CBS, NBC give GOP some free advertising

A Republican attack ad gets play on news programs even before any airtime has been purchased

Published March 18, 2010 6:55PM (EDT)

The cash-strapped GOP has been enjoying a bit of free publicity over the last few days. A March Madness-themed ad slamming the healthcare bill was recently featured on both "The Today Show" and the "CBS Evening News." Now, free airtime for political ads is not exactly new in the age of the 24-hour news cycle, but this case has an odd twist.

On "The Today Show," coverage of the ad tells us: "Republicans rolled out a new TV spot attacking what’s in the healthcare bill." When the ad is played on the "CBS Evening News," we learn that "the angry war of words in Washington is echoing over the nation." All this seems to suggest that the ad is actually being aired somewhere -- other than as part of a news program -- right now.

However, as it turns out, not only has the ad not yet run on TV, but the National Republican Congressional Committee, which produced the ad, hasn’t even bought airtime for it. The NRCC says they’ve been calling stations to ask about pricing and availability, but have yet to purchase any spots. The campaign committee is waiting to buy airtime until after the upcoming House vote on healthcare, because it's only planning to run the ad in districts represented by Democrats who voted for the bill. Of course, thanks to NBC and CBS, the spot has already reached a much broader audience than that — and the NRCC didn't have to spend a dime.

This sort of thing isn't uncommon. Campaigns and committees are well aware that they can get a lot mileage from controversial ads without actually spending much money to air them, knowing that these spots will get played for free on the news anyway. But this particular situation is unusual, and the free advertising is especially important for the NRCC this election cycle. According to the latest numbers, the organization just has $6.4 million in the bank compared to its House Democratic counterpart’s whopping $35.4 million.

By Emily Holleman

Emily Holleman is the editor of Open Salon.

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