The Perfect Political Storm
Cool heads navigate the turbulent waves of record campaign spending
"We faced a lot of challenges and strained relationships with advertisers because of the influx of the political ads. One challenge was to find a place for those spots that were preempted so the station kept the revenue."
- Shawn Ferenc
Traffic Manager, WWMT-TV
"The last month was incredibly tough. Not only did you have last minute orders, but they would be changing the copy of the commercial until the last second."
- Jan Duus
Traffic Manager, WPEC-TV
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"There were days in October when our traffic department resembled the chaos of the floor of the commodities exchange. It was very intense. I've never seen anything like it in my 18 years here."
- Doug Wolfmueller
"Our traffic department was amazing. There were obviously some stressful times, but because of their experience, they were spectacular."
- Jim Wareham
"Massage, manipulate. Massage, manipulate. Their daily routine is like the ebb and flow of the advertising tide. They massage the inventory daily in order to squeeze the most out of each available commercial break."
- Doug Wolfmueller
When scientists in New Mexico detonated the first atomic bomb in 1945, they designated the exact spot where the bomb struck the earth as "ground zero." It also meant that area would be the single most devastating point of destruction.
Last fall, in one of the most historic elections in the history of the United States, the traffic departments of WWMT-TV in Grand Rapids, Mich., and WPEC-TV, in West Palm Beach, Fla., found themselves standing at "ground zero" when they were inundated with record spending on political advertising.
WPEC booked $3.14 million in political advertising and WWMT an astonishing $6.6 million. Both record years. The traffic department at a television station takes all the orders for commercials and places them in the daily broadcast schedule. The department is responsible for making sure the right commercial runs for the right client at the right time of day.
There are two important dynamics that mark successful traffic departments. First is what is known as inventory the amount of commercial time each station has per day. It's like having a 250-seat airliner once the seats are filled, you can't add seats to accommodate more passengers. The trick is keeping all 250 seats filled every day to maximize revenue.
Second are preemptive commercials. Simply put, if advertiser "A" pays $500 for a 30-second spot on the 6 p.m. news and advertiser "B" comes along and agrees to pay $1,500 for that same 30-second slot, advertiser "A" gets bumped out of the time slot.
Effective traffic departments, however, make sure that advertiser "A" finds a commercial home on that day's schedule so the station doesn't lose the revenue. So what happens when a traffic department is literally overwhelmed by advertising orders, as WWMT and WPEC were in the weeks leading up to the general election?
At WWMT, where only 2 percent of commercials carry preemptive clauses during normal advertising cycles, the political hurricane of September, October and November drove that figure to 95 percent.
"It was virtually an avalanche. It is one of those instances in history that I don't think we'll ever see again," said Jim Wareham, who was general sales manager at WWMT during the elections before becoming general manager of nearby sister station WLAJ-TV. "And to think our traffic department handled it while maintaining our relationships with our regular advertisers is a tribute to them."
WPEC General Sales Manager Doug Wolfmueller concurred. "There were days in October when our traffic department resembled the chaos of the floor of the commodities exchange. It was very intense," he said. "I've never seen anything like it in my 18 years here."
The impact was that national and local advertisers, the people who do business with the station year-in and year-out, were getting bumped left and right. "You'd have a political guy coming in at the last minute with $30,000 in ads to run over the next four days. That means the traffic department has to bump regular advertisers to other spots. It's like working a big jigsaw puzzle," Wareham explained. "Normally, you'd get a $30,000 order from a national advertiser with a month's notice."
Maintaining relationships with regular advertisers during the crush of the political flood was critical.
"We faced a lot of challenges and strained relationships with advertisers because of the influx of the political ads. One challenge was to find a place for those spots that were preempted so the station kept the revenue," said Shawn Ferenc, traffic manager at WWMT. "We also spread the pain of being bumped around. We were careful that everyone felt it, not just one or two of our regular advertisers."
As the year progressed, the WWMT staff could see that Michigan was going to experience several bitterly contested races. Along with the presidential candidates, Michigan had a closely contested race for the U.S. Senate and a fevered referendum on school vouchers. By October, both Bush and Gore had designated Michigan as a key swing state. "Our traffic department was amazing. There were obviously some stressful times, but because of their experience, they were spectacular. It was like putting our best people against one of the toughest situations that they could face. It was the Super Bowl of elections," said Wareham.
Unlike Michigan, Florida saw the majority of its political advertising in October when it, too, was designated a crucial swing state. The team of Traffic Manager Jan Duus and her staff of Patricia Bellamy, Kris Jupe and Barry Owens would schedule $1.6 million in political ads that month and $705,000 in the week leading up to the election in November. "The last month was incredibly tough," said Duus, a 40-year broadcast veteran who has spent the past 20 years working in the traffic department. "Not only did you have last-minute orders, but they would be changing the copy of the commercial until the last second."
Wolfmueller marveled over how well the traffic department managed the flurry under duress. "Massage, manipulate. Massage, manipulate. Their daily routine is like the ebb and flow of the advertising tide. They massage the inventory daily in order to squeeze the most out of each available commercial break," he said. "They front load spots in the beginning of the week in order to give our sales reps time to sell the holes later in the week. They upgrade and manipulate spots sold, preempting spots sold to clear spots for clients paying higher rates, doing anything possible to garner the most dollars for our station."