Campaigns’ Olympian Challenge

Posted April 4, 2008 at 6:42pm

Synchronized swimming. Fencing. Table tennis. Congressional campaigns?

The Olympics are unrivaled in their ability to pull Americans from their vacations to their television screens for three weeks in the middle of August. And for attention-starved Congressional candidates, the Olympics provide an alluring advertising audience.

The big question is how the international event will affect the way candidates and consultants conduct campaigns.

“It’s a great television event in a normally dead television month,” said Republican media consultant Brad Todd of OnMessage Inc.

August has never been a popular month for campaign advertising, but in the emerging era of the constant campaign, races are getting started earlier and earlier.

But even candidates waiting until the traditional Labor Day start to the general election won’t be able to ignore the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. China and other related issues like trade and human rights will be thrust into the media spotlight and interjected into campaigns.

The Olympics kick off Aug. 8 and conclude Aug. 24. The Democratic National Convention starts the next day and runs through Aug. 28, followed by the Republican National Convention Sept. 1-4. If the Democratic nomination still is up for grabs in Denver, attention certainly will spike.

But for the bulk of August, the Olympics will be the only game in town and will draw television audiences similar to the most popular network shows. Over the past two decades, the opening ceremonies for summer Olympics hosted outside the United States received ratings between 13.8 and 16.2, according to Nielsen Media Research, rivaling top-rated shows such as “American Idol” and “Dancing With the Stars.” Ratings for the opening ceremonies at the 1984 Los Angeles games (23.9) and 1996 Atlanta games (23.6) were significantly higher.

Campaigns will have to consider the challenges of an Olympics ad buy including cost, timing and an increasingly fractured audience.

The cost will depend on how well NBC sells ads nationally, according to a Democratic media buyer. Eventually, NBC will produce a rate card, mapping out buying opportunities. Advertising packages are being sold now, but the event schedule likely will not be available until July.

During the 2004 summer Olympics in Athens, advertisers paid an average of $340,000 for a 30-second commercial during the opening and closing ceremonies, according to Nielsen, with a comparable 30-second ad for the 1994 Winter Olympics costing about $158,400. Of course, the actual cost will vary by media market.

Campaigns will not enjoy the luxury of specificity in their ad buys. High-profile events such as women’s gymnastics or men’s basketball, as well as high-profile American athletes like swimmer Michael Phelps, are obvious and attractive targets, but campaigns will only be able to buy spots during blocks of time when those events are likely to receive coverage. For example, it’s impossible to buy an ad before the 100-meter dash final.

“It’s not a cheap buy, but probably good for an open-seat or challenger race,” one Democratic media consultant said.

According to multiple media consultants, general ad rates are lower than usual because of the sluggish economy, but NBC and other media outlets are looking to the Olympics and the campaigns to boost sagging revenues.

Campaigns could get priced out of the Olympics altogether if commercial advertisers like General Motors and Coca-Cola pay the premium rates for prime slots. Because the Olympics fall outside the 60-day general election window, the vast majority of campaigns will not be eligible for the lowest unit charge.

Some candidates don’t have the luxury of avoiding the Olympics because of their primaries. Campaigns within 45 days of their primary are eligible for the lower rates, affecting races in Florida (Aug. 26), Arizona (Sept. 2) and New York (Sept. 9). Colorado is scheduled to hold its primary in the middle of the Olympics (Aug. 12), while Michigan and Kansas have their primaries immediately preceding the opening ceremonies.

Former Rep. Jim Ryun (R), who participated in three Olympics and earned a silver medal in the 1,500-meter race in 1968, could gain some mileage out of the pre-Olympics hype for his political comeback in Kansas’ 2nd district. He faces state Treasurer Lynn Jenkins in the Aug. 5 Republican primary.

The Summer Olympics occur every four years, but the timing of the games varies and can affect campaigns differently. The 1992 Barcelona (July 25-Aug. 9) and 1996 Atlanta (July 19-Aug. 9) games were early, while the 2004 Athens games (Aug. 13-29) were similarly scheduled to this year. But the 2000 Sydney games were Sept. 15-Oct. 1 and made political advertising more challenging and expensive.

“The campaign budget is still the driving factor for when you go on the air,” according to a Democratic media buyer. Candidates typically budget their ad campaigns by starting with Election Day and working backward through the calendar until the campaign runs out of money.

“Would I sacrifice an October buy for an August buy? No,” said Democratic media consultant Peter Fenn of Fenn Communications. Because campaigns don’t like to “go dark” (have periods without advertising) after they have started, it becomes a long and expensive road to advertise from the Olympics to Nov. 4.

“For those people that can afford to do it, great,” said one GOP media consultant, adding that campaigns that have money budgeted for early advertising will likely hit the airwaves regardless of the Olympics.

At one time not too long ago, the Olympics inundated network television, with viewers watching long blocks of coverage on a single network. But in the age of multiple cable networks and the Internet, the Olympics have become appointment television.

“It’s not one-stop shopping anymore,” according to a Democratic media buyer. NBC plans to spread its Olympics coverage across its three networks (NBC, MSNBC and CNBC), dispersing the viewing audience. And with the time zone differential, people can access event results and medal counts online, hours before they air on television. It’s “a la carte viewing,” according to one Democratic media consultant.

Another outstanding question is to what extent China is interjected into House and Senate campaigns.

“China and trade would be an issue if the Olympics were in Switzerland,” Democratic pollster Fred Yang said. From trade to human rights to poisonous toys, the Beijing Olympics likely will provide every local reporter the opportunity to ask candidates China-related questions. The issue likely will resurface in the Illinois 18th district race — where Democrats undoubtedly will try to remind voters about controversial remarks Republican nominee Aaron Schock made about Taiwan — but it remains to be seen how it will play in races nationwide.

Some incumbents have voting records on the issue, including the bill then-President Bill Clinton signed into law in 2000 granting China permanent normal trade relations status.

In some races, 2008 opponents both voted in favor of the bill, such as in Maine with Sen. Susan Collins (R) and her challenger, Rep. Tom Allen (D). In competitive races in Oregon, Kentucky, Louisiana and Alaska, the incumbents voted in favor of the bill while their opponents were not serving. Reps. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.), who are both running for the Senate this year, voted against the measure in the House.