Biden spent nothing on Boston TV ads

Was his approach unique, or is it sign of trouble for stations?

THE DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTIAL candidates spent $26.4 million on television advertising in the Boston market running up to the New Hampshire and Super Tuesday primaries this year, but the figure that really jumps out is zero. That’s how much Joe Biden, the winner of the Massachusetts primary, spent on advertising on Boston stations.

Data filed with the Federal Communications Commission indicate Biden ran no ads on the five major TV stations serving Greater Boston and parts of New Hampshire. Many political analysts believe Biden wrote off New Hampshire and Massachusetts as unwinnable but ended up on top in the Bay State and Super Tuesday only because of an historic momentum bounce coming out of a convincing victory in South Carolina.

“That was a very unique case. It showed momentum matters,” said Tobe Berkowitz, a Boston University associate professor of advertising. “It was absolutely unique in the annals of campaigning. The planets all really lined up.”

Still, the spending data indicate the influence of TV advertising extends only so far. Businessman Tom Steyer topped all candidates by spending $12.7 million on advertising on Boston channels, with nearly 14,400 ads popping up at all hours of the day beginning last summer. Former New York City mayor and billionaire Michael Bloomberg dropped $6.6 million on nearly 6,000 commercials. The pair combined for nearly 75 percent of television spending during the primaries in the Greater Boston market. Both have since dropped out of the race after disappointing showings.

Sen. Bernie Sanders won the New Hampshire primary and came in second in Massachusetts, just ahead of Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Sanders was a distant third in spending, shelling out $1.7 million on 1,883 ads. Warren spent no campaign funds on advertising but the Persist Pac, which supported her candidacy, bought a little more than $760,000 in air time for ads.

For Boston-area TV stations, the presidential primary was a bonanza during one of the bleakest advertising periods of the year – after the holiday season is over and before the President’s Day sales ramp up. Presidential candidates ran 26,000 TV ads on the four major network affiliates and the independent Channel 7, the equivalent of more than nine straight days of 24-hour programming.

WBZ-TV (Channel 4), the CBS station, led the pack with $8.3 million, followed by ABC affiliate WCVB (Channel 5) at $6.7 million and NBC-owned WBTS (Channel 10) coming in third at $4.5 million. WFXT (Channel 25), the FOX network affiliate, and independent WHDH (Channel 7) each pulled in roughly $3.5 million. Media buyers get up to 15 percent commission on the ads. Officials at several stations either did not return calls for comment or declined comment.

Television stations have long relied on political advertising to beef up their bottom lines, ever since TV took the mantle from radio as a form of at-home entertainment. But with the advent of the internet, cord-cutting, and streaming services, the number of eyeballs commanded by the once-dominant local TV markets is diminishing and those that remain are in danger of developing cataracts.

Demographics show those who watch traditional television tend to be older. People 55 and over are the most loyal television viewers because that’s the medium they grew up with. A 2017 study showed that people 80 years old and up watched 5.2 hours of TV a day while those 65 and older watch 4.7 hours a day. The numbers decrease with age, presenting a problem for television executives and campaign media buyers. While older voters are the most reliable, the generation without brand loyalty that gets its news from mobile devices will take over the demographic and the tried and true method of television advertising will lose its impact.

Candidates “are using social media more than they ever did,” said Dan Payne, a longtime Democratic strategist. “Everybody feels they have to have a social media presence, even if they don’t know what it means.”

BU communications professor Michelle Amazeen, who did her 2012 doctoral dissertation examining political advertising, said some stations make as much as 15 percent of their revenue from political advertising. In the future, she said, they will have to do with less unless they can adapt to the flows in viewership.

“Times certainly are changing,” she said. “Candidates are still spending significantly on political advertising but people are going to have to revisit old strategies. The television demographic, it certainly is a lot older so it depends who you’re trying to reach. There are fewer and fewer types of television programming that reach a mass audience. It’s more niche.”

Michael Goldman, the longtime political consultant, agreed, saying the single biggest problem for television isn’t the competition from streaming services or the internet.

“The death of television advertising is the clicker,” he said. “I can click through all the commercials.”

Berkowitz says it may be a bit premature to count television down for the count.

“The demise of television has been a story for about a decade,” said Berkowitz. “But the candidates have been pouring money into broadcast and cable television. Candidates put their resources where they think they’ll get the most bang. The prediction of the dissipation of politicians advertising on television has been going on for two decades.”

Another problem facing the Boston market is the constant chatter that New Hampshire should not have the honor of being the first in the nation primary because of its small size and lack of diversity. Without New Hampshire, those advertising dollars would melt away quicker than snow in a February thaw.

Meet the Author

Jack Sullivan

Senior Investigative Reporter, CommonWealth

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is now retired. A veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is now retired. A veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

“The Boston market is lucky New Hampshire is in its reach because I don’t think many people would spend money to reach Massachusetts,” said Payne.

Jack Sullivan can be reached at reportah@icloud.com. Follow him on Twitter @reportah.