Will political spots squeeze regular advertisers out of Virginia television?

The hurricane season started early this year. So did a perfect storm of factors that will inundate the Richmond and Virginia airwaves with commercials — a rising wave of political commercials that threatens to wash regular advertisers out of the picture, at least until November 7.

So much demand, so little time

What with local television buying on the upswing, national advertisers switching to spot buys, the Summer Olympics and the winter holiday gift-buying advertising, it was already going to be a very crowded year on the tube.

But now, thanks to two new factors, it looks like political advertisers could very well squeeze everyone else out. According to Washington Examiner staff writer Steve Contorno, “candidates and outside political groups are already scrambling to lock down television airtime for millions of dollars’ worth of campaign commercials that won’t hit the airwaves for months.”

Use it or lose it

Generally, television air time is sold by the rules of supply and demand. When demand is lax, prices go down. When it’s tight, they rise.

Except for political candidates’ commercials.

Federal law requires broadcasters to give candidates first priority when selling available air time, and sell it at their lowest rate-card rate. Political campaigns can’t bump commercial advertisers from time they’ve already bought, but they do get first crack at whatever’s open.

So the earlier they buy, the more choices they have.

That’s why, back in April, the National Republican Senatorial Committee bought $5.5 million worth of air time for George Allen’s campaign.

Obama 2012 having appropriated all the Democratic National Committee’s loose change, the Tim Kaine campaign weighed in a little later with a bit less — a $2.5 million buy.

“By placing this ad buy now, we’re able to take advantage of less expensive rates,” says Kaine adviser and Democratic strategist Mo Elleithee. “It’s a good time to be a television station in Virginia.”

No word yet on the Obama and Romney campaigns, but with Virginia already identified as a battleground state, you can be sure they’ll be putting in their two cents’ worth (more like tens of millions’ worth) any day now.

Jockeying for position

But the official campaigns aren’t the only ones jockeying for available air time. Thanks to the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which ruled that corporations, too, have a First Amendment right to free speech, all kinds of PACs and superPACs are throwing their dollars into the bidding war as well.

And war it will be. Outside organizations don’t get either the priorities or price breaks that candidates’ campaigns enjoy, so the only way to get the time is be the first to pay the most for it. Generally, if you’re first, before other advertisers get into the act, you pay the least.

SuperPAC American Crossroads is already running commercials from the Northern Neck to Bristol. And that’s just the beginning.

“It’s not just candidates and party committees anymore. It’s a whole host of outside groups,” notes Republican consultant Brian Donahue. “Inventory in many of the target presidential states that have competitive Senate races or competitive congressional races will suffer. Candidates or groups who are buying late will have a difficult time getting on the networks.”

Commercial air time is a fixed commodity, so those bidding wars can get bloody. The closer to air date, the less time’s still up for sale, so the prices spiral higher and higher. By buying early, the PACs, unions and other advocacy groups can get in closer to the ground floor.

And, by shrinking the already limited supply, price regular local advertisers out of the market.

You snooze, you lose

The flood of political spots could be enough to make a Joel Bieber commercial a sight for Richmonders’ sore eyes. Assuming he can still buy air time, that is. Many local advertisers won’t be able to, even at near-exorbitant rates, because they waited for the normal time to make their broadcast buys.

“A lot of people expect that television time is going to be at a premium,” Elleithee predicts. “The airwaves will likely get very, very crowded later on.”

GOP Virginia Victory 2012 campaign chairman Pete Snyder agrees with that prediction. “After September 1, you’re not going to be able to buy any time, all the mailboxes will be full, and all the voicemails will be full,” he says. “You’re going to be hard-pressed to get in front of Virginia voters.”

Also Virginia consumers.

So as a local advertiser, if you don’t get into the game now, you could very well find yourself benched come September.