evening of Nov. 7 but not before local TV stations rake in hundreds of millions of dollars, according to the Alliance for Better Campaigns, double what they made in 1996.

"The broadcasters don't own the airwaves, the public does," noted Walter Cronkite, former CBS News anchor and alliance chairman. "We lend the industry billions of dollars worth of our airwaves, free of charge, in return for a pledge to serve the public interest. Profiteering on democracy shouldn't be part of the deal."

Viewer analyses, in the meantime, continue. Election season or not, viewers' habits also are measured according to "political outlook."

Among those who call themselves "very conservative," CMB/ Media Watch found the most popular prime-time viewing is tied between sitcoms and dramas, followed by news documentaries, feature films, police or Western dramas and variety shows.

Among the "very liberal," sitcoms reign supreme, followed by dramas, news documentaries, evening animation and feature films.

Conservatives prefer both their local and national news in the early evening, while liberals like their national fare during the day and local news in late evening.

The political persuasions agree on one thing, though. Of the five "political outlook" categories studied from conservative to centrist to liberal all preferred the same kind of sports programming.

Football comes first, followed by baseball, basketball, auto racing, golf and tennis. Except the "very liberal" group, though. They preferred tennis over golf, 19 percent to 15 percent.

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