With Election Day still more than six weeks away, the amount spent on political advertising on Boston television stations is already significantly higher than it was for the entire 2008 campaign, driven by a tight Senate race in Massachusetts and the presidential candidates’ feverish bid for electoral votes in New Hampshire.
Candidates, the groups that support them, and other special interest organizations have shelled out about $46 million on TV ads in Massachusetts this year — compared with $27.5 million in all of 2008 — in a spending spree that is expected to accelerate. Much of the money is coming from political advocacy groups taking advantage of a 2010 US Supreme Court ruling that eased restrictions on campaign financing.
“You’re probably going to see a snowstorm on TV of commercials like we’ve never seen,” said Bruce Mittman, president of Mittcom, a Boston advertising and marketing agency.
The barrage may not please many viewers, but the political spots provide crucial revenue for Boston TV stations.
“Everybody is seeing healthy spending and has for the last four to five months,” said Bill Fine, president and general manager at WCVB-TV Channel 5, an ABC affiliate.
At WHDH-TV Channel 7, the NBC affiliate, general manager Chris Wayland said his station expected it to be a good year for political advertising. In addition to the presidential and Senate races, there are competitive contests for congressional seats, and high-profile ballot questions on medical marijuana and assisted suicide.
“We anticipated this is what would be happening and planned accordingly,” he said.
While websites and social media are figuring more prominently in political campaigns this year — and print publications and radio still account for some spending — television advertising on network affiliates remains the main attraction.
Television is crucial in political campaigns in large part because it is still one of the best ways to consistently reach voters.
By federal mandate, candidates for president and Congress receive preferential treatment when booking advertising time, and stations must give equal airtime to each side of a race. Candidates can also buy television advertising time at a discount from the going commercial rate. The result all too often: back-to-back political spots which can bump more lucrative commercial advertising.
Mittman estimated that the US Senate race in Massachusetts between Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren has accounted for roughly half the money spent in the Boston television market, while the Obama campaign and its related special interests groups has probably doled out about $12 million to $14 million on Massachusetts stations to reach New Hampshire voters who watch Boston TV. The Romney campaign and associated groups, Mittman figured, has probably spent $6 million to $7 million.
“As long as New Hampshire stays in play, that’s going to continue,” said Jack Poor, vice president of marketing insight at the Television Bureau of Advertising, a nonprofit trade group.
Filings with the Federal Communications Commission show candidates and special interest groups have been steadily lining up ads to get their messages out.
At WBZ-TV Channel 4 the CBS affliliate, for instance, FCC filings show that Brown’s campaign signed a $104,475 contract for 115 spots to run last week, while Warren’s campaign signed a $236,635 contract to televise 125 spots.
Both are buying time on popular day- and night-time shows that can attract several million viewers nationwide — programs such as “Good Morning America,” “Rachael Ray,’’ “Jeopardy!’’ and “2 Broke Girls.’’
“The ability to reach that many people that consistently — there’s just nothing that can come close,” Doug Rubin, a senior adviser for the Warren campaign, said of television advertising.
Little money from third-party political advocacy groups has flowed into the Senate race since Brown and Warren in January pledged to keep such groups from advertising on their behalf. But the Senate candidates’ promise has not prevented outside ad money from flowing into Massachusetts on behalf of other contests and issues on state ballots.
Earlier this month, the conservative YG Action Fund began a $799,000 television ad campaign against embattled US Representative John Tierney, who is running for reelection against Republican Richard R. Tisei. Tierney has come under scrutiny since his brother-in-law was linked to a gambling ring, and Tierney’s wife pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting in the filing of false tax returns.
The YG Action Fund, based in Alexandria, Va., is a super political action committee, or super PAC. Such groups, which first sprang up in 2010 after campaign finance restrictions were eased, can raise unlimited sums from corporations, labor unions, and individuals.
The ads — nearly 400 of them — focus on the illegal gambling business run by Tierney’s brother-in law, and were scheduled to run during football games and other programming through last week.
So far, FCC filings show, Barack Obama’s reelection campaign has bought ads on all the major local Boston stations — WBZ, WCVB-TV , WHDH , and WFXT Channel 25 — as well as at WMUR-TV Channel 9 in New Hampshire — dropping thousands and tens of thousands on each contract.
Obama campaign spokesman Michael Czin said while local voters are familiar with Romney as the former Massachusetts governor and as a part-time New Hampshire resident, the Obama camp is still spending money on TV ads under its theory that the “more voters in Massachusetts and New Hampshire learn about Mitt Romney, the less they like what they see.”
Romney has eschewed the Boston stations so far, but has purchased ads at WMUR. (Boston-area viewers may have seen Romney ads on TV, but those were probably purchased by a political action group or aired on a cable channel.)
Romney campaign officials could not be reached.Erin Ailworth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ailworth.