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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