Baltimore television stations expected little in the way of political advertising this election year. Then the fight over expanded gambling in Maryland erupted, pitting deep-pocketed casino companies against each other.
The barrage of ads urging viewers to vote for or against the gambling referendum could drive political ad spending at local television stations to well over $10 million this year, according to some estimates.
Still, the Baltimore TV market's share of the political spending will fall short of 2010, a year that featured a governor's race as well as heavy casino-related issue advertising.
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"This will be an exceptionally healthy year for political issue dollars, although it will not be as big as 2010," said Bill Fanshawe, general manger of WBFF Fox 45 and WNUV. "The driver for political this year is the casino issue money."
Question 7 on the ballot asks voters to decide whether to allow a sixth casino in the state, in Prince George's County, and to allow table games at the state's existing casinos. Ads related to Question 7 could account for as much as 80 percent of political spending in this election cycle, Fanshawe said.
The 2010 election drew record spending, about $22 million for the market's television broadcasters, Fanshawe estimated. That compared to $5.7 million in 2008 and about $17 million in 2006, another gubernatorial year, according to his estimates.
This year, he said, he believes the Baltimore TV market could see election spending in the range of $12 million to $15 million.
Dan Joerres, general manager of NBC affiliate WBAL, agreed that the market likely will draw about half what was spent in 2010, most of it generated by the gambling question.
"We started seeing it right around the special session [of the General Assembly in August], and it ramped up and has been consistent throughout September," Joerres said. "There is increased demand on the inventory when an issue like this hits the airways. We foresee spending to continue at the same level throughout October."
Despite record spending on political advertising nationally, candidate advertising in the Baltimore market has been "weak," said Bill Hooper, general manager of WMAR, the ABC affiliate.
"It's a very Democratic state," Hooper said. "Incumbents win pretty easily and they don't have big battles. The gambling money hasn't always been there. It's icing on the cake."
Several political committees have sprung up around Question 7. For Maryland Jobs and Schools, backed by MGM Resorts International, which is proposing the National Harbor casino, is spending to encourage voters to approve the referendum. On the other side is Get the Facts — Vote No on 7, backed by Penn National Gaming, owner of the competing Hollywood casinos in Perryville and Charles Town, W. Va.
Each group advertised heavily in August and September on Baltimore's network affiliate stations.
For instance, on WBAL alone, in a period from Aug. 27 to Sept. 27, the For Maryland Jobs and Schools ballot issue committee spent $782,800 on TV ads, while the Get the Facts group spent $985,200, according to television ad contracts filed online with the Federal Communications Commission.
The FCC began requiring network affiliates in major markets to post political ad spending online this year, including amounts spent by time slot, program and committee. The database went live Aug. 2, but broadcasters in Baltimore have interpreted the policy differently. WJZ, WMAR and WBFF have chosen to disclose less information, in some cases because the committees argue their ads are not "political matters of national importance" that are subject to requirements.
"This is the first time I can recall this kind of ballot issue being this big a deal and generating this kind of advertising," said Trevor Parry-Giles, a professor of political communication at the University of Maryland, College Park. "Gambling is one of those issues that brings out big money on both sides. Usually it's campaign-based rather than issues-based.
"But my inclination is this is an aberration rather than a trend," he said.
In the high-profile gambling fight, the Baltimore TV market represents just one slice of the spending pie.
A filing posted Oct. 9 with the State Board of Elections showed the Penn National-financed ballot committee had collected $21.6 million in contributions — $18 million of which has been spent, The Baltimore Sun reported. The pro-expansion committee had spent $17.7 million, including $14.4 million contributed by MGM.
A month before the election, the combined $35.7 million in spending so far by the two committees surpasses gubernatorial campaign spending in 2006, when Martin O'Malley defeated Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.