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Wheel of For­tune is the big­gest ben­e­fi­ciary of this year’s record cam­paign spend­ing spree “The political ad spend­ing is part of the pitch. It al­ways has been”

Bloomberg Businessweek (Asia) - - CONTENTS - −Tim Hig­gins

Dur­ing a break in a March tap­ing of

Wheel of For­tune, a child in the au­di­ence asked the show’s an­nouncer, Jim Thorn­ton, what hap­pens in be­tween rounds of play. Thorn­ton was ready with an an­swer: “When we go to com­mer­cial, we make money!” That’s more true than ever this year, thanks to a dra­matic in­crease in ad­ver­tis­ing by pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns and their al­lied su­per PACs. Wheel at­tracted $17.8 mil­lion in political ads through March 1. “We’re re­li­able,” says long­time ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer Harry Fried­man. “Our view­ers are very loyal. We’re fam­ily friendly.”

This cy­cle’s cam­paign spend­ing on air­time dur­ing Wheel will eas­ily ex­ceed the $57 mil­lion it earned in 2012, more than any other TV show that elec­tion. So far, it’s brought in seven times more than at this point in 2012, ac­cord­ing to es­ti­mates by Kan­tar Me­dia’s Cam­paign Me­dia Anal­y­sis Group (CMAG), which tracks political ad­ver­tis­ing. The next top earner was NBC’s To­day, with $54 mil­lion, fol­lowed by $50 mil­lion for Jeop­ardy!, which, like Wheel, is pro­duced by Sony Pic­tures. Most of the 2012 spend­ing came in the last weeks be­fore the gen­eral elec­tion.

Can­di­dates, su­per PACs, and other political groups bought more than 13,600 spots on Wheel from Jan. 1, 2015, through March 1 of this year. The vol­ume of political ads has crowded out other com­mer­cials in pri­mary states. Dur­ing the episode that aired on WHO-TV in Des Moines the Fri­day be­fore the Feb. 1 Iowa cau­cuses, six min­utes of the seven min­utes and eight sec­onds of ads that ran were political, ac­cord­ing to CMAG.

De­mo­graph­ics ex­plain why cam­paigns tar­get the show. The av­er­age viewer is 50 years old, and 70 per­cent say they al­ways vote, ac­cord­ing to Bor­rell As­so­ciates, which fol­lows me­dia trends. Last year an av­er­age of 29 mil­lion peo­ple tuned into Wheel each week, ac­cord­ing to Nielsen. The next most pop­u­lar syn­di­cated show was Jeop­ardy!, with 26 mil­lion. “Like news, we’re on daily,” says Fried­man. “Very few of our view­ers record the show for play later. We’re still ap­point­ment tele­vi­sion.”

Wheel is syn­di­cated to lo­cal af­fil­i­ates, which sell about 80 per­cent of the show’s com­mer­cial time. The rest is sold by its dis­trib­u­tor, CBS Global Dis­tri­bu­tion Group, which last year re­newed the show into 2018 in more than 200 lo­cal mar­kets. “The political ad spend­ing is part of the pitch” when the show is sold to lo­cal sta­tions, says Ar­mando Nuñez, pres­i­dent of the dis­trib­u­tor. “It al­ways has been. But over the years it’s ob­vi­ously got­ten more im­por­tant as the amount of money

that’s be­ing spent in­creases.”

Wheel’s de­sir­abil­ity helps it com­mand a con­sid­er­able pre­mium. In Oc­to­ber 2014, amid the hotly con­tested U.S. Se­nate race in Arkansas be­tween Repub­li­can Tom Cot­ton and in­cum­bent Demo­crat Mark Pryor, KATV-TV in Lit­tle Rock pushed prices for 30-se­cond ads dur­ing Wheel to $50,000, from $1,250 in July, ac­cord­ing to records filed with the Fed­eral Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion. Na­tional ads were go­ing for about $95,000 at the time, says Will Fel­tus, whose com­pany, Na­tional Me­dia, man­aged ad strate­gies for Ge­orge W. Bush’s 2004 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. “What planet are we on?” Fel­tus says he re­mem­bers think­ing that year. “But the rea­son they’re charg­ing $50,000 is be­cause peo­ple are pay­ing.”

In 2012, Pres­i­dent Obama’s re­elec­tion cam­paign pi­o­neered the use of data to re­di­rect ad spend­ing away from ex­pen­sive slots on shows like Wheel to cheaper air­time that reached spe­cific sub­groups of vot­ers. (Of­ten, the an­swer was late-night and ca­ble-ac­cess TV.) Since then, an­a­lyt­ics-driven ad buys have be­come a pres­i­den­tial cam­paign sta­ple, but Wheel re­mains pop­u­lar. Plac­ing ads there can pro­duce vari­able re­sults, says David Seawright, di­rec­tor of an­a­lyt­ics and prod­uct in­no­va­tion for Repub­li­can con­sult­ing firm Deep Root

An­a­lyt­ics. He says Wheel does es­pe­cially well with older swing vot­ers, per­suad­able fe­male vot­ers, and young swing vot­ers in north­east Ten­nessee, but in Spring­field, Mo., it tends to at­tract blue-col­lar male vot­ers. “You can­not just make a blan­ket state­ment

and say Wheel of

For­tune is a good place to place political ads,” says Seawright. “It’s go­ing to de­pend upon where you’re run­ning and who you’re try­ing to talk to.”

Deep Root worked this year for the su­per PAC Right to Rise USA, which spent about $73 mil­lion on TV ads for Jeb Bush be­fore he quit the race in Fe­bru­ary—20 per­cent of the more than $370 mil­lion that’s been poured into pres­i­den­tial cam­paign ads so far this year. CMAG es­ti­mates the to­tal for all political ad­ver­tis­ing will reach $4.4 bil­lion by Novem­ber. “The su­per PACs act as this mul­ti­ply­ing force,” says El­iz­a­beth Wilner, Kan­tar Me­dia se­nior vice pres­i­dent. “Any­thing that con­tin­ues to get the re­li­able au­di­ences just be­comes more and more ex­pen­sive, be­cause there are more and more non­can­di­date ad­ver­tis­ers out there will­ing to bid up the prices for that kind of pro­gram­ming.”

The bot­tom line Wheel of For­tune is likely to cap­ture more of the es­ti­mated $4.4 bil­lion spent on political ads this elec­tion than any other show.

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