No Reservations: Why Campaigns Need to Bust the Early Booking Myth
There’s a gap between truth and folklore in every industry. Political media buying is no different in that regard. With the audience becoming more fragmented and the options for deploying scarce resources growing exponentially, this gap is no longer harmless. It’s time to do some myth-busting.
For many years, there has been a common belief that early booking is a guarantee of lower rates - with some buyers even going so far as telling their clients these reservations can lock in their schedules...but that is not really the case. There are some real advantages to early reservations – ‘first in, last out’ (staking claim to premium programming), and signaling strategy to allies who may be firewalled - but guaranteeing that rates hold is not one of them. Stations will generally honor the programming you selected, but as pressure on inventory increases (which it most certainly does in active media markets), rates will increase for popular programs, and the stations come back to the buyers with how much it will cost to preserve the schedule. If the buyer doesn’t add money, the stations will re-work the schedule to keep the dollars the same. But your campaign will almost always lose points. Those buyers who like to tell you that reserving early means you can ‘set it and forget it’ are not telling the whole story, which has serious implications for how resources get allocated.
From the TV station’s perspective, it's challenging to forecast political inventory pressures, especially months in advance of a general election. Pre-booking requires sales management to price and to allocate high-demand inventory (i.e., local sports, Sunday morning talk shows, other dayparts with strong skews for A35+) with even-handed distribution. Cancellations for advanced buys have become the norm rather than the exception: for races that are hot-then-not, for candidates who have strong PAC support, or as strategy simply shifts from more of this (e.g., male/female targeting) to less of that (e.g., heavy daytime schedules for frequency). One of the unintended consequences of the ‘early booking-late cancellation’ phenomenon is stations have learned to bake that into their pricing, sometimes even inflating their planning rates in anticipation of late cancellations.
We are asked to weigh in on the merits of reserving early every election cycle. As data nerds, we gather empirical evidence to answer the inquiries. In 2020, we looked at an Iowa market, where an Independent Expenditure’s (IE’s) pre-booked schedule delivered 877.4 ‘Live + Same Day’ Adults 35+ Nielsen rating points for $212K. We checked the public files after election day to find that the advertiser spent $224K to deliver 567.2 points. The advertiser lost 35.4% of their points – which could have been the difference between victory and defeat.
This failure to acknowledge point reduction in reserved schedules creates another unintended consequence – inaccurate competitive reporting. Quality competitive tracking produces actionable data that reflect rate changes in the market. Being able to spend a campaign’s entire war chest efficiently is often a product of that reporting informing a campaign’s strategy. Interest groups can find themselves making decisions about resource allocation based on incomplete or flat-out incorrect information when rate changes aren’t reflected in the reporting tools offered.
In another example, Washington State saw unexpectedly robust political spending in the 2022 election cycle. An October schedule was booked in April with a $910 Cost Per Point. According to the FCC public files, the actual CPP for that schedule ended up at $1557. In this instance, the advertiser was able to maintain their schedule by paying 71% more (!) than they originally planned. Most advertisers, though don’t have those kinds of reserves in October, so misleading promises of guaranteed points and dollars can be catastrophic in highly competitive races.
Pre-booking often seems like an effective cost and time-saving method, but the potential pitfalls of pre-booking are why it's critical for political media planners to be more transparent about the realities of early reservations and for consumers of political media buying to be well-informed in their decision making. While pre-booking may be useful in conveying strategy to allies when you’re firewalled and protecting program selection, we find that, more often than not, it can end up limiting strategic options or destroying budgets in the critical moments of a campaign. A campaign is nothing if it's not adaptive, and restrictive early reservations can often cause more harm than good.
Janet Katowitz is the president of Sage Media Planning & Placement. Kristin Long is a long-time broadcast executive.