Why TV Airtime Reservations Are More Important Than Ever

by Nathan L. Gonzales April 23, 2014 · 11:35 AM EDT

It’s time to pay more attention to television ad reservations; they have become another critical way party strategists communicate without coordinating under campaign finance laws.

Not too many cycles ago, political reporters rightly handled television ad reservations loosely and delicately as strategists from both parties used them to play games. Strategists would make some reservations with little or no intent to fulfill them in order to fake out the other party, the media or both.

But that was also a time when the party campaign committees (through their independent expenditure arms) dominated outside spending in races. Now, outside spending from non-party groups has increased, and party strategists can’t afford to pull in and out of competitive races or abruptly shift advertising plans because television spending strategies are more integrated.

“You can’t over-reserve anymore because once you’ve laid down that time, people are counting on you,” explained one Democratic strategist.

For example, last week, House Majority PAC announced initial $6.5 million in television reservations in 24 congressional districts, including 18 districts currently held by Democrats and six Republican-held districts targeted for takeover.

HMP can, and does, coordinate with other outside groups including organized labor, environmental groups and abortion rights groups. But it cannot coordinate with candidates or the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, including the DCCC’s independent expenditure unit. The DCCC I.E. unit is on an island by itself, separate from candidates and outside Democratic groups.

So when HMP announces plans to air television ads, the DCCC I.E. can plan accordingly. It could decide to air ads in the same districts over different weeks or in different districts altogether, with the goal of minimizing unnecessary overlap and being efficient with resources partywide.

This is just the beginning of public maneuvering by groups on both side of the aisle. At $6.5 million in initial reservations, this is just a fraction of the $36 million that HMP spent in 2012.

As these ad reservations become interlocked, not fulfilling a reservation could result in a party being disarmed on television at critical moments of the campaign. In previous cycles, both parties would initially reserve far more television time and then scale back that time as bills started to come due.

While there is no specific monetary penalty for cancelling an ad reservation, not fulfilling those plans can agitate traffic managers at local television stations. If a group gets a reputation for not making good on reservation plans, the station could start asking for payment of the ads up front or increase future ad rates.