Political Ads: Do Minority Media Outlets Benefit?

by Joseph Miller, Esq.

With less than two weeks remaining before Election Day, the presidential candidates and Super PACs have spent nearly $1 billion on advertising, enriching broadcast station owners in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.  Combined total outside spending by Super PACs placing ads on behalf of the candidates has topped $800 million. The Washington Post reports that over the last three weeks, the Obama and Romney campaigns have spent $40 million and $49 million, respectively, on advertising time in swing states.  But, without unraveling confusing datasets from at least two separate federal agencies, it is almost impossible for the average person to determine how much of that money is being spent on broadcast stations owned by minorities.

While the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) requires anyone buying broadcast advertising time in excess of $10,000 on behalf of a political candidate to report, within 24 hours, the “amount of each disbursement of more than $200 … and the identification of the person to whom the disbursement was made,” it is almost impossible to cross-reference this data with data the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) collects on minority station ownership.  First, the name of the individual listed in the FEC records would have to match the name of the station owner in the FCC’s database.  If the names do not match, one would then need to ascertain whether the individual listed in the FEC’s records is a minority owner by sifting through public records, and possibly other documents, which might still prove inconclusive.

Scholars have noted the unwieldy nature of evaluating the FCC’s records alone, not to mention attempting to cross-tabulate that data with the data of other agencies.  In a November 2009 study, the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council (MMTC) and Professors Catherine Sandoval and Allen Hammond of the Santa Clara University School of Law recommended that the FCC improve its databases in order to “enhance the ability to analyze [minority media ownership] trends over time and among a wide range of broadcasters.”

Another layer of the dynamic between political advertisers and minority media outlets is the FCC’s ban on “no-urban dictates” and “no-Spanish dictates” (NUDs/NSDs)—the practice of advertisers bypassing stations targeting black and Latino audiences.  A 2007 FCC order outlawed the use of NUDs/NSDs by requiring commercial broadcasters to include in their license renewal applications an affirmation that their agreements with advertisers did not intentionally discriminate on the basis of race. Many polls show that black and Latino voters favor President Obama by significant margins. On this basis, it is conceivable that the campaigns may have concluded that allocating their broadcast advertising budgets elsewhere would likely deliver a more efficient schedule.

Still, although targeting specific audiences is a fundamental aspect of broadcast advertising transactions, it is certainly worth considering whether any allocation of political spending away from urban- and Latino-targeted radio and tv stations might be excessive. For example, if Arbitron or Nielsen research shows that a station targeting a predominantly minority audience has lower ratings relative to a competing mass appeal station, a campaign official might, rather than failing to further consider the station targeting a predominantly minority audience, seek to discover whether it boasts a large number of minority listeners who are undecided voters.  Similarly, campaign officials might also seek to evaluate whether stations targeting a predominantly minority audience may be ripe for get out the vote (GOTV) operations.  Current concerns about voter suppression activities make the case for placing ads educating minority listeners about their voting rights.

Political advertisements, especially those placed during presidential election seasons, contribute a significant amount of revenue to stations’ bottom lines.  Minority-owned stations should suffer few impediments to their fair share of those revenues.

Joseph Miller, Esq., is Deputy Director and Senior Policy Counsel for the Media and Technology Institute at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. More information on Mr. Miller and his work can be found at the Joint Center website.

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