How much is Barack Obama paying to blanket the networks with a half-hour TV buy during prime time this evening? Would you believe about the same amount as it costs to buy 30 seconds of airtime during the Superbowl?
According to the AP, Obama’s paying $1 million to each of CBS, NBC, and Fox; the infomercial will also appear on Univision, MSNBC, BET, and TV One. The NYT claims that this "is the ultimate reflection of Mr. Obama’s spending flexibility", but given the fundraising numbers which all of the major campaigns announced this year, $3 million seems like little more than a rounding error to me — and is also the going rate for Superbowl ads.
The big lesson here, I think, is how incredibly narrow and tactical ad buys are during presidential election campaigns. Although this is nominally a national election, and although the Obama campaign has been making consistent noises about fighting in 50 states, the structure of the electoral college forces adspend into swing states. The winners are small local TV stations; the networks see none of the hundreds of millions of dollars spent every four years.
Of course, this is no normal media buy; I can’t imagine that Microsoft, say, would be able to buy half an hour of network time for any amount of money, let alone a paltry $1 million. And even at that rate, it makes a certain amount of sense for the networks: they’ll get a healthy audience with zero production costs, while staying newsworthy.
But I don’t think that this buy really demonstrates the depth of Obama’s pockets. After all, the RNC raised $66 million in September; if they wanted to, they could have followed suit. If they choose to concentrate their dollars where they will make the most difference, that’s up to them.