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What will it take to get movie studios to start running TV ads again? Maybe the 2020 election.

Big movie backers have in recent months largely stopped running their glitzy trailers on TV. Most significant releases have been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, and the Hollywood advertisers see little reason to bombard a national audience that may not be comfortable returning to theaters.

Yet two studios will run ads for movies during Fox News’ coverage around the first presidential debate on September 29, according to Jeff Collins, executive vice president of ad sales at Fox News Media. Any appearance of an ad for a new movie these days is a surprise. Movie studios essentially stopped advertising in July and half of August, according to Kantar, a tracker of ad spending. In the first full week of September, the number of ads from movie marketers on top TV networks was down 75%. Collins declined to name the movie sponsors.

The debates may give advertisers of all stripes something they have not had in some time – a massive TV audience tuning in to an event that is not related to sports. In the past, says Collins in an interview, “not everyone could relate to what was happening in national headlines.” In 2020, he adds, “you have things like the pandemic, or the economy and jobs, or the fight for racial equality.”  All these recent issues “make national news more relevant to a whole new generation of people – and younger viewers.” Fox News’ Chris Wallace will moderate on Tuesday, but many networks will transmit and cover the event.

NBC, CBS and ABC have all sold out their commercial inventory around the first debate, according to people familiar with the matter – as has Fox News Channel. “We are virtually sold out for the remaining three debates,” says Collins. “We have a unit here or there, but we are fast approaching sell-out in those debates as well.”  ABC has also sold out commercial inventory around its coverage of the vice-presidential debate on October 7, according to one of these people, and is almost sold out of ad time in the debates slated to take place on October 15 and October 22. NBC is almost sold out of its election-night inventory on both broadcast and cable, one of these people said.

One network executive says demand and interest in the political-news broadcasts has soared beyond normal expectations. “It’s the most pricing inquiries I’ve given in all the presidential elections,” says this executive, who ha since 2000 had a hand in negotiations with advertisers for such events.

The 90-minute debates themselves run commercial free. But there will be hours of coverage around the them, both on TV and in other video venues. ABC will pre-empt its three-hour primetime schedule on Tuesday to run a special hour-long broadcast of “20/20” and coverage anchored by George Stephanopoulos, for example. NBC News and CBS News each plan to devote two hours of coverage, led by Norah O’Donnell on CBS and Lester Holt and Savannah Guthrie on NBC. Fox News Channel will pre-empt two of its most-watched hours in primetime for debate coverage led by Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum, while MSNBC plans to start analysis at 8 p.m. with a team comprised of Nicolle Wallace, Rachel Maddow, Joy Reid and Brian Williams.

Anchors know they will likely be under intense scrutiny. “I’m trying to gird myself to not look for horizons, but staying on top of the story wherever it is at any given moment,” says Wallace. “And that’s what I believe to be the best strategy – not leading anyone down a path that doesn’t bear out, but also not minimizing anything that does happen in this remarkable moment.”

No matter how critical the issues, buyers caution that most media companies aren’t seeing a surge in overall ad dollars. Many advertisers are simply re-allocating money to the political programming they might have otherwise committed to standard primetime fare. And some advertisers tend to avoid news and opinion programming entirely – a dynamic that won’t change, says one buying executive.  “I do think this is a premium environment, but it’s premium only to those that are willing to support it,” the executive says. “The appearance of available audience impressions does not outweigh the need to be cautious, because of the unpredictability of what will be discussed.”

Even so, the networks have been able to increase their rates above what they sought in 2016, executives said.  In 2016, the broadcast networks were able to charge between $150,000 and $200,000 for a 30-second spot in coverage around the presidential debates, according to Standard Media Index, a tracker of ad spending. Meanwhile, the cable networks sought prices ranging from $40,000 to $103,000.

Ads in news could be critical to the sector’s fortunes at a time when the pandemic has crimped revenue. Fox News Channel is expected to take in more than $1.15 billion in advertising, according to Kagan, a market-research firm that is part of S&P Global Intelligence, up 8.2% from the approximately $1.07 billion it secured in 2019. MSNBC is expected to capture $601 million this year, down 3.1% from the $620 million it took in last year. And CNN is seen securing $608 million, this year, up 5.2% from the $578 million it captured last year, Kagan says.

The coronavirus may have taken a chunk of money away from everyone. Estimates released by Kagan prior to the pandemic called for Fox News to win $1.32 billion in advertising in 2020; for MSNBC to secure $723 million; and for CNN to take in $773.1 million.

Some of the media outlets are getting creative, offering new ways to place commercial messages around the events.  Fox News has created what Collins calls a “second screen experience on digital which people will download on their phones” where they can get real-time polling data and comments from anchors and reporters. It already has a sponsor for the first debate, he says. WarnerMedia, which owns CNN, recently sent a bulletin to media buyers and advertisers telling them they could purchase many elements often for sale around special news coverage, including the ability to put an ad message on a “countdown clock” that would be placed on screen in advance of important broadcasts.

TV networks may have more time to sell than usual, particularly if challenges in vote-counting create drama around election night that continues for several days.  Already, Fox News is offering “election week” sponsorships, says Collins, not just ones built around coverage on November 3. “We don’t know when this is going to be decided. It could be 1 in the afternoon. It could be 9 at night,” he says. “We want to offer advertisers the maximum exposure throughout that week.”

Top news personalities also sense they will be called upon to do more than usual. But how much more remains guesswork. “We’re just taking it one day at a time!” says Maddow. “I think we’re all expecting the election to last longer than it otherwise would because so many more people will be voting by mail and those ballots might take a long time to tally. But other than that, it’s hard to anticipate in advance how things are going to go even for the day ahead, let alone for coming months.”