They were once an oasis immune to political advertising, but the commercial breaks during local newscasts have now become the most sought-after slots for campaigns' ads after they discovered the programs are a gold mine of independent-minded viewers.
The people who watch news are those who still want to consume balanced information to help them make up their minds. While the plethora of cable networks has siphoned staunch Republicans to Fox News Channel for their national political news, and liberals go to MSNBC, moderates have remained with traditional news programs.
"In a media landscape that's increasingly polarized, the partisan-free zones would logically be the place that independents or undecideds would gravitate towards," said John Carroll, a mass-communications professor at Boston University.
And that shows in how the campaigns spend.
(NOTE: For The Washington Times' interactive ad-buy tracker, click here)
In the past month, 5,500 ads, or roughly 30 percent of political-ad buys on the major broadcast networks, have gone to local news segments, a review by The Washington Times found, with the light-news show "Good Morning America" coming in second among all shows at 1,300 buys. Also ranking highly are "Inside Edition," "Face the Nation," the syndicated "Chris Matthews Show" and "20/20."
Among the top 50 television markets in August, political groups made 350 different ad buys involving commercials shown during newscasts in Las Vegas, a number followed by Palm Beach, Fla.; Norfolk, Va., and Denver. In Phoenix, half of all political ads were during news programs, not entertainment.
Local stations used to fiercely protect their news programs, deeming political ads an improper intrusion.
But the infiltration onto straight-news programs began with the George W. Bush vs. Al Gore presidential race of 2000, Mr. Carroll said, when an unusually tight race increased pressure to allow access to valuable and previously off-limits audiences.
Initially, stations ran the ads during the sports segment, deeming that sufficiently separated from the rest of the news. That, however, began to creep into weather, and eventually into the news segments.
Political campaigns for their part often court independent voters who watch news programs by sparing them from the most over-the-top ads.
One reason is that local-news viewers still represent a wide range of potential voters, including those who might not respond well to overtly negative messages.
And out-of-context quotes and untrue allegations are likely to be debunked either on the newscast itself or by other sources frequented by well-informed viewers.
"They don't want to go to independents and say 'You made a really big mistake by making that guy the president of the United States.' So they say, 'We had high hopes, you had high hopes, we made a mistake, let's move on,'" Mr. Carroll said, pointing to a recent ad in which longtime Democrats regret voting for President Obama and another with supposedly Republican women saying they're pro-Obama.
The campaigns know a lot about the demographics of who's watching what. With younger Americans -- who are much less likely to vote and also more likely to be committed Democrats -- getting their news online, broadcast news is a straight path to older adults.
In fact, the 60-Plus Association, a conservative advocacy group for seniors that has ties to the activist billionaire Koch brothers, made two-thirds of its ad buys during newscasts -- more than any other major political buyer.
With comedies, dramas and other shows having a younger and thus Democrat-dominated audience, newscasts are also one of the few places to find a fair share of Republicans.
Local newscasts on the four major networks all had slightly more Republican ads than Democratic ones. Among national news programs, "Face the Nation" is heavily Republican, thanks to three separate outside groups supporting Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
On the partisan news shows, the tack is decidedly different. Yet politicians have occasionally waded into what they perceive as enemy territory: On "Fox News Sunday," one-quarter of the political ads come from Democrats, thanks to Mr. Obama making more ad buys there than Mr. Romney in an effort to dampen enthusiasm for the Republican, who has had trouble invigorating the most-conservative in the audience.
See latest ad buys and a breakdown of advertising by TV show at washingtontimes.com/campaign-2012/adwatch
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