Baltimore TV stations get boost from gambling ads

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Baltimore television stations expected little in the way of political advertising this election year. Then the fight over expanded gambling in Maryland erupted, pitting deep-pocketed casino companies against each other.

The barrage of ads urging viewers to vote for or against the gambling referendum could drive political ad spending at local television stations to well over $10 million this year, according to some estimates.

Still, the Baltimore TV market's share of the political spending will fall short of 2010, a year that featured a governor's race as well as heavy casino-related issue advertising.

"This will be an exceptionally healthy year for political issue dollars, although it will not be as big as 2010," said Bill Fanshawe, general manger of WBFF Fox 45 and WNUV. "The driver for political this year is the casino issue money."

Question 7 on the ballot asks voters to decide whether to allow a sixth casino in the state, in Prince George's County, and to allow table games at the state's existing casinos. Ads related to Question 7 could account for as much as 80 percent of political spending in this election cycle, Fanshawe said.

The 2010 election drew record spending, about $22 million for the market's television broadcasters, Fanshawe estimated. That compared to $5.7 million in 2008 and about $17 million in 2006, another gubernatorial year, according to his estimates.

This year, he said, he believes the Baltimore TV market could see election spending in the range of $12 million to $15 million.

Dan Joerres, general manager of NBC affiliate WBAL, agreed that the market likely will draw about half what was spent in 2010, most of it generated by the gambling question.

"We started seeing it right around the special session [of the General Assembly in August], and it ramped up and has been consistent throughout September," Joerres said. "There is increased demand on the inventory when an issue like this hits the airways. We foresee spending to continue at the same level throughout October."

Despite record spending on political advertising nationally, candidate advertising in the Baltimore market has been "weak," said Bill Hooper, general manager of WMAR, the ABC affiliate.

"It's a very Democratic state," Hooper said. "Incumbents win pretty easily and they don't have big battles. The gambling money hasn't always been there. It's icing on the cake."

Several political committees have sprung up around Question 7. For Maryland Jobs and Schools, backed by MGM Resorts International, which is proposing the National Harbor casino, is spending to encourage voters to approve the referendum. On the other side is Get the Facts — Vote No on 7, backed by Penn National Gaming, owner of the competing Hollywood casinos in Perryville and Charles Town, W. Va.

Each group advertised heavily in August and September on Baltimore's network affiliate stations.

For instance, on WBAL alone, in a period from Aug. 27 to Sept. 27, the For Maryland Jobs and Schools ballot issue committee spent $782,800 on TV ads, while the Get the Facts group spent $985,200, according to television ad contracts filed online with the Federal Communications Commission.

The FCC began requiring network affiliates in major markets to post political ad spending online this year, including amounts spent by time slot, program and committee. The database went live Aug. 2, but broadcasters in Baltimore have interpreted the policy differently. WJZ, WMAR and WBFF have chosen to disclose less information, in some cases because the committees argue their ads are not "political matters of national importance" that are subject to requirements.

"This is the first time I can recall this kind of ballot issue being this big a deal and generating this kind of advertising," said Trevor Parry-Giles, a professor of political communication at the University of Maryland, College Park. "Gambling is one of those issues that brings out big money on both sides. Usually it's campaign-based rather than issues-based.

"But my inclination is this is an aberration rather than a trend," he said.

In the high-profile gambling fight, the Baltimore TV market represents just one slice of the spending pie.

A filing posted Oct. 9 with the State Board of Elections showed the Penn National-financed ballot committee had collected $21.6 million in contributions — $18 million of which has been spent, The Baltimore Sun reported. The pro-expansion committee had spent $17.7 million, including $14.4 million contributed by MGM.

A month before the election, the combined $35.7 million in spending so far by the two committees surpasses gubernatorial campaign spending in 2006, when Martin O'Malley defeated Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Nationally this year, unprecedented levels of political advertising are swamping the airwaves, with ads running not only in traditional news program slots but during entertainment programming, too.

Much of the national advertising is fueled by cash from so-called super PACS, the independent political groups that emerged as a result of court rulings lifting restrictions on the amount of political spending by corporations and unions. Media analysts project that campaigns, super PACS and other special-interest groups will spend more than $3.3 billion before the general election, according to a September report by Freepress citing projections by Wells Fargo and the Campaign Media Analysis Group.

But just a few states and a few companies, the conglomerates that own TV stations in battleground states such as Colorado, Florida, Ohio and Virginia, are likely to reap the rewards, experts say.

Hunt Valley-based Sinclair Broadcast Group stands to benefit, along with Belo Corp., E.W. Scripps Co., Gannett Co. Inc., Gray Television Inc. and Media General Inc., according to the Freepress report, citing SNL Kagan's media analysts. Broadcast TV station owners' revenues from political ads rose 50 percent for the first half of the year compared to the first half of 2010, during the last federal election, and similar growth is expected during the third quarter, analysts said.

Sinclair, which owns Fox 45 in Baltimore, took in $11.4 million in political advertising spending in the second quarter — triple the company's expectations. For the third quarter, the company said it expects about $18.5 million to $23.5 million worth of political advertising spending. That would be between 61 percent and 85 percent more for the first nine months of the year than during the 2008 presidential election.

"Political ad spending is at unprecedented levels," said David Amy, Sinclair's executive vice president and chief financial officer, in an Aug. 1 earnings release.

In Maryland this year, the gambling issue has far outpaced spending on other ballot questions, such as the same-sex marriage proposal and the Dream Act, which would allow some illegal immigrants to pay lower, in-state tuition at Maryland colleges and universities. Both are supported by a majority of Maryland residents, according to a poll released last month by Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies.

Relatively little, meanwhile, has been spent by political candidates.

In the general election race for the Senate seat held by Sen. Ben Cardin, a Democrat, Rob Sobhani, a Montgomery County businessman running as an independent, became the first candidate to buy television ads. Since starting last month, Sobhani has spent $1.5 million of his own money for spots in the Baltimore and Washington markets. Republican challenger Dan Bongino has bought time as well, but Cardin started airing spots just this month.

WMAR's Hooper said he expects advertising to pick up on the same-sex marriage issue in the weeks before the election, but most of the money will continue to be spent on the gambling question.

"We won't," he added, "see anything from the presidential race."

lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com

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