California Recall Razzmatazz:

It will be a long time before pundits and historians will really be able to determine the impact of the gubernatorial recall election and the ascension of Arnold Schwarzenegger to the state's top political office on the state of California. Was the whole thing just a circus? Or was it more a carnival? It's too early to say.

What is clear is that California stations had no playbook for this race. News directors and sales managers couldn't look to established precedent when determining how to cover or sell the election. Nobody could be sure how much news might be created by any of the 135 would-be governors. Nor could anyone truly gauge how much some of them would want to advertise.

The wham-bam (thank-you fraulein) approach to politics made for a tremendous level of excitement and, naturally, local news had to keep on top of the ever-changing race with a high level of intensity.

Normally, stations can plan, at least roughly, for election coverage months in advance. Obviously, that was not the case here. "The recall was unexpected and it happened in such a condensed piece of time," said Barbara Cochran, president of the Washington DC-based Radio and Television News Directors Association (RTNDA). "As a viewer, if you didn't watch this story even one day you were going to miss something important. Stations played it as a lead story almost every night. But it wasn't budgeted."

Stations throughout the state broadcast several debates (including the one Schwarzenegger showed up for, which was put on by the California Broadcasters Association) and a town hall meeting with Davis, and generally provided some kind of unique coverage and analysis before and after. Trucks from every corner of the state were dispatched to Sacramento.

News departments eager to stand out tried to cover the many candidates least likely to make it to the governor's mansion. "Our members said that with so many candidates it could be chaotic," said Cochran. "So many things were happening at the last minute, events were changing locations, and it could be hard to make logistical arrangements."

But, she stresses, her members aren't complaining. This kind of interest in local events is something news directors pray for. "Members talk about this recall as a great story and one that will continue to be [great] long after the new governor takes office," she said.

Found Money

Prior to the election, there was a lot of speculation about the enormous windfall the race would be for television stations. Early industry predictions talked of six straight weeks of advertising and spending of upwards of $100 million. In actuality, spending was pretty light until the last couple of weeks.

Campaigns may have been waiting to see how things would shake out with their opponents. They may have had less confidence in polling data than they would have in a more traditional election cycle. Maybe candidate Gary Coleman was pulling extra shifts in his security job to buy spot time or candidate/watermelon-smashing prop comic Gallagher put off his media buy until he could determine how much his Sledge-O-Matic would fetch on eBay.

Whatever the case may be, post-election estimates pegged the spending figure at a less-than-glorious $45 million statewide according to the Television Bureau of Advertising (TVB), a New York trade organization for broadcast television stations. Despite the large number of people on the ballot, the race really came down to a three-way contest between Davis (spending $13.5 million), fighting to keep his job, and Schwarzenegger (spending $16 million) and Bustamante (spending $13 million) trying to take it away. Republican McClintock failed to rally his base, which might have felt it inevitable that Schwarzenegger, a wildly popular move star, would win. Meanwhile, the less serious contenders seemed happy with whatever free media they could attract just by being on the ballot.

Still, stations, especially in the state's major population centers, did see an influx of unexpected political ad dollars. But, said Joe Berry, vice president of the California Broadcasters Association, "This election was so short and had such a narrow field of candidates, the number of potential advertisers was much smaller than in a traditional election." Furthermore, the race lacked the down-ticket elections and the slew of ballot initiatives common to most elections in the Golden State.

Berry points out that unlike a regularly scheduled election, such as the presidential primaries coming up this spring, "There wasn't a whole lot of excess inventory. Stations had sold most of that time. This was back-to-school time and the fall television season and a lot of stations had to move around very large advertisers to accommodate the political ads. So then a station has to tell an advertiser that's going to support it year round, Ôyou have to move their times.'Ó

"In this election, schedules had to be juggled," said Gary Belis, spokesman for the TVB. "Stations would have to move a non-political advertiser in some cases or possibly even prevent an advertiser from coming in with a new promotion because of the political ads. I'm just spinning a scenario. I'm not saying this happened all the time. But [the political ads] could be a disruptive element."

Not that it's all bad. "Of course [the political ads] brought in found money," he said. "And that's always a good thing."

Also playing against the "huge windfallÓ concept is the fact that stations, as Berry pointed out, are also legally obligated to offer political campaigns cheaper spot time than their commercial equivalents. They must offer political advertisers the lowest unit rate (LUR). Media buyers who take advantage of this could see their spots running at a very desirable time for a cost less than another advertiser would pay. The catch is that spots sold based on this arrangement can be moved from their scheduled time to another, less-desirable period within a certain window.

For this reason, campaigns frequently pass on the LUR and pay a premium to target a desired audience. Meredith McGehee, president/executive director of Washington DC-based non-profit organization Alliance for Better Campaigns, would like to take some of the wiggle room out of the LUR laws. "Stations are supposed to give candidates the lowest price they would charge any other advertiser at the time," she said, "but they've gamed the system so it doesn't work that way. Yeah, they offer the time, but the ad has a snowball's chance in hell of running [at the scheduled time]. It's certain to be preempted and everybody knows it. They offer the lowest unit price but candidates don't buy it because they know they'll end up at two in the morning if they do."

Berry admits that LUR media buys can be pre-empted, but notes that they can only be moved to another time within a set period. "Some groups want a station to be forced to sell a political campaign the last spot before The West Wing starts for the same price it would sell the 3:30 a.m. spot between infomercials. That isn't what the law intended."

Political advertisers, he said, have the option of going with the LUR deal or not. He agrees with McGehee that many do not. "There are so many different kinds of spots," he said. "The last spot before the local news starts can be much more desirable than the second-to-last spot before the local news starts. In the last couple of weeks of a campaign, the candidates want to target specific audiences. They want to target people watching Dr. Phil or Law & Order and they'll pay to ensure that that's when they run. But they pay the lowest rate anybody would pay for that [assurance]."

Prepping For 2004

So what does the intense interest in this election signify about California's sense of civic responsibility? Did the election tap into a large well of interest in public affairs, or was it really a one-off, a novelty?

"Stations worked hard to establish themselves as the place to go to find out about the recall," said Cochran. "And they've brought a lot of attention to their efforts. Going into 2004Ñand I think there will be tremendous interest in the presidential raceÑstations will be well advised to have excellent political coverage. I think that can help them build an audience if they start early and establish themselves. It will help stations and the audience be well-served."

One can hope.

And did this whole thing swell the coffers of broadcast stations whose coffers could use a little swelling right about now? "There wasn't as much spent as people were hoping for," said TVB's Belis, "but $45 million is $45 million. With the California economy in the state it's in right now, every bit helps."

Jon Silberg is a contributing writer. He can be reached at