Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Press Releases: Poor WGME

Published in the Portland Phoenix

As the gubernatorial primary date inches closer, we’re starting to see more and more TV ads showing would-be governors touting themselves and their qualifications for the job. But this year is a little different: We’re not seeing any Democrats advertising on WGME, the Sinclair-owned CBS affiliate that broadcasts on Channel 13 from Portland.

That’s unusual, though the ostensible reason isn’t: there is an ongoing dispute between unionized station employees and management, and the Dems want to be seen supporting union workers.
More unusual, though, is that the station’s general manager, Tom Humpage, went public to complain about it. Naturally, though, he barely even mentioned the real issue: money.

In a video statement that went out on the airwaves and streamed online, Humpage lamented the candidates’ decisions, but he appeared unclear about how to approach them. Should he cozy up to these people who are depriving his business of cash, or get angry?

First, he went courtly, calling their decision “surprising . . . given that WGME is one of the most watched stations in Portland.” (That’s true; WGME has posted strong ratings for individual news programs, and is generally in second place for viewership in the Portland-Auburn market, though very far behind top-rated WCSH 6, the Gannett-owned NBC affiliate.)

But Humpage, who did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story, quickly got combative, pointing out a few facts in his favor: the union is not on strike (true), the station is “not violating any state or federal labor laws” (true, though a union-filed unfair labor practices complaint with the National Labor Relations Board has yet to be ruled upon), and that WGME “employs more union employees than any other television station in all of Maine” (a claim that is nearly impossible to prove either way).

We can forgive him for being worked up — and confused. This is not a total Democrat boycott of WGME: all the Democratic candidates participated in an April 28 debate televised on that channel and moderated by WGME news anchor Gregg Lagerquist.

But while they seem happy to take the free airtime and face-time from the station, they’re not giving anything back. And that’s really what has Humpage upset. The amounts in question are significant. In 2002, for example (the last time the governor’s race was for an open seat), the 15 candidates spent more than $2.5 million on television advertising (more than half of all campaign spending in that race). In 2006, with a Democratic incumbent facing a primary and a host of Republican challengers, TV ad spending for the governor’s race still hit $2.2 million. (Legislative revenue is minuscule by comparison — combined, all the State House candidates in 2008 spent barely over $75,000 in TV ads.)

Already in this year’s gubernatorial campaign, the 30 candidates have collectively spent nearly $1 million on TV ads alone, a pace that suggests the final tally will be much higher. It’s reasonable for Humpage to want to get a cut of that spending, and for him to be upset at learning that his station’s union relations are hurting that possibility.

Of course, that money is split across as many as seven TV stations around the state, but it’s money WGME was certainly planning on receiving that now it has to scramble to make up. (By contrast, Gannett as an overall corporation reported the Olympics drove significant gains in first-quarter advertising and is projecting as much as 20-percent increases in the second quarter.)