Money runs politics, and companies are noticing — and investing. Media corporatization and consolidation is well nigh complete, and the targets right now are news television stations in swing states. Why? Because during political seasons, political advertisements bring in money — and quite a bit of it.
Television stations in key areas can bring in huge levels of revenue. Here’s an example:
WJLA took in $33 million in election-related and issue advocacy advertising last year. Only three stations in the United States earned more for political ads, and two of those were also in Washington. That’s because the stations’ signals reach citizens in a crucial battleground state, Virginia, as well as the political power brokers in the nation’s capital. If Allbritton were to sell WJLA by itself, it could fetch $300 million.
That math helps explain why Gannett paid $1.5 billion for 20 stations last month, why the Tribune Companyagreed last week to pay $2.7 billion for 19 stations — and why more consolidation in the marketplace is forecast for later this year. (The New York Times)
Unfortunately, this gives media organizations huge incentive not to report on or push for, say, campaign finance reform. Right now, every election cycle, there are two elections; before running for public office, a presumptive candidate, or incumbent, must get funding to let people know they exist and can be voted for. Sure, we pick who wins an election — but the funders pick who runs. True, you don’t have to get the most money to win an election, but you do have to do very well.
The differences in revenue for these key stations can be truly staggering. The Times goes on to say,
For instance, WBNS, the highest-rated station in Columbus, Ohio, grossed about $50 million in advertising last year, of which at least $20 million was attributed to campaign spending. Columbus is the nation’s 32nd largest TV market.
Contrast that to the next biggest market, KSTU, the most popular station in Salt Lake City. Kantar Media CMAG estimates that KSTU brought in about $29 million in advertising last year.
It could not be more clear how desperately we need campaign finance reform — but the fight is a difficult one. Congress has direct incentive not to pursue reform (after all, how could we have legal bribes without campaign donations?), and now media organizations are further developing their own incentive to hinder public discussion of reform. The increases in revenue have also resulted in ads run by these stations to be fact-checked and vetted less often, causing Timothy Karr, a senior director of strategy at Free Press, to remark on them not wanting to bite the hands that feed them.