Smart-read: As TV viewership changes, so should political strategy

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Television ads are a cornerstone of political campaigns, as they have been for a more than a half century.

But with changing viewing habits — including digital, mobile and other content — TV’s dominance might be slipping, even if just a little.

Dan Balz of the Washington Post reports on a new study released Thursday by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics and the Internet Association demonstrating there are emerging challenges facing political campaigns hoping to get the word out to a new generation of viewers, many of whom are turning away from live television.

Off the Grid National Survey found the country is facing a “tipping point” between viewers of traditional television and newer forms of contents, such as tablets and smartphones, according to data presented by Robert Blizzard of Republican-leaning Public Opinion Strategies joined by Julie Hootkin of the Global Strategy Group, an organization that works primarily with Democrats.

Live TV is not lost, they say; and it will probably never go away.

But 70 percent of respondents to the survey said they watched live television in the previous week, with a full 30 percent saying that (other than live sports) they watched no live television in the past week. And with younger voters, that number is closer to 40 percent.

New platforms like on-demand video, streaming, tablets and smartphones have altered the habits of viewers, Balz writes, most notably in the past three years. Two-thirds of the U.S. population has a smartphone; over half say they have a tablet.

The survey found that twice the numbers of people are watching streaming content, as much as 27 percent of Americans. Smartphone viewership has also doubled, and viewing content on tablets jumped from 14 percent to 26 percent in just under two years.

Difficulties in old media were no more obvious than the recent special congressional election in Florida’s 13th congressional District. When Republican David Jolly defeated Democrat Alex Sink, it provided an excellent example of the problems campaign strategists have in running House races.

A key problem was that Tampa’s overall media market covers eight congressional districts, with CD 13 making up only 19 percent of the total market.

Post-election research by Smart Media Group found Democrats spent about $5.5 million and Republicans almost $4.4 million. Three-quarters went to broadcast networks, and cable took most of the rest.

What those spending patterns suggest is the waste of millions of dollars on local broadcast TV, since most of the viewership did not even reside in CD 13. It wasn’t clear if the money spent on cable was any more efficiently applied.

The trick is to get the ads in front of the right eyeballs, whether it is on a TV, an iPad or smartphone — a new strategy to reach voters who “fall through the cracks” in regular TV viewership.

Cable systems have long-developed tools to target specific demographics; using analytic gadgets like set-top boxes and online tracking to determine targeted demographics for advertising, even narrowed down to individual homes. The goal is to find preferred ways consumers want content and  allocate resources for a more effective strategy.

Even as digital and mobile use skyrockets, TV will continue to be the primary message platform — for now. But that tipping point is coming fast, and a few campaign strategists are beginning to realize the trend, questioning if television, especially in presidential races, really has the ability to change minds and opinions.

If that is the case, Balz concludes, then campaigns will have to adapt just as quickly.

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.