January 2010 saw the birth of the forces that shape today’s media environment. The special election race in Massachusetts that month to succeed the late Sen. Ted Kennedy was the first time, consultants and station managers say, that a burst of political ad spending cleaned out the prime inventory in a large media market.
Thanks to the emotion involved, and the Kennedy legacy, the race was widely regarded as a foregone conclusion in its early stages. But polls released two weeks before the vote showed then-state Sen. Scott Brown (R) gaining ground on Democrat Martha Coakley. The resulting spending spree produced a run on inventory for NBC, CBS and ABC affiliates in Boston. The dollars that were thrown around has become the stuff of legend in New England.
“It was the heaviest volume in a short period of time that I’ve seen in this market,” says Andy Hoffman, general sales manager with WCVB, Boston’s ABC affiliate. “All of a sudden, when the polling came out, that’s when the money just flowed in in very large volumes.”
Hoffman, who has worked in the Boston market for 30 years, says he has never seen anything like it before. “We completely sold out in our key newscasts,” he recalls. “So much money had to be spent so fast.”
The issue groups that sought to influence the race’s outcome were still able to get up on the city’s FOX affiliate and the cable networks—in addition to some buys that were converted to radio—but the prime news spots on broadcast were all spoken for.
Brown won the Jan. 19 vote and two days later, the Supreme Court ruled in the Citizens United case that corporations and unions could raise and spend unlimited funds on independent expenditures. Had that ruling come down earlier, it could have created an even more frenzied scenario in Massachusetts, with well-funded Super PACs lined up on both sides. With that in mind, Brown and Democrat Elizabeth Warren have pledged to keep Super PACs out of their Senate race. Station ad managers like Hoffman are waiting to see if they’re successful.