Catching sight of the stately brick headquarters of WMUR-TV on the banks of the Merrimack River in downtown Manchester can trigger an emotional reaction from even the most jaded political media buyer. New Hampshire’s dominant TV station inspires awe for its virtual monopoly in one of the most politically active markets in the country. It also can ignite hair-pulling frustration from those who need to buy MUR airtime.

“Every time I go to Manchester and I see that big MUR building I say, ‘I paid for that,’” says Republican media buyer Will Feltus.  

WMUR—an ABC affiliate—reaches roughly four-fifths of the New Hampshire electorate. It’s a market penetration that is virtually unmatched by any other single television station. You can’t run for governor, Congress, Senate or president—and win—without appearing on its air. But campaigns pay dearly for the privilege.

WMUR’s cost per point, per capita, can equal that of the ABC affiliate in New York City. Still, says Feltus, “the media planner will always have MUR on the buy list.”

Its omnipresence has created a running joke that the parties’ campaign committees should just pool their resources one year to buy the station outright and then sell it after Election Day. But that imaginary marriage of convenience may be soon forgotten. The growth of new media, proliferation of online outreach and a potential challenger to its virtual ownership of the New Hampshire airwaves could lessen the impact of WMUR’s rates on the media budgets of future campaigns.

Typically, the station had seen millions of dollars in political ad spending, even in a slow campaign cycle. This year, for instance, saw more than $5.6 million spent by the candidates, PACs and issue advertisers in the New Hampshire media market —including almost $3.3 million pumped into broadcast TV in Manchester alone by Mitt Romney, Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman, according to a tally by Smart Media Group. Several buyers estimated that 75-80 percent of all the money spent in the market went directly to WMUR.

See a full breakdown of candidate and Super PAC spending in New Hampsire, compiled by Smart Media Group.

But this wasn’t a windfall year for the station. The absence of a Democratic contest and the foregone conclusion that was Romney’s eventual victory meant that GOP spending on WMUR’s air was down 40 percent, according to the station’s internal figures. Last cycle was when WMUR was laying the golden eggs.

With Democrats and Republicans both holding open contests for their party’s nomination, the price of ad time on the station skyrocketed. The cost per rating point to reach adults aged 35-64 went from about $150 in February 2007 to almost $450 by primary day in January 2008, according to a calculation by Feltus’ firm, National Media. The main reason for that increase was inventory. There were more candidates running and so more candidate ads.

Complaints about pricing weren’t coming in this cycle, insists Jeff Bartlett, WMUR’s general manager.

“Didn’t hear a shred of that this year,” he says. “We’ve had inventory. Nobody tried to put spots on this year.”

In past cycles the cost was always worth it, says media buyer Brad Todd, because WMUR’s news broadcasts capture politically savvy viewers.

“It’s not just an antenna,” says Todd. “They seriously devote a lot more resources to covering politics. Their stories are three minutes long. It’s not just mentioned in passing at the end of the newscast.”

There are ways to get around WMUR’s pricing, including running spots on cable and radio. But the most effective thing to do is go up early. “My advice is to start very early, and be prepared to shift resources to Boston if the market drives MUR’s rates up,” advises Todd.

WMUR’s Bartlett admits he’s onto something.

“If it’s early in the season, we’ll look at [a price adjustment],” says Bartlett. “But we do get into a bind when we get further into the election.”

At its uncompromising worst the station can be particularly hard on issue advertisers who aren’t covered under the Federal Election Campaign Act, which requires that candidates get the lowest unit rate.

“It’s been a problem for years and years and years and 2010 was just really bad,” says Paul Winn, a consultant with Smart Media Group. Last cycle, many issue advertisers on both sides of the aisle were forced to utilize more efficient options such as increasing their cable and radio budgets and buying national broadcast shows in the morning and primetime on Boston stations. Post-Citizens United, the competition for limited inventory is only going to get worse. 

“You’re going to have more advertisers and more money [being spent], but the battlefield states haven’t changed so you’re going after the same inventory,” says Winn. “It’s going to be a lot of pain spread around.”

Bill Binnie knows the pain of the New Hampshire media market firsthand. The wealthy businessman ran for Senate in 2010, only to lose in the primary to then-Attorney General Kelly Ayotte. Sources say his experience with WMUR spurred him to buy a small rival station and try to build it up.

Binnie, however, claims it was just good business sense that led him to purchase WBIN in May 2011.

“I was a customer of the market, which is a very unique kind of buying experience,” he says. “I had never seen it from a political standpoint.”

Binnie has since invested resources in the Derry-based station, hiring talent away from WMUR in the form of general manager Gerry McGavick and launching a 10 p.m. newscast.

“Developing competition is a good thing,” he says.