Obama buys half-hour of network primetime

Will air ad on CBS, NBC less than a week before election

Barack Obama has purchased a half-hour of primetime television on CBS and NBC, sources confirm.

The Obama campaign is producing a nationwide pitch to voters that will air on at least two broadcast networks. The ad will run Wednesday, Oct. 29, at 8 p.m. -- less than a week before the general election.

The direct purchase of such a large block of national airtime right before an election used to be more commonplace before campaigns began to focus their endgame strategies exclusively on battleground states. Such a move is not without precedent in modern presidential politics, however -- Ross Perot did a similar purchase in 1992.

The special is a smart move for the Obama campaign, said Larry Sabato, a political analyst and director of the Center of Politics at the University of Virginia.

"Obama's theme is not just change but unity, so he's appealing to the whole nation rather than a handful of tossup states," Sabato said. "He wants to win the popular vote by a good margin, which will enable him to govern."

And he's got the cash for it, Sabato said.

"This is another indication, if there needs to be any more, that Barack Obama's got more money than (available) television time to buy," said Evan Tracey, COO of the Campaign Media Analysis Group in Arlington, Va.

Whether John McCain's campaign will do the same remains to be seen, though there's one big thing moving against it: money. Unlike Obama, who rejected public financing of the presidential campaign, McCain is accepting it. That means the McCain camp is limited in the amount of money that it can spend and raise, and in its TV buying has been limited mostly to ads in battleground states such as Pennsylvania and Florida.

"There will be no second-guessing the Obama campaign on decisions involving resources," Tracey said. "He's not doing this and pulling down (ad) buys in Florida. This is not an either/or decision. They've got 25 days and unlimited amounts of money."

Neither Sabato nor Tracey could say whether the McCain campaign could buy its own time on the networks, even if it wanted to, because of the cost involved. The networks are obligated to offer the similar time and the same price to McCain. After Obama bought about $5 million worth of ads in the Summer Olympics telecasts including national time, McCain bought about $6 million worth. But now, with money and time being tight, it might be more difficult with making hard choices. The McCain camp has already pulled its ads from Michigan, once considered a key battleground state.

"This is where Obama being off public financing really boxes in McCain," Tracey said. "I don't think this is a move that the McCain campaign would be able to match."

Beyond Perot's 30-minute campaign ads in the last month of the 1992 presidential campaign, you have to reach back even further for similar instances. Sabato said that national broadcasts were not uncommon in the 1960s and early 1970s, when TV time wasn't as expensive and the current campaign financing limits weren't in place. It's also a common strategy for candidates for statewide offices to patch together stations on a statewide telecast.

CBS and NBC spokespersons declined comment. Sources say the Obama camp also talked to Fox, but the network might not be able to accommodate the campaign as the time period might conflict with a potential Game 6 of the World Series.

The buy will push CBS comedy "The New Adventures of Old Christine" to 8:30 p.m. and pre-empt "Gary Unmarried." NBC typically airs the hourlong "Knight Rider" in the slot, and will likely throw in a comedy repeat at 8:30 p.m. The buy is being placed by Washington-based ad firm GMMB. Obama's ad will air on the night before the start of November sweep.

This year has seen the first time in many years that presidential campaigns have bought national broadcast TV advertisements. In the past 12 years, much of the billions of dollars in political advertising spent has gone to local TV stations in battleground states. While some money has gone to national cable channels, the thinking has always been that it would be more prudent to target battleground states' voters instead of addressing the entire nation, including states that reliably vote for one party over another.

The Obama campaign earlier this year opted out of the public financing system, which meant that it was free to raise and spend as much as it could. It has, in states like Michigan, outspent the publicly financed McCain campaign by a margin of at least 3-to-1.

It's not unprecedented for a candidate to buy longform broadcast network time, though it hasn't happened in a while. In October 1992, Perot drew audiences of 16.5 million and 10.5 million for 30-minute lectures/campaign ad aimed at voters. But in Perot's second run in 1996, the candidate was rebuffed by the Big Four networks in an attempt to sell airtime. The FCC backed the networks in denying Perot airtime, saying that they acted legally in refusing.

Earlier this year, the Hillary Clinton campaign bought time on the Hallmark Channel, a nearly fully distributed cable channel, for a town-hall meeting before Super Tuesday.

Obama has run many 30-second spots across the country. One ad was considered particularly effective: a two-minute spot in which Obama directly faced the camera and spoke to viewers about their economic hardships.

While broadcast networks in the past have given presidential candidates free time for campaign statements in the final days before the election, those were done during news programs -- outside the expensive primetime hours.

From the start, Obama has been more focused on primetime than any other presidential candidate. Defying conventional wisdom to have political ads clustered around local news, during the primary season the Obama campaign poured 40% of its TV cash in primetime, compared with about 18% for Clinton.

Because the current election contest's convention speeches and debates have set TV ratings records, Obama can expect to draw a significantly bigger audience than Perot. With polls showing the Democratic candidate running with about a six-point national lead, the Obama campaign might see its telecast as a way of helping close the deal with undecided voters. In fact, for some networks struggling this fall, Obama might draw more viewers than their regular entertainment programming.

James Hibberd reported from Los Angeles; Paul J. Gough reported from Nashville. Nellie Andreeva contributed to this report.
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