November Rain: TV’s Big Surge

Postelection ad dollars pour in as clients free up budgets, N.Y. gets back to work

The morning after Barack Obama secured his second term as the 44th president of the United States, two significant events occurred that left TV ad sales executives breathing a little easier. For one, the last of the New York media agencies that had been shuttered in the wake of Hurricane Sandy were back under full steam after a week of paralysis. And perhaps just as importantly, clients that had been waiting out the election results once again began spending a good deal of their fourth-quarter budgets on national TV inventory.

If Mitt Romney rather understandably woke up in a lousy mood on Nov. 7, network sales execs were clicking their heels, no matter their political leanings. “There was a palpable increase in activity literally the day after the election returns came in,” said one sales boss whose portfolio encompasses broadcast and cable networks. “It’s almost as if the clients had been sitting on the sidelines, waiting to see if we were going to get dragged into the legal morass that went down in 2000.”

Stalled client spending in the weeks leading up to the election had little to do with partisan politics—any financial guru with a functioning cerebral cortex will tell you the economy has very little to do with the machinations of government, and that the president has precious little control over employment, fuel prices, etc.—and more to do with a willful suspension of disbelief.

“There’s a sense that a lot of people are just assuming that we’re not going to go sailing over the fiscal cliff like Thelma and Louise,” said Pivotal Research Group analyst Brian Wieser. “It’s as if we’re willing ourselves into a sense of optimism even though the fundamental realities of the political landscape are essentially the same as they were before.”

Of course, there have been some positive trends to divine from the economic tea leaves, even if Washington is doing a lousy job of communicating them. For example, the gross domestic product is forecast to have risen 2.8 percent from July to September, up from an initial estimate of 2 percent. And the U.S. housing market in October saw demand hit its highest level in 18 months.

Clients are reacting accordingly, at least with TV outlets with GRPs to sell. “The last four weeks we’ve written $25 million more than we did in the year-ago period,” said Mel Berning, president, ad sales, A+E Television Networks, who added that the automotive and entertainment categories have been particularly robust.

Berning said Q1 2013 budgets are starting to breathe and calendar-year registrations are coming in a few weeks earlier than he’d originally anticipated. Visibility, however, remains limited. “You’d have to be offering blasting-cap rates for people to start spending second-quarter dollars right now.”