Political ads on TV: Republicans like ‘Big Bang’; Dems buy ‘Blacklist’


Philip Bump (c) 2014, The Washington Post.

If you have seen the “Today” show or your local news or an NFL game in recent weeks and you are unfortunate/fortunate enough to live in (or near) a Senate battleground state, what I am about to write will probably not surprise you: Those broadcasts have been the most likely to host ads from Senate candidates and party campaign committees since Aug. 1.

But where it gets interesting is in how the two parties differ when they’re buying ads. Both parties have bought ads during the popular show “The Big Bang Theory” since August, but Republicans buy far more. Democrats are more likely to buy ads during “Scandal,” “Blacklist” and “The Good Wife.” Some of the choices defy expectations. “Modern Family” is more popular with Republican buyers; “Shark Tank,” with Democrats. Some choices are exactly what you’d expect: “Fox News Sunday” is big with Republicans, Letterman with Dems.

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Or, I should say: Probably. It wasn’t until July of this year that the FCC posted online reports from local TV stations about campaign advertising buys. Prior to that, you often had to go to individual stations to figure out who was spending, and on what. Local TV stations, of course, love political ads; in its 2013 “State of the Media” report, Pew Research noted that “even numbered years almost always mean higher revenue for local TV, thanks to political ads and the Olympics.” It’s a cash cow.

But what’s available online about the ad buys is not, shall we say, terribly illuminating. (Which some cynics might think is intentional.) It’s a stack of PDF files, most of which aren’t text-readable, many of which include handwritten details. There’s no clear directory structure (beyond the station that submitted the form), no standardized submission form, lots of confusion between “U.S. Senate” and “state senate,” and no data from cable companies. The Sunlight Foundation has done yeoman’s work creating a searchable index of station filings, but even then, the best you can get is a list of those PDFs. And cobbling together the big picture of spending is a bit like trying to figure out your annual budget by reviewing every individual receipt.

So here’s what we did. We pulled every PDF filed on behalf of a Senate candidate from Aug. 1 through last week (which includes buys into October). We ran a text-recognition tool on them, divvied them up by party, and then created a script that let us search for the names of shows. This is admittedly imprecise: Some shows may have been missed because their names were abbreviated on the forms or because the text recognition was flawed. Nonetheless, some clear patterns emerged.

Take daytime TV.

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“Dr. Phil” is the most “Republican” daytime talk show, in the sense that it had far more mentions in Republican filings than Democratic ones. The least Republican? “Steve Harvey,” followed by “Ellen.”

It’s interesting to compare late-night television with Sunday political and talk shows. There are far more mentions of late-night shows in Democratic filings than Republican. On Sundays, that trend is reversed, strongly. And there’s “Fox News Sunday” – not a lot of ads, but mostly Republican ones.

By far the most popular shows to advertise on are news programs. The word “news” pops up again and again – over 64,000 times in the nearly 6,000 documents we scanned. Next was the “Today” show, which is a monster. As with late-night shows, there’s more overall mentions from Democratic buys, but there’s also a slight difference in the number of Democratic filings and Republican ones. (About 51 percent of the filings were Democratic, with 45 percent Republican.)

It was the independents who seem to have been more into game shows, particularly “Family Feud.” Democrats dominate in Hollywood gossip programs such as “Access Hollywood” and “Entertainment Tonight.”

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And now the big one: dominance in prime-time shows. Here, we get to a point that should already have been obvious. The difference in where people advertise is usually guided by the TV stations, which pick shows based on ratings. People advertise during football games far, far more than during baseball games, because lots of people watch football games (and because people don’t DVR the games, making it harder to skip the ads). It’s not rocket science.

We didn’t chart it, but reruns are also popular. “The Andy Griffith Show,” “Seinfeld” and “Friends” were all mentioned over 100 times in the filings. “Andy Griffith” was the most popular – with Republicans.

Revisiting the caveat one more time: This is an imprecise metric. But one number that is interesting: Only including the shows for which we searched, there are nearly 125,000 shows mentioned in these 6,000 documents. So if we learn nothing else from this experiment, we at least prove Pew Research’s thesis.