High definition televisions are now in two-thirds of American homes, but political admakers are struggling to capitalize on the format.
HD presents media consultants with a host of challenges when it comes to campaign ads—distribution is costly and, with many stations still broadcasting simultaneously in standard definition (SD), producing ads that look good for both audiences requires compromise.
“It handcuffs you either way,” says Mark Putnam, a Democratic ad maker who worked for President Obama’s 2008 campaign. “If you air an ad in SD, the HD viewers see a shrunken picture on their screen. If you air an ad in HD, the SD viewers don’t see the entire image.”
That’s because TV stations that broadcast in both formats “center cut” HD ads so the wider video fits into the smaller SD picture.
“When you center cut [an HD ad], it might end up cutting off your candidate’s eye,” says Putnam. Admakers need to account for that and, say, push the candidate and his family toward the middle of the shot at a cost of capturing less of the panoramic setting behind them.
“It’s really frustrating because you shoot in HD and you have all this real estate, but you can’t use it. You have to keep everything in the middle,” says Beth Donica, associate creative director at Strategic Perception Inc.
The creative shackles will come off as HD becomes the standard for TV viewership, but campaigns will still have to get used to the higher cost associated with distributing HD ads to TV stations.
“Unless [ad distributor] DG comes down dramatically on their pricing, people need to get used to spending significantly more for distribution,” predicts Donica. A gubernatorial candidate in a large state with several media markets could end up spending tens of thousands on ad distribution alone. The added cost doesn’t necessarily require a campaign to raise more money, she says. Campaigns can always just “rob some from the ad buy in order to pay for distribution.”
The ad distribution market is dominated by DG, which recently introduced a one-hour delivery service for HD ads. That’s about a quarter of the time it used to take. Still, the cost remains prohibitively high for large ad buys, say several media consultants.
“People are looking into alternatives to DG because of the cost,” says John Brabender, a GOP media consultant and partner at Brabender Cox. The cost is “extreme,” he says, “because what you’re paying for is how big that file is.”
Brabender says his firm does its media buying in-house, which enables them to have HD and SD copies of their ads distributed to targeted media markets. That way, ad time isn’t bought on an SD station that winds up receiving a HD version of the ad. It alleviates the center-cutting problem, though the distribution cost is still there.
One alternative to using DG, according to Brabender, is to distribute the ads directly to stations through its File Transfer Protocol site.
“I think you’re going to find [the market’s] going to become much more competitive,” Brabender says. “I think DG’s going to have increased competition.”
According to DG, the cost of HD distribution is coming down and, in the meantime, it’s worth the extra money because those spots retain more viewers.
“At the end of the day, [if] you want people to engage, you want people to react either negatively or positively, you need to retain them,” says Mike Caprio, a company spokesman. “The value of HD messaging is significant. Considering the costs for commercial production and media, the price for HD distribution remains relatively small.”
Caprio busts out one stat from 2010: a major gubernatorial campaign that used DG’s distribution services only needed to devote 0.005 percent of its broadcast budget to distribute 100 percent of its ads in HD.
Either way, running a campaign’s ads entirely in HD will soon be the norm, says Brabender. “Slowly but surely SD’s giving away—maybe it’s not even slowly,” he says.
Once SD fades away and HD becomes the standard, producers won’t have to worry about balancing their ads between the two formats. But the respite for consultants will only be temporary. The next challenge is right around the corner—3D television.
“One day, we’re going to run into 3D,” says Brabender. “Once that happens, there will be bigger files and more complications and we’ll think HD was the simplest thing in the world.”