The flood of political advertising set to inundate the airwaves during Election 2016 may not be great for America, but it will be awesome for broadcasters -- and investors would be wise to pay attention.
Jim Cramer examined the competition in broadcast TV on Monday's episode of "Mad Money," delving into which companies he think stand to cash in this election cycle. TheStreet recently did a deep dive into how political ad spend will shake out this year, with tech reporter Chris Nolter focusing on the biggest piece of the pie -- television.
While one might be inclined to think it is major media conglomerates like Disney (DIS - Get Report) and CBS (CBS - Get Report) that stand to benefit most from political advertising, it's actually the smaller players that are more levered to the election.
"Disney and CBS are bid media conglomerates with nationwide exposure, whereas these smaller broadcast plays have much more relative exposure to the wave of political advertisement that anyone who watches live TV is going to get used to from now through the election in November," said Cramer.
Here are the three stocks Cramer sees as best bets in 2016:
Cramer thinks Gray is an investor's best bet for election 2016.
The Atlanta-based company owns 64 network affiliates in 27 states and boasts the No. 1 or No. 2 ranked channels in 49 of the 50 media markets where it operates. Moreover, the company often controls multiple networks in the same market, giving it terrific pricing power when it comes to negotiating advertising rates.
Wells Fargo analyst Marci Ryvicker estimates Gray has exposure to 34% of the hottest races in the country, including swing states Florida, Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin, as well as nine of the most competitive Senate races and 10 gubernatorial races.
Gray hasn't exactly been hitting home runs lately in terms of stock performance, falling about 28% over the last 12 months. But Cramer sees blue skies ahead.
"I think it could also get a real boost from all this political advertising. Plus, Gray Television is the most profitable of the broadcast companies in terms of its operating margin. The stock's darn cheap -- six-times the stock's political-juiced earnings estimates, only 13-times next year's," he said. "Gray, I think it's a winner."
The National Spelling Bee sponsor might also be a stock to consider. Ryvicker estimates it has exposure to 56% of the biggest races this election cycle, making It the best-positioned of all local television plays.
Scripps owns 33 television stations in 17 states, along with radio stations in eight media markets. It also has an expanding portfolio of digital assets, including mobile news service Newsy, weather app developer WeatherSphere, podcast ad network Midroll Media, comedy site Cracked.com and television shows like "The List" and "The Now." Moreover, it runs its own investigative reporting newsroom with a dedicated political sales office in Washington, D.C.
Last year, Scripps spun off its newspaper business as Journal Media Group, which has since been acquired by Gannett.
"Despite all the radio holdings and the online odds and ends, the new print-free Scripps is a broadcast-focused company, and 87% of its revenue comes from television. And while the stock has had a rough time lately, down nearly 30% over the last 12 months, that's courtesy of some weaker-than-expected numbers in 2015," Cramer said. "This company could be poised to make a fortune as we get closer to the election."
Scripps owns and operates affiliates in numerous swing states, including Ohio, Florida, Michigan, Nevada, Colorado and Wisconsin. It also has a presence in Arizona, where Republican Senator John McCain is engaged in what is likely to be the toughest reelection campaign of his career.
The Cincinnati-based company is forecasting $150 million in political advertising revenue for 2016, but given that it made $147 million in 2012, that number stands to be much higher, said Cramer.
"If that turns out to be the case, this stock could soar," Cramer said. However, he warned investors might not want to count their chickens before they hatch on this one. "Scripps' execution has been, let's say, inconsistent at best to be nice, and the stock is hard to value. While it's trading at 14 times this year's earnings estimates, when the election ends, earnings are expected to crater, hence why it trades at 51 times next year's numbers. So even though Scripps may have the most political exposure, the story has some hair on it."
Tegna is another potential winner, though broadcast television is only part of the story on the stock.
The broadcast and digital business created by the 2015 breakup of Gannett, the McLean, Virg.-based company's story has gone off the rails. The idea was that it would perform better without being dragged down by the newspaper division, but instead, the opposite has happened: Gannett stock has rallied since the spinoff, while Tegna has declined.
"Instead of value creation, we got some, ultimately, value destruction," Cramer said.
While Tegna has attractive television properties, its digital assets -- CareerBuilder, Cars.com and others -- have flailed. But Cramer sees signs of a turnaround for those businesses, and that, combined with a political advertising boon on the broadcast side, could mean big things.
"With the coming deluge of political ad spending, I think it's possible [it] could start to turn itself around," he said.
The company's media business includes 46 television stations, representing the largest group of major network affiliates in the country. It's the No. 1 affiliate for Comcast's (CMCSA - Get Report) NBC and CBS (CBS - Get Report) and the No. 4 affiliate for Disney's (DIS - Get Report) ABC and boasts an important presence in swing states Florida, Ohio, Colorado, North Carolina and Virginia. Ryvicker estimates it has exposure to 34% of the hottest races, and Tegna has already reported a more than 150% in political ad spend compared to 2012.
"We know that at times of peak demand, local broadcast stations in the right regions can sell political ads for what amounts to 40-to-50 times what they normally charge for regular advertisements. Overall, we can see anywhere from $3.4 billion to $5.9 billion spent on broadcast ads this cycle. These are record-breaking numbers," said Cramer. "The question is, how much of that campaign cash could make its way to Tegna?"