The joke during the last election season was that no matter who won at the polls, the real winners would be local television stations.
Anyone watching TV could see it would be a good year for the stations, with almost every commercial break swamped by a flood of political advertisements from the hot US Senate race, several close US House races, and a slew of initiatives funded by out-of-state backers ready to put millions of dollars behind their agendas.
Those who closely monitor political ad spending knew something else: The huge demand for airtime, particularly in the evening news hours, was allowing local TV stations to gleefully raise rates to near Super Bowl levels, and a notable amount of that demand was coming from a newly opened spigot of corporate campaign cash that traced directly back to the US Supreme Court's January 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (a ruling that gave corporations the same First Amendment rights as people, allowing them to pour money into television commercials designed to influence elections). Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS, for example, spent more than $2.9 million on ads supporting Republican candidates in our media market in 2010—and his group, backed by corporate cash, is seen as one of the direct results of Citizens United.
In aggregate, ad receipts for all the local stations from 2010 tell an even bigger story. It turns out that what regular local TV watchers were noticing and joking about in 2010 was actually something historic. Executives at Seattle television stations tell The Stranger that last year, an all-time record amount of money for political advertising was dropped on this city's four major network affiliates: KOMO 4, KING 5, KIRO 7, and KCPQ 13.
The stations' collective haul in 2010 from political ads: $47 million.
"It is not only a record, but the previous two biggest years were presidential years," says KING 5 president and general manager Ray Heacox, who notes that this vault-busting bonanza took place despite it being an off-year election. Even the big ad-purchasing years of 2008 (Obama versus McCain, plus a bunch of state races) and 2000 (Bush versus Gore, plus another bunch of state races) weren't as lucrative for the stations. One reason: increased spending on initiatives, with ad buys at the three biggest local network affiliates going up more than 500 percent between the 2006 off-year election and the one in 2010. (In 2006, according to public records, there was about $3.7 million in TV ad time purchased for the major initiatives, while in 2010, the amount was about $19 million.)
The numbers are only likely to get bigger in 2012, which brings a presidential election and another US Senate race, on top of all the other usual suspects. So it's worth asking what the local TV stations are going to be doing with all these dollars. More pointedly: If the local network affiliates are now swimming in cash from political ads, why, when one turns on the TV, is it so apparent that their political coverage sucks?
"I've been here for almost 15 years, and the amount of political news coverage in the television news market is really pretty low," said David Domke, chair of the University of Washington's Department of Communication.
The political content is not only low but sometimes nonexistent, and it's often so superficial as to be practically useless—and this at a time when the stakes are incredibly high and political debates and outcomes have a more immediate impact on basic things like jobs, education, health care, and even food availability.
On February 8, I sat down to watch the KOMO 4 news at 4:00 p.m. For the entire hour, there was not one piece of local political news. Leading the broadcast: a big car crash, a small 3.2 earthquake near Friday Harbor, and a teaser about the latest from Lindsay Lohan. Next up, a trivia question: The average one of these in your refrigerator is two years old. What is it? Weatherman Steve Pool guessed "lightbulb," but was wrong. I lost track of the right answer amid a blur of reports on kids' hockey, tropical-themed menus to beat the winter blues, and Charlie Sheen's latest rehab stay.
The previous day, I'd tried the KIRO 7 "Eyewitness News" at 5:00 p.m. That hour began with breathless coverage of a hailstorm. "KIRO 7 crews put you in the thick of the blast!" Also: exclusive helicopter footage of a vehicle fire on I-405, a look at Seattle's "politest robber ever," and crime reports featuring less polite lawbreakers of all sorts. Then relegated to a few seconds each: a city council hearing on the downtown Seattle tunnel, a UW student rally against education funding cuts, and the Seattle Police Department's horse patrol being saved from budget cuts (though the major takeaway from the horse patrol story was that amazing amounts of hail interrupted the horse patrol press conference).
