If presidential primaries were decided by political advertisements, Pat Sajak, Alex Trebek and the hosts of the network morning shows would be kingmakers.
Political groups are flooding the airwaves during popular game shows, including “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy!” as well as local news and network morning shows as they try to influence presidential primary voters, according to an analysis by The Associated Press.
Since March 1, more than 110,000 ad spots have aired during more than 1,500 different TV shows in at least 48 states. The concentration of ads provides insights into strategies by candidates, super PACs and so-called “dark money” groups as they pump tens of millions of dollars into television spots ahead of early voting in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Within days, they are expected to surpass spending $100 million on broadcast television spots on the election so far, and they already plan to spend millions more over the next several weeks.
Their strategies reflect a combination of targeting like-minded voters during their favorite shows and airing ads during programs with the biggest audiences they can afford. They avoid weekends — Saturdays and Sundays are your best chances to escape political ads on television — and they appear to avoid some raunchy comedies, though “American Dad” and “Family Guy” both attracted a smattering of political ads.
Republican presidential candidates and groups appear to be targeting viewers of “The O’Reilly Factor” and other Fox News programs. Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have aired hundreds of spots during “Live with Kelly and Michael,” ”Family Feud,” ”Big Bang Theory” and “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.”
Trying to reach New Hampshire Republicans? “Good Morning America” and local news on Manchester’s ABC affiliate, WMUR, were the methods of choice.
Attempting to resurrect Jeb Bush’s candidacy? Try a strategy heavy on Fox News, sprinkled with some game shows, local news, “Inside Edition” and “NCIS.” On the other hand, the super PAC supporting Bush also spent its least amount in advertising on two spots in November during an afternoon airing of “The Birdcage,” a 1996 comedy about a gay cabaret owner and his drag queen companion.
The data on political ads, analyzed by the AP, come from the Campaign Media Analysis Group of Kantar Media, the New York-based firm that tracks political advertising across television, radio and online. The CMAG data includes spots aired on broadcast and national cable television but doesn’t include local cable ad buys.
Local news brought in the most political ad dollars of any type of program, accounting for an estimated $36 million spent on more than 45,000 spots. “The O’Reilly Factor,” ”Wheel of Fortune” and the three hours of NBC’s “Today” show earned the top spots in terms of money spent on presidential political ads airing during individual programs while the morning shows attracted the most ad spots.
Why target network morning shows? They’re cheaper and have more breaks for local news. More than 10,700 presidential ad spots aired on local affiliates during the “Today” show, ABC’s “Good Morning America” and “CBS This Morning” between March 1 and Jan. 11. Right behind them were Sajak and Vanna White’s “Wheel” and the quiz show best known for Trebek’s unflappable demeanor and fastidious enunciation.
Television industry leaders say the data indicate candidates are directing ads toward older viewers mostly likely to vote.
“You’ve got to do broadcast TV right, because if you don’t, you’re going to lose,” said Steve Lanzano, president and CEO of the Television Bureau of Advertising trade association.
Traditional ad-buys make sense this election cycle, particularly for Republicans in Iowa, said Larry Grisolano, a partner at Democratic communications group AKPD Media and director of paid media and polling for President Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns. Targeted voters in Iowa are “probably older, and they’re probably in that traditional television viewing,” he said.
“I think why ‘Wheel’ is so popular is that it’s right after the news,” he said. “It’s in the sweet spot.”
Other strategies appear to be flooding the zone rather than more targeted advertising.
“The old assumption was that you want to be in the news because people who watch the news vote,” said Will Feltus, a veteran political media researcher and planner at the Republican communications firm National Media Research, Planning and Placement.
Feltus, who worked on George W. Bush’s presidential campaigns in 2000 and 2004, said that’s not the case anymore. He thinks campaigns risk being drowned in commercial breaks loaded with political ads. Spots during prime-time shows are better bets even if they’re more costly, he said.
“I’d rather have one running on ‘Blue Bloods,’ which has a Republican-leaning audience, than have three ads on the ‘Today’ show,” Feltus said.
In Iowa, the “Wheel of Fortune” effect was pronounced and bipartisan. The show attracted an estimated $1.5 million on more than 1,300 spots in Iowa. According to Nielsen, the show offers a viewership that is largely white men and women age 50 and over. It enjoys a plum time slot in media markets in the first-to-vote state, sandwiched between local news and prime-time TV. Media strategists say that offers campaigns prime-time ratings at lower prices.
Wheel-watchers have been hit hard. Viewers in Cedar Rapids, Sioux City and Des Moines saw an average of four to five political spots during the half-hour game show in December. The peak was Dec. 22 when Sioux City viewers saw nine presidential political spots within 25 minutes.
That show also included a political hat trick. Spots from Marco Rubio-aligned Conservative Solutions Project, Ben Carson and Ted Cruz aired back-to-back-to-back in one commercial break.
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