Media Upstart Struggles to Cash In on N.H. Primary Ad Spending

Dec 16, 2015

When Bill Binnie launched WBIN-TV in 2011, less than a year after losing the Republican nomination for a U.S. Senate seat, his goal was to bring more competition to New Hampshire political coverage.

Binnie had another incentive, of course: The tens of millions of dollars spent on political advertising during the state’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary.

The new station pinned its ambitions on NH1, a homegrown, Concord-based news operation that would challenge WMUR-TV in Manchester, which for decades has enjoyed a monopoly on the primary windfall.

But since debuting just over a year ago, NH1’s newscasts have failed to attract much of an audience. It’s viewership is dwarfed by WMUR’s, and as the 2016 primary heads into the final stretch, NH1’s ad sales are migrating to the Boston stations, where most viewers in the state’s southern tier turn for their primetime entertainment.

The poor ratings could have economic consequences for Binnie, who spared no expense on NH1. He bought and renovated a 16,000-square-foot former school, equipped it with the latest digital technology and hired a staff that includes former CNN political editor Paul Steinhauser and Kevin Landrigan, who covered politics for The Telegraph of Nashua for more than 25 years.

That investment has paid off in one respect: NH1’s political coverage gets high marks from observers who praise the station’s energy and commitment to local news.

“Paul Steinhauser is out there covering the primary like a madman. Everywhere you go, there’s Paul with a camera,” says Tom Rath, a fixture in the state’s Republican establishment and co-chair of Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s primary campaign. “They are working hard to drive viewership and establish a reputation as being very much a part of the political dialogue, and I think they have done a pretty good job.”

Jumping into a crowded market

A successful businessman who made a fortune manufacturing plastic bags and sheeting, Binnie knew he was stepping into a busy and complex media landscape. With 2.4 million households, the Boston-Manchester television market is the nation’s eighth largest, according to Nielsen, and competition for advertising dollars and viewers, north and south of the border, is fierce.

No one expected WBIN to immediately put a dent in WMUR’s ratings. An ABC affiliate that’s been on the air for more than 60 years, the Hearst-owned station produces 30 hours of news per week, plus a Sunday morning political talk show, Close Up, and a weekly election series, Conversation with the Candidate.

NH1, by comparison, airs 16 hours of local news each week, including the half-hour NH1 Newsmakers on Sunday morning. It has no morning and midday newscasts to compete with WMUR’s News 9 Daybreak and News 9 at Noon.

A labor dispute earlier this month cost WMUR its traditional role as sponsor of a primary debate. But, Wayne Lesperance, a political science professor at New England College, says the station's influence can’t be underestimated.

“To some extent, we’re talking apples and oranges,” Lesperance says. “WMUR is more than a television station – it’s an institution. It’s part of the primary.”

WMUR’s close association with the primary goes beyond its coverage of the candidates and issues. It also dominates the market for political advertising.

In 2008, the last time both Democrats and Republicans fielded competitive primaries, WMUR accounted for roughly two-thirds of the commercial time purchased by primary candidates, according to an analysis by UNH political scientist Dante Scala and Andy Smith of the UNH Survey Center; the balance was divvied up by the four Boston network affiliates that reach into New Hampshire.

So far this year, thanks to spending by Super PACs, the Boston stations - WBZ, WCVB, WFXT and WHDH - have claimed 45 percent of the ads sold or reserved, nearly equal to that of WMUR through last week.

Meanwhile, although NH1 did well early on, outselling each of the Boston affiliates through September, its share of the ad pie has gotten smaller. WBIN has sold or set aside time for just 400 ads between Thanksgiving and Primary Day, about 3 percent of the total.

This is almost certain to change, says Scott Spradling, a New Hampshire communications consultant and former WMUR political director.

WMUR and the Boston stations will eventually run out of commercial time to sell, Spradling says. With candidates and Super PACs reluctant to leave any of their media budgets unspent, WBIN will be in position to scoop up those ad dollars.

