Viewers of "Ellen," ''The Young and the Restless" and "Sunday Night Football" be warned: The political ad wars are heating up ahead of next month's elections and your favorite shows are the battleground.
In Billings, Montana's largest city, U.S. House candidates John Lewis and Ryan Zinke have spent over $185,000 to buy more than 1,670 ad spots from September through the first week of October.
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"There are people who certainly dis the ads, and everybody says they hate negative ads," Montana State University-Billings political scientist Craig Wilson said Friday. "But why are they used? Because they work."
Neither the Zinke nor Lewis campaigns responded to Associated Press queries about the strategies they use in buying TV ads. However, some insight can be gleaned in documents the Federal Communications Commission began publishing online in August for the first time.
The documents are the files of all the political ads purchased that broadcasters are required to keep at their stations. They do not include cable television.
The public used to have to go to those stations to view the files, but now anybody with an Internet connection can see how much the candidates and outside groups are spending to influence viewers' votes.
Files from Billings broadcasters KTVQ-TV, KULR-TV, KSVI-TV and KHMT-TV show Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Daines has been steadily spending to promote his Senate run, while his Democratic opponent, Amanda Curtis, has not bought a single ad.
The files also show little money from outside groups has been spent since August in that race. Wilson said that indicates interest groups are directing their spending toward more competitive Senate races elsewhere.
But the air time bought in Montana's competitive House race has only been growing. Zinke is paying top-dollar to have his campaign ads seen during the highest-rated primetime shows such as "NCIS" and "Blue Bloods." He also has been targeting football fans with ads that run during popular nighttime NFL broadcasts that can cost up to $1,200 a spot.
The Whitefish Republican's ad buys have been supplemented with additional air time bought by the National Republican Congressional Commission on his behalf.
The files show Lewis has bought all his own advertising. He's been more selective, mixing some primetime air time during hits like "The Voice" while also targeting fans of "Big Bang Theory" and "Modern Family" reruns.
Both campaigns can't seem to get enough of the talk shows, soap operas and game shows that run during the day, when the air time is relatively cheap. News shows also are a must, but expensive because the audiences are more likely to be voters — a spot on the 10 p.m. local news can cost up to $500.
"They have pretty extensive demographic data about who watches what show," Wilson said. "Increasingly with targeting, they're going to have a pretty good idea about what shows tend to be watched by this Democratic demographic group versus this Republican demographic group."
Lewis bought 863 spots for about $88,400 from the four Billings broadcasters from Aug. 29 through Oct. 6, according to the documents published by the FCC. Zinke and the NRCC purchased at least 809 spots during that period for about $97,000.
Look for the clutter of campaign ads to get worse. Zinke already has reserved another 256 spots on just one station, the CBS affiliate KTVQ-TV, from mid-October through Election Day on Nov. 4.
But with a high percentage Montana voters casting their ballots absentee ahead of Election Day, now is the best time for candidates to get their messages across, Wilson said.
"Once (a voter) sends in the ballot, your TV money is wasted," he said.