On February 10, I tried the KING 5 news at 5:00 p.m. Same formula: crime, weather, "why the feds are taking a very serious look at crib bumpers," repeat. Yes, at the top of the broadcast there was a story that localized the revolutionary protests in Egypt by hanging out with Seattle Egyptians watching the coverage, and there was also a look at a new videotape of alleged excessive force by the Seattle police. Later in the broadcast there was an installment in the station's award-winning investigation of waste in the state ferry system. But a deep look at any other issues in local politics? Nope.
"There's no lack of political coverage here," insists KING 5's Heacox, citing national awards the station has received, the "hundreds of hours of political coverage" the station produced during the election season, and the fact that his is the only station in town with a full-time political reporter (Robert Mak, who hosts KING 5's hour-long political show, Up Front, each Sunday). Having Mak on staff and devoting weekend hours to local politics is certainly something, but consider again what Heacox is saying: Seattle's local televisions stations brought in $47 million in 2010 from political ads, and only one of them—only one of them—has a dedicated political reporter on staff. (Despite KING 5 having Mak, KOMO vice president and general manager Jim Clayton said his station offers "outstanding" political coverage that is actually "the best in the market." KIRO didn't respond to requests for comment. Last year, it's also worth noting, the regional Emmy for a political show went to City Inside/Out on the Seattle Channel, which is funded by a shoestring budget compared to those at the major local news stations.)
Try to compare the $47 million local TV stations took in from political ads in 2010 to the cost of producing the bulk of serious local political reporting that goes on in Seattle, and it gets even weirder. Jeff Hansen, the station manager for local NPR affiliate KUOW, which has a daily schedule full of political news and commentary, said his station spent about $3.2 million on all of its news gathering and reporting operations in 2010—that's politics, environmental reporting, everything, for less than one-fourteenth of the amount Seattle TV stations brought in from political ads in 2010. The Seattle Times, which has an editorial staff of 200, wouldn't say how much it spent last year on political reporting, or what it could do with a windfall of $14 million—the amount KING 5 alone took in from political ads last year—but Domke, the UW professor, said he's sure the Times would do something big.
"If you gave the Seattle Times $14 million, then I'm 100 percent confident that that news organization would devote some chunk of that to more robust, even better political coverage," Domke said. "My challenge to the broadcast news organizations would be: What are they going to do for the civic good with all of this money?"
Nothing new, said Jim Clayton at KOMO, the guy who called his station's political coverage "the best in the market."
"There's no direct link there where you go, 'Okay, I get this political money so I'm doing this political coverage,'" Clayton said. In any case, from his point of view, things are just fine as they are at KOMO.
In fact, Clayton suggests that, if anything, the flood of political ad spending is itself helping the political discourse. "I think it's a good thing," he said. "I think people should be able to use whatever means are necessary to get their voice out."
The problem with Clayton's argument is this: When commercial breaks are flooded with contradictory and often intentionally misleading political speech designed to influence voters on complicated issues—as happened with, for example, Initiative 1098, Bill Gates Sr.'s failed high-earners income tax measure, over which both sides spent around $1.8 million on local TV ads—it becomes even more important that the TV stations devote serious time and resources to reporting facts, context, independent analysis, expert opinion, and all the other tools of serious political journalism.
Citing national awards and saying that their political reporting is already better than average for local TV stations nationwide is setting "a very low bar," said Domke. "That's sort of like saying that you're better than the Mariners were last year in baseball," he said. "We're a place here where you have a very intelligent population. Highly educated... We could certainly tolerate a more high-level news discussion about politics and public issues."
Domke continued: "There's a civic responsibility that all commercial news organizations have, which is that if they are receiving income from their communities through advertising... they have a real civic responsibility to make sure that public is well informed on the issues of the day."
The responsibility is even more key when most other forms of media, and especially print (RIP, Seattle Post-Intelligencer), are struggling with falling ad revenues and existential crises brought on by the internet. Seattle needs its local television stations to do more, and it needs it more than ever. What part of the duty that comes with a $47 million windfall don't these TV execs understand?
Intern Megan Burbank contributed research to this story.