HELENA - As Montana gubernatorial candidate Corey Stapleton looks at his campaign account and the cost of TV ads, he's mulling when to pull the trigger on the ads - or ad - he knows he'll probably have to buy.
"It costs $150,000 to $175,000 just to get one message across (the state), so 80 to 90 percent of (TV viewers) will see it six to eight times," he says. "It better be a damn good message, because that's basically all I can do."
Like all statewide candidates in Montana this year, Stapleton - one of nine Republicans running for governor - must decide how to cut through what will be an unprecedented political thicket of campaigns and advertising in 2012, as he tries to reach potential voters.
Television is an expensive medium on the advertising spectrum, and isn't always the best buy for many candidates, because it can be seen by thousands of people who don't vote.
In Montana, political candidates buy advertising on radio, websites and billboards and in newspapers, depending on their budget and who they're trying to reach. In fact, consultants say they sometimes advise against using TV, because a limited budget could be spent contacting voters in a more efficient, effective way.
Yet when it comes to reaching voters on a wide scale in statewide races, political consultants and campaign managers still regard TV as top dog.
"That's what moves (poll) numbers," says Erik Iverson, who's managing the U.S. Senate campaign of Republican Denny Rehberg. "That's what people pay attention to. People will say, ‘I'm sick of all of these ... ads,' but it's still the most effective way to do it."
This year in Montana, TV airwaves are certain to get plenty crowded with political ads.
Ads have been running for months already on Montana's high-profile U.S. Senate race between Rehberg and Democratic incumbent Sen. Jon Tester, and will only increase as the election gets closer.
Montana also has an open governor's seat with more than a dozen candidates, an open U.S. House seat (six candidates), seven other statewide elected offices up for grabs, and perhaps a half-dozen or more statewide ballot issues and referendums.
"We are in a historical position here in Montana," says political consultant Barrett Kaiser of Billings, as he notes the string of potentially expensive races on the 2012 ballot. "The long and short of it is, it's going to be mayhem on the airwaves."
So what must the lonely candidate do to reserve and pay for his or her precious moments of air time, in this mad rush for TV ad space?
Raise a lot of money to pay for it, of course, and probably hire a media consultant who can both produce and place your ads. And plan early, say TV station and ad sales managers.
"It's just planning ahead like anything else," says Kathy Carrick, general manager at KTVH-TV in Helena. "Most of them are very savvy about that. They want to see the rate card and the programming (schedule), so they can see what they want to do."
While some political groups already are running ads related to the U.S. Senate race, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce ads last month attacking Tester, most candidates will hold off until closer to election day, be it the June 5 primary or the Nov. 6 general election.
They could start reserving time now, but generally aren't, because they want to wait and see what the political landscape looks like closer to the election. They're also raising money to pay for ads.
TV stations must offer what's called the "lowest unit rate" to political candidates - basically, the same lowest rate they'd offer to any advertiser - but the actual amount will fluctuate, depending on the time and show, and whether the time is "pre-emptible."
If you buy a spot on a program at the low-cost pre-emptible rate, somebody else can pay more for the same time spot and bump your ad to somewhere else.
Tim Keating, director of national and regional sales for KTVQ-Billings and five other CBS affiliates in Montana, says a 30-second spot on the evening news in Billings will cost $400, but if you want a spot that can't be pre-empted, you might pay double or more for that same spot.
Billings is the second-largest TV market in Montana, at 109,000 households, while Missoula-Kalispell is slightly larger. Great Falls is No. 3, followed by Butte-Bozeman and Helena.
There's really no ceiling on the price of TV ads, but Keating says his stations operate in a competitive market, so they can't just charge whatever they want.
They also want to maintain good relations with their non-political, regular customers, and won't necessarily be bumping them just because a political buyer comes along with a big checkbook, he says.
"It's a crazy time, (but) we have clients with us month-in and month-out that we work with every day, that we want to make sure we take care of," Keating says.
Political buyers also purchase a certain number of "gross rating points," a measurement of the audience size that will see the ad or ads. Stations will place the ad in various spots that add up to the total gross ratings points that are purchased.
A big buy in Montana is 1,000 gross rating points, which will run your ad many multiples of times in a given time frame.
Keating says candidates prefer spots on shows that appeal to people 35 and older, who are most likely to vote. The local news, "Jeopardy!" and "Wheel of Fortune" are among those shows popular with political advertisers, he says.
Candidates and political groups also can buy time on cable TV, such as Optimum, which serves 125,000 households in Montana. They can purchase time on a specific network or group of networks, and even target their message to specific cities or other geographical areas served by the cable network.
Determining what, when and where to buy can get complicated, and that's where consultants come in.
Kaiser, of Hilltop Public Solutions, which works for Democratic candidates, says candidates thinking of being on TV should concentrate on raising money and leave the ad producing and buying to someone else.
And, in this year of the ultimate crowded field, candidates can't forget about the creative side of TV advertising.
Iverson says with so many candidates vying for the attention of voters, those who want to shine will have to come up with memorable ads.
"The question is, what's going to cut through the clutter, message-wise?" he says. "What's going to make people watch (and remember) your ad versus the other 10 ads that are on TV? That's going to be the tricky part of this election."
Stapleton, a former state senator from Billings, is the only gubernatorial candidate to put up a TV ad so far, in the fall of last year.
The 30-second spot, featuring Stapleton talking about his candidacy, cost about $25,000 and ran on Monday Night Football and Fox News in several markets, he says. Stapleton isn't sure it was effective, as most polls show him back in the pack among the Republican gubernatorial hopefuls, well behind front-runner and former congressman Rick Hill.
Still, Stapleton says TV is the only medium that can visually introduce an unknown like himself, and show him and his family to voters.
"I think I can come across on TV in a way like you can't in any other medium," he says.
Yet Stapleton, who had $100,000 in his campaign account at the end of December, says he may be able to afford only one additional ad, if he runs it statewide at enough gross ratings points to be seen several times.
"I wish I had Tester's or Rehberg's money," he says.
The Tester-Rehberg race is clearly the dominant race in Montana this year, as both campaigns and outside groups are expected to spend more than $30 million on the campaign. A good chunk of that money will be spent on TV ads.
Tester had $3 million in his campaign fund as of Sept. 30 and Rehberg had about $1.8 million. Their next campaign-finance reports are due Jan. 31.
Well-funded campaigns like Tester's and Rehberg's routinely budget backward from the Nov. 5 election, determining how much money they'll have and how far out from the election they can start running TV ads and keep them up on the air.
However, the timing of their ads can be influenced by the ads of political groups, attacking one candidate or the other. If groups are on the air going after Rehberg, for example, Rehberg may feel compelled to respond, while Tester can sit on his money - or vice-versa.
Tester's campaign manager, Preston Elliott, says ads criticizing Tester have been on the air for more than a year, and are continuing, so the campaign may be going up with its own ads earlier than usual, he says.
"We haven't determined exactly when it will be," he says. "We (will) aggressively respond to all ads that distort Jon's record of accomplishment and hard work."
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