Opinion

Local TV Is Changing to Better Target Voters

By Steven J. Lanzano
January 28, 2020 at 5:00 am ET

The 2020 campaign cycle is in full swing and political strategists, media planners and ad buyers are busy making decisions on the most effective ways to target, persuade and deliver voters for their candidates. With projections of over $3 billion in political ad spending on TV stations alone, it is clear local broadcast TV remains a critical part of the ad mix. Nevertheless, the Democratic field is competitive, so every dollar spent and every ad aired matters — especially in states like Iowa where top-tier opponents are neck and neck.

To facilitate political ad buyers’ critical buying decisions, local broadcast television is making fundamental changes to the way TV station buys are transacted – from a traditional ratings-based currency to an impressions-based currency.

Until now, TV ratings were the currency for deciding which programming best matched campaign priorities. Such ratings round audience estimates to create viewing percentages (for example, a 6 rating means a program reached 6% of the viewing audience). But today’s tech-savvy political campaigns demand more. Impressions recognize total program audiences (for example, 150,000 women aged 35+ were reached).

Buying based on impressions enables a larger variety of programs on media schedules, takes advantage of broadcast TV’s exclusive reach and provides greater voter targeting. For political campaigns, this means local broadcast TV can now be planned based on ratings and purchased based on impressions.

Not only will this currency change provide buyers with numerous ways to measure ad success on TV, but it will broaden political advertising’s reach across numerous screens. With the impressions approach, local TV broadcasters can offer aggregate viewing data, helping campaigns gain even more value from their media investments. Buying across a TV station’s newscasts as well as related content on that station’s website is much more easily accomplished for buyers using impressions as a currency.

Industry leaders are jumping on board this approach because of the additional value it provides their platforms. When we announced the impressions initiative, Wendy McMahon, President of the ABC Owned Television Stations, told me, “We see the transition from ratings to impressions as aligned with the consumer shift to cross-platform viewing, a shift we have taken advantage of to grow total audience. We look forward to enabling our advertisers to have full visibility of that local audience and to extending the overall reach of their messaging.”

With this reach, local TV buyers will gain valuable access to voters in new programs and dayparts. Take, for example, a locally aired syndicated program that generates a hash mark or near zero rating in a particular congressional district or TV market. In a ratings-based transaction that program would likely be rejected by a media buyer because it indicates an audience of zero. However, in an impressions-based transaction, the buyer could consider the program’s hundreds, if not thousands, of actual viewers.

For campaigns, viewers of low-rated programs could be key voter targets, providing a rich and uncluttered political advertising environment that otherwise would have been missed. This is also a valuable buying strategy when local TV’s popular political inventory tightens up in the weeks before Election Day and media goals become harder and more expensive to execute.

A majority of media agencies plan to move to impressions-based buying by the end of 2020, and data firms like Nielsen and Comscore are making this switch easier since they already gather and provide impressions data for local TV along with data from other video platforms. Plus, the buy/sell platforms make that data readily available for analysis and negotiation.

Local TV broadcasters are coalescing around the impressions initiative. This dynamic shift will allow us to better engage with TV’s invaluable audience, while considering the shifts in viewing habits. With local broadcast TV on an impressions-based currency, political campaigns will get to make the biggest impression on the most important voters.

Steve Lanzano is the president and CEO of TVB, the not-for-profit trade association representing America’s local broadcast television industry.

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