Advertisers Flock to Election Night, When Live TV Is the Main Event Again

The companies that buy commercial time on the major broadcast networks and cable news channels are anticipating huge interest in election coverage on Tuesday — and a vote-counting process that spills even into the next night.

Advertising space between 6 p.m. Tuesday and 2 a.m. Wednesday is sold out at Fox News, said Jeff Collins, who heads ad sales for the network. More than a dozen companies have asked that their ads run during the election coverage, he said.

Advertisers are planning to take advantage of a rare few hours when tens of millions of people are likely to be watching live TV broadcasts, rather than giving their attention to Netflix or Disney+. With 80 percent of U.S. adults saying they planned to follow election results closely, according to a Pew Research Center poll, CBS said it had filled commercial time for its Tuesday night coverage. NBC said demand for 2020 Election Day ads was greater than it was four years ago.

“This election offers one of the last few opportunities to reach a mass audience that is highly engaged at scale,” Mr. Collins said. “We know there’s incredible interest in this election, more so than potentially any other, and there’s also been a lack of original programming elsewhere.”

Demand from advertisers usually extends into the morning after the election. This year, Mr. Collins added, it is stretching into Wednesday night. An increase in early voting because of the coronavirus pandemic means the winner of the presidential election might not be declared in the hours after most polls have closed. Officials in several battleground states have warned that the wait could last days.

Before the contest between President Trump and Joseph R. Biden Jr. took over the news cycle, networks were already moving toward running fewer commercials to try to retain easily distracted viewers while competing against streaming platforms. On election night, several networks plan to limit the number of ads, though most are also selling space on their digital platforms.

Political spending has mitigated some of the effects of the pandemic on the advertising industry in recent months. National spending on cable news commercials was up 115 percent for the Sept. 29 presidential debate compared with the debate on Sept. 26, 2016, according to Standard Media Index, a company that collects advertising data. And spending on cable news last month was up 60 percent from the equivalent period four years ago.

In 2016, the average cost of a 30-second Election Day commercial across major cable and broadcast networks was $16,507, with more than $26.8 million spent, according to Standard Media Index. Fox News has fetched higher prices for Election Day commercials than it had in past years, Mr. Collins said.

Gibbs Haljun, who handles investments at the media agency Mindshare, said Election Day was “a unique circumstance” for many companies, but noted that some brands had kept their ads away from television coverage of a presidential race marked by misinformation and bare-knuckle campaigning.

“Clients need to assess their risk tolerance — they may be attracted to the audiences the networks will deliver, but they also run the risk of whether the angle of the news coverage could tarnish their brand,” Mr. Haljun said. “This year, more than in years past, there’s more angst around the election, and it’s more polarizing.”

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