“One thing we know, as we get closer to crunch time, candidates are going to look for any place they can to place their ads,” he says. “It’s tough, but I still have full faith and confidence that ‘BIN is going to have a pretty full inventory through this last stretch.”

Lesperance agrees. With Super PACs on track to outspend the candidates by a 3-to-1 margin, there is plenty of ad revenue to go around.

“Somebody described it to me like this, ‘Even if he gets the crumbs from WMUR, those are pretty big crumbs,’ he says. “And if you’re Bill Binnie, you take some satisfaction in knowing that the pie is only getting bigger.”

A long-term investment

Binnie, who did not respond to requests for an interview, has made clear that his strategy for WBIN is a long-term one. In 2011, shortly after he bought WNDS in Derry and changed the call letters to WBIN, he told the Portsmouth Herald, "It's going to take time and millions of dollars" to build an audience.

In an interview, Gerry McGavick, WBIN’s general manager echoed his boss.

“Bear in mind it took us the better part of three years to get to the point where we had the resources and were comfortable enough to launch a newscast,” McGavick says. “The news is just a little more than a year on the air now, and we’ve established a great stride and certainly a terrific product.”

But, so far, few people are watching. In its first 11 months of operation, NH1’s evening news reached an average of just 1,600 households, according to Nielsen. That’s compared to more than 50,000 households that tuned in to WMUR News 9 over the same period, September 2014 to August 2015.

The meager ratings underscore what is perhaps WBIN’s biggest drawback - its lack of a network partner.

One of Binnie’s first moves as owner was to cut the station’s ties to My Network TV, a syndication service owned by Fox Entertainment Group that rebroadcasts popular first-run shows like The Walking Dead and Law & Order: SUV. As an independent station, WBIN relies on a mix of off-network reruns and paid programming or infomercials that draw a fraction of the viewers who watch first-run programs aired by the major networks.

Even WBIN’s most popular shows, like Family Feud, which bookends NH1’s evening newscast, fail to attract the viewership needed to command premium ad rates.

Consider the Hillary Clinton campaign’s media spending during the last week in November. The campaign aired ads during identical time slots on both WMUR and WBIN, but paid markedly different rates.

A 30-second spot during The Ellen DeGeneres Show, which airs from 4-5 p.m. on WMUR, cost the campaign $1,800. The same ad on WBIN during Family Feud cost $300. The Clinton campaign paid $4,900 for 30 seconds during News 9 at 5, while the same ad cost $1,500 to run during NH1’s 5 p.m. newscast.

Spradling says that absent a network affiliation, WBIN will have to develop more local news and other unique programming, not only to entice viewers away from WMUR, but the Boston stations as well.

“I’m not one to underestimate Bill Binnie, but I don’t know if there are any easy answers,” Spradling says. “A small, New Hampshire based cable outlet is probably going to have a permanently small sliver of the audience, even if there are a fair number of New Hampshire people watching.”

McGavick says the plan has always been for WBIN to develop its own programming. Additions to its newscast schedule can be expected “in the coming months,” he says, and other content will be developed “when we feel the opportunity is right.”

He also points to the 17 radio stations owned by WBIN’s parent, the Carlisle Media Group. In addition to being a source of ad revenue, they are key to the station’s long-term strategy to become New Hampshire’s only multi-platform source for news, sports and entertainment.

But, WBIN’s biggest and best opportunity is right now, and it's threatening to pass it by. There are still seven weeks before the primary, but the station accounts for less than $1 million of the more than $50 million in political ads that have already aired or been reserved.

Fergus Cullen, former chair of the New Hampshire Republican Party, is rooting for NH1 to succeed. He says the competition has already turned WMUR into a more “humble and hardworking” news organization.

He’s just not sure that will be enough.

“I think they looked at the first year as a bit of a loss leader, trying to establish themselves so they could start making money during the primary,” Cullen says. “But the ratings don’t lie, so it’s unclear at this point whether that business model is working for them.”