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COLUMN ONE : Buying Time for Candidates : As the campaigns heat up, so do the airwaves. That's when strategists plot to gain the best exposure for their clients. The key can be figuring out whether 'Jeopardy!' or 'Oprah' has more voter clout.


Sheri Sadler Wolf spends her days wrestling with tough political questions. Questions like: Do people who watch "Married . . . With Children" vote? The other day, Wolf--the media director at Target Enterprises, a Hollywood firm that buys advertising for political campaigns--let a salesman try to convince her that they do.

"There is an untapped resource in the 18-to-49 (year-olds)," the TV ad salesman said, referring to the age group that tends to watch the sometimes crude Fox comedy. Hopeful that Wolf would buy time on his station, he continued in vain: "18-to-49s are generally undecided voters. They are the kind of guys you should be going after with 'Married . . . ' "

But Wolf knew better. She knew that her primary targets--likely voters--tend to be 35 and older. "For the dollars I can spend right now, do I have the flexibility to go anywhere except after my 35-plussers?" she asked, shaking her head. "Talk to me about 'Cops' and 'America's Most Wanted.' "

Over the next six weeks, until the June 7 primary, TV viewers will be bombarded by an increasing number of campaign messages. Although these ads may seem a cacophonous jumble, in fact each one is strategically placed to reach a specific group of voters.

That is why media buyers such as Wolf, who usually toil in obscurity, are crucial to a candidate's success. And that is why the closer the election, the more our democratic process may be reduced to closed-door debates about whether, dollar for dollar, "60 Minutes" or "Jeopardy!" is a better political buy.

John Riedl, general sales manager at KABC-TV Channel 7 in Los Angeles, says that depending on their budgets, campaigns consider two distinct strategies: "Buy 'Home Improvement,' 'Roseanne,' 'Murphy Brown,' 'Seinfeld.' Big ratings, one shot, pay a lot of money. (Or) get out of prime time and go into other (times of the day) that don't give you as big a rating and don't cost as much. 'Oprah.' 'Eyewitness News.' 'Wheel of Fortune.' "

The latter approach--commonly called "buying tonnage"--can definitely work, said Jim Margolis, former media adviser to state Treasurer Kathleen Brown's gubernatorial campaign. After all, he said, "People watching 'Wheel' and 'Jeopardy!' aren't just bubbas out there. They're everybody."

The stakes in the media buying game couldn't be much higher. In a state as large as California, broadcast advertisements--both on television and radio--are as close as most voters will get to their candidates. Campaigns pay dearly to connect with the electorate: sometimes more than $1,000 for every second of air time. To advertise when voters aren't watching is to risk defeat.

"The dollars that you spend on television are astounding. If you're wasting your money, you're just giving away votes," said Margolis, whose Washington firm resigned from Brown's campaign in March. "So do I want to go and buy a show like 'Love Connection'? . . . These are some of the most critical decisions that (a campaign) makes."

Making a smart media buy is not as simple as looking at the latest Nielsen ratings. For example, one might expect "Saturday Night Live" to skew to a younger, non-voting audience.

"Wrong," said Robert Nelson, an Orange County political consultant who specializes in media strategy. "It's all these old guys like me who still think they're 22 years old. Highly educated target voters--a damn good deal."

"The Simpsons," by contrast, is a very popular show, but pity the candidate who advertises there, many experts say. The reason: A significant chunk of viewers are children 2 to 11--future voters, maybe, but not the people a campaign needs to reach in this election year.

Media consultants base their decisions on focus groups and demographic research, ratings studies and pricing data. For helping to reach the right voters, they earn commissions that can run as high as 15%.

In California that can be a lot of money. The candidates for governor already have spent more than $3 million buying ad time. Rep. Michael Huffington (R-Santa Barbara) alone has spent more than $2 million to air his reasons for wanting to unseat U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Between now and the general election in November, statewide candidates will spend tens of millions of dollars to go on the air.

It's not necessarily a partisan profession. Many media buyers learned their craft not in the political trenches but buying spots for more conventional products, from soft drinks to soup.

Brown's new campaign manager, Clint Reilly, has hired a former Coca-Cola ad buyer to execute the Democratic front-runner's media strategy. And some buyers admit that, although it's nice when their own political leanings match those of a client, ideological agreement is not essential to get the job done.

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