Despite signs of trouble from Donald Trump's presidential campaign, broadcasters Tribune(TRCO) - Get Report , GrayTelevision(GTN) - Get Report , Sinclair(SBGI) - Get Report , Nexstar(NXST) - Get Report and CBS(CBS) - Get Report still expect record levels of political ad spending after second-quarter earnings season. Scripps(SSP) - Get Report , however, stands out by scaling back its political forecasts.
Trump will ultimately put his money where is mouth is and buy TV time, the reasoning goes. If not, House, Senate and gubernatorial races that account for most of the political spending will make for a light presidential campaign.
Gray Chief Legal and Development Officer Kevin Latek told investors during a second-quarter earnings call that politicos will spend "if not for their own candidate, then at least in opposition to their candidate's opponent" during a second-quarter earnings call. The broadcaster has made the tepidly bullish projection that it will top 2012's record of $144 million in political advertising by at least $1.
"Control of the Senate and the Supreme Court are both at stake in this year's election," Latek added. "That has not been the case in many decades and certainly not been the case since campaign finance restrictions were relaxed."
After a bustling start to the year, the pace of ads slackened in the second quarter because of a lighter schedule of primaries, light Presidential spending and other factors.
Scripps Senior Vice President of Broadcast Brian Lawlor told investors the company redrew its map of battleground states, which initially included 10 swing states.
"At one point many thought the map would expand, but at this point it appears to have contracted." he said. Races Colorado and Wisconsin are less combative than anticipated, which lessens spending in Scripps' markets such as Denver, Milwaukee and Green Bay. With the contraction of the electoral map, our four swing states of Florida, Ohio, Nevada and Iowa become even more important.
Comparisons to the second quarter of 2012 are difficult, Tegna Media President David Lougee said during the company's second-quarter call, because the Barack Obama and Mitt Romney presidential campaigns were already spending aggressively in the period. Plus, Trump has been notoriously reluctant to buy ad space in this cycle.
Downplaying "the so-called Trump factor," Lougee suggested he Republican nominee would start spending after the convention and other races will add to coffers.
While Trump has not opened the spigot, Nexstar CEO Perry Sook said the Republican nominee's campaign inquired about ad space in 13 states where it operates. Sook expects Nexstar to collect $100 million in 2016 political spending, with 50% or more coming in the fourth quarter.
Trump and his staff are "serious in their own way," Gray's Latek during the company's call. He suggested that Congressional campaigns will spend more after the Presidential ad campaigns intensify. "Once Donald breaks the dam, the buys for all of the other races should begin in earnest," Latek said. There is plenty of money to fuel the mud slinging. Super PACs have raised $936 million, Latek pointed out, more than they raised in the entire 2012 cycle.
Likewise, Tribune CEO Peter Liguori told shareholders that he is "incredibly heartened" by bookings for ad space from August to November, which are double those from the same period in the 2012 cycle. Liquori targets a record $200 million in political ads.
Tribune has stations in 11 hot Presidential markets and 21 Senate races. "Add to that mix Virginia, with Time Kaine, now Clinton's VP pick," he said. "We did not budget for that race because his term was not up."
Trump's selection of Indiana Governor Mike Pence for vice president opens another gubernatorial campaign.
Tegna CEO Gracia Martore said 85% of the company's political dollars come in the latter half of the year, with the particularly intense spending during the five weeks between Labor Day and Election Day. "That's when candidates typically really feel the pressure to grab those voters," she said.
While the second quarter skewed toward Presidential spending, Tegna's Louguee described the fourth quarter as a "mutual fund of all of these other races" for House, Senate and gubernatorial seats.
When election day finally comes, however, sore losers can become a liability for broadcasters. CBS Chief Operating Officer Joe Ianniello explained the company's rules for political advertising during a second-quarter call. "It's COD, cash on delivery," he said, "because in case candidates don't win, they lose, they don't pay."