By Helen Coster
(Reuters) - Television news networks will benefit from a U.S. presidential race that may not be decided on election night.
With few sporting events and a captive audience due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a drawn-out, nail-biter of an election could appeal to marketers like the finance, technology, retail, social media and entertainment companies that have bought debate and election night ads.
At least two networks, Fox Corp's <FOXA.O> Fox News and Comcast Corp's <CMCSA.O> NBC, are expecting or already seeing high demand for the week following the Nov. 3 election night. Fox News is also offering its major sponsors the option to extend their campaigns if election results are not in after that first week.
Determining the next president of the United States could take some time after voting ends on Election Day due to a surge in mail-in ballots and expected legal challenges by the campaigns of Republican President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden.
Jeff Collins, head of ad sales at Fox News, said the cable network is seeing a significant increase both in average unit rate as well as average deal size since 2016 for election night coverage.
A 30-second spot during the 2016 presidential debates cost as much as $220,000, according to Standard Media Index, a marketing intelligence company.
This year, Walt Disney Co-owned <DIS.N> ABC is charging up to $375,000 for a 30-second spot during the debates, according to a source familiar with the network.
"With election coverage, you're going to be reaching people who were previously harder to reach on TV," said Catherine Warburton, chief investment officer at ad agency 360i, adding that the elections have attracted new buyers who previously were not interested in advertising during this period. "You're going to be reaching people who are community- and civic-oriented. That's attractive to advertisers."
AMERICANS GLUED TO NEWS
TV news has already seen a viewership spike this year, with NBC, ViacomCBS Inc-owned <VIACA.O> CBS and Disney's ABC experiencing their biggest news audiences in years, siphoning viewers from sports. In July, August and September, Fox News was the highest-rated network in all of television for prime-time viewers, according to Nielsen.
NBC, MSNBC, ABC, CBS and Fox News sold out their ad inventory for the first debate, according to people familiar with the networks. An estimated 73.1 million viewers tuned in to the first debate, below the record 84 million four years ago - a decline that may reflect changing viewing habits and an uptick in the number of people who stream content online.
ABC sold out its ad inventory for election night and the Oct. 7 vice presidential debate, according to a person familiar with the network, and was nearly sold out for the Oct. 15 and Oct. 22 presidential debates.
NBC, MSNBC and Fox News are getting close to being sold out on election night and for other debates, according to sources familiar with the networks.
Thanks to viewer interest in politics and news, ad revenue between June and August was up 68% from the same period a year earlier at CNN and 46% at Fox News, according to Standard Media Index.
Kagan, the media research unit of S&P Global Market Intelligence, is projecting that annual advertising revenue at Fox News will be up 8.2% from 2019 and up 5.2% at CNN from 2019.
"I anticipate that there's going to be a greater demand within the news cycle, leading into and following the election period, and that brands will chase the consumer, where they concentrate viewership," said Gregory Aston, head of digital media research science at data and consulting firm Kantar.
A post-election scenario that involves protests and violence could deter some marketers, according to media forecasters.
Many advertisers have already shunned media coverage of the coronavirus pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement. Trump’s unwillingness to commit to a peaceful transfer of power and his message during the Sept. 29 debate to the right-wing Proud Boys group to "stand by" suggests the possibility of more protests to come.
"I think that every advertiser who plans to be on the air around news-related content on the days immediately around and following the election has got to be very thoughtful about different scenarios because most of them are not good," said Brian Wieser, global president of business intelligence at ad agency GroupM. "And that may make a sponsorship of news less palatable."
Fox News’ Collins said none of the companies that have bought ads for the week after Election Day have expressed concern about civil unrest or asked for concessions related to that possibility.
At NBC, where ad executives expect the election to be a week-long event with high demand from advertisers, marketers are concerned about being "too red or too blue," said a source familiar with the company.
A related sentiment was on display this summer, when companies like Unilever Plc <ULVR.L> used the word "divisiveness" in their announcements boycotting advertising on Facebook Inc <FB.O> and other platforms, said Nicole Perrin, principal analyst at eMarketer.
"I felt like they were really telegraphing: 'We don't want to be in a place where people are fighting about the election.' And so that's leading me to think that election week coverage is not a positive emotional valence for brands to be associated with."
That divisiveness may be impossible to avoid.
"Number one, good luck getting away from this," said Steven Passwaiter, vice president and general manager of the Campaign Media Analysis Group at Kantar. "Secondly, given the dynamics of the year and how difficult it has been, it's hard to imagine anybody's going to really want to run away from a situation where they can reach more eyeballs."
(Reporting by Helen Coster in New York; Additional reporting by Sheila Dang in Dallas; Editing by Kenneth Li, Lisa Shumaker and Paul Simao)