The midterm elections are over thank goodness. But besides the results themselves, there were other surprises: did you know that American TV viewers were inundated with more TV ads than probably ever before? Well, given the current hostile political climate—locally and nationally—it probably doesn’t actually surprise any of us, now does it? But let’s explore the results nonetheless.


During October, American TV viewers were exposed to almost 1.48 million political ads, up from the 1.41 million political ads aired in October 2008 (the last major presidential election year), according to data released by my employer, The Nielsen Company. It was the largest political ad output on record in what is traditionally known as the busiest month of the year for political messaging. Nielsen data over the last five calendar years suggest that TV distributors air twice as many political and issue ads in October than any other month, on average.

For some media markets, political ads are especially dominant in the local TV landscape, and nowhere was this more evident than Ohio. In an analysis of local broadcast TV outlets in the top 128 U.S. markets in October, Cleveland stations aired the highest proportion of political and issue advertising. Nielsen found that about one out of every four paid TV ads aired on local Cleveland stations was placed by a political candidate or outside political group. Ohio’s capital city Columbus placed a very close second in the ranking with an estimated 23.37 percent of paid ads bought by political entities. Portland, OR, Sacramento, Calif. and Seattle, WA round out the top five.

Ohio’s status as a political TV battleground is nothing new. In 2008, six Ohio television markets placed among the top 20 markets with the highest rate of political ads in October, and in the last midterm election in 2006, five markets from the Buckeye State placed in the top 20.

What was perhaps most surprising about the Top 10 list for the most political ads airing were the cities that weren’t found there: Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, D.C., Atlanta. One thinks that in the larger cities, with hotly contested races, those would be where you’d most expect to see a surge in ads. But not all U.S. TV markets were as politically saturated.

Consider the rankings for the following cities based on how many political as were run vs. total number of ads (political or otherwise) run in that market by Oct. 31, out of 128 TV markets:

#6 Champaign and Springfield, Ill.

#37 Philadelphia

#40 Baltimore

#42 Los Angeles

#77 Phoenix

#78 Chicago

#80 Detroit

#82 St. Louis

#94 Atlanta

#96 Memphis

#101 New York

#102 Washington, DC

#119 Houston

#120 Dallas

#127 Richmond-Petersburg

#128 Jackson, Miss.

Interestingly, Texas offered four of the 10 least saturated markets last month. While the Richmond, Va. market had the second lowest rate of political saturation among the 128 markets. Richmond’s ranking comes in stark contrast to the same time last year, when it ranked fourth nationally in political TV saturation, thanks to a high-profile governor’s race in an otherwise off year for political campaigns. But Chicago, New York and Detroit all had hot races this year. So yes, I was surprised to see them listed so far down on the list. Maybe because the ads I watched were all so ugly and negative I just thought I saw more of them than I actually did.

(Cheryl Pearson-McNeil is senior vice president of public affairs and government relations for The Nielsen Company, the world’s largest market research company.)

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