Political advertisers on both sides of the 2020 presidential race have targeted reruns of the syndicated sitcom more than any other scripted TV program, according to a CNN analysis of data collected by Kantar Media, a data and consulting firm that monitors political advertising.
The analysis looked at the broadcast programming most frequently targeted by Trump and Biden in the media markets that have run the most campaign ads during the general election. It found the candidates shared eight TV shows in common. Both campaigns loved morning talk shows, especially “CBS This Morning.” They both ranked “Family Feud” above “Jeopardy!” or “Wheel of Fortune.” And one of the only scripted shows among either candidate’s 10 biggest targets was “The Big Bang Theory.”
“The Big Bang Theory,” one of the most popular scripted shows while it was still in production from 2007 to 2019, had wide appeal across a variety of demographics and values, said Erica Lynn Rosenthal, the director of research at the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communications.
“(The Big Bang Theory) featured a fairly diverse cast of characters, including an immigrant and numerous female scientists, but rarely explicitly addressed social issues, which can be alienating to Reds,” Rosenthal said. Lear Center research found that the sitcom was “particularly popular among those who ranked race relations and discrimination among their least important issues,” she said.
Combined, local news shows were another favorite of both campaigns. According to the Lear Center’s research, local news is the preferred news source for 60% of those older than 50 and 61% of Black audiences — voting groups Biden and Trump are both actively courting.
The Trump and Biden campaigns did not return requests for comment from CNN.
While both campaigns have run fewer national spots on cable networks than broadcast, their programming choices there shared almost nothing in common.
“The majority of Reds watch TV news (particularly Fox News) and little else,” Rosenthal wrote in an email. Seven of Trump’s most frequently targeted cable programs are on Fox News. The most spots have run on “Fox and Friends,” a morning show that the President is known to watch regularly.
Outside the Fox News universe, Trump has prioritized “¡Despierta América!” (“Wake Up America!”), a Spanish-language morning talk show filmed in Miami, and reruns of “The Andy Griffith Show,” which ran from 1960 to 1968.
“The Andy Griffith spots seem to clearly be targeting an older demographic, nostalgic for the past,” said Kathleen Searles, an associate professor of political communication at Louisiana State University. “Very much in line with Trump’s Make America Great Again rhetoric, which recalls a simpler time in our history, at least for a very specific demographic.”
Spots on “¡Despierta America!” seem to be targeting Spanish-speaking conservatives, of which there is a sizable population in Miami, Searles said.
Half of Biden’s most frequent choices for national cable spots were on TV One and the Oprah Winfrey Network, with most airing during TV One’s “Fatal Attraction,” a true-crime docuseries featuring crimes committed in the name of love. His campaign has also targeted several TV One reruns of classic Black sitcoms, including “Family Matters” (1989-1998), “Good Times” (1974-1980) and “The Bernie Mac Show” (2001-2006).
“TV One caters to a predominantly Black audience,” Rosenthal said. “It appears the Biden campaign is focusing its energy on shoring up the Black vote in the weeks leading up to Election Day, when early voting is already underway.”
The Biden campaign has also prioritized three different programs on The Weather Channel. Biden has run so many spots that The Weather Channel makes up the largest campaign ad share of any cable network, although only 13% of Weather Channel ads have been for Trump.
“Based on what we know about cable TV viewers in general, it would not be a stretch to imagine that there are many older Purples among Weather Channel viewers,” Rosenthal said. Purples are also more likely to be swing voters, she added, and the Biden campaign has made larger inroads with seniors compared to previous Democratic presidential candidates.
When it comes to the overall frequency of aired spots, Biden has out-spotted his opponent on both cable and broadcast TV. Outside of Fox News, viewers in the 10 battleground media markets were more likely to see an ad for the former vice president than for Trump.
This is due in some part to Biden’s bigger campaign wallet. A CNN analysis of data from Kantar Media shows the Biden campaign has outspent Trump by about $ 500 million to $ 400 million as of Oct. 21.
The Trump campaign also hasn’t followed a traditional advertising strategy in the past, Searles said. Hillary Clinton outspent Trump on ads in several states in 2016, a previous analysis of Kantar data showed
, but the Trump campaign could hold rallies and focus on voter turnout to compensate, Searles said. The Covid-19 pandemic kept the Trump campaign from hosting rallies for a few months, though the events have started again and grown in frequency over the final months of the campaign. Still, Searles said the pandemic may have made the Trump team more reliant on ads.
“Given that, I think the fact that Biden is outspending Trump so much on ads, and the fact that many of those ad buys are forcing Trump to advertise in states he thought he had in the bag, indicates a real Biden advantage,” Searles said.
Television ads are also an arms race in politics.
“Having a consistent presence on TV communicates that Biden’s war chest is strong,” Searles said.
A Trump ad, “Defund the Police,” has run more times than any other spot in the 10 selected cities, although it last aired in July. Three of the five most frequently-run ads were for Biden and aired within the last month.
In the most popular Biden ad, “Dignity,” the candidate addresses senior citizens.
“I want them to know that their health and safety will be my responsibility,” he says. His speech is cut with images of seniors, Biden talking with doctors and couples wearing masks. Another ad, “Day One,” is simply cut from Biden’s speech accepting his party’s nomination in August. Biden explains his plan to handle the Covid-19 pandemic on “day one” of his presidency.
By contrast, the Trump campaign has continued to pursue the playbook that it used throughout Trump’s 2016 campaign and his presidential administration, said Kathryn Brownell, an associate professor at Purdue University and the consulting curator at The Living Room Candidate
“Re-election campaigns celebrate accomplishments. Think Nixon in 1972 or Reagan in 1984, ” Brownell said. What Trump’s ads have struggled with is showing how the country is better off under his administration, she said. “(This) may explain why so many of the advertisements either ignore the reality of Covid-19 or attempt to redirect the conversation to attacking Biden,” she said.
A CNN analysis of data from Kantar Media, shows that the Trump campaign’s ad messaging shifted more toward a more traditional highlighting of his accomplishments in the fall.
“President Donald J. Trump delivered on the impossible in his first term,” begins the script for “Delivered,” which ran from September 29 through October 13. “And in his second term, he will continue to fight for you.”
“Delivered” aired about 3,500 times in the 10 battleground cities, making it the most frequently-run ad of October so far. But with the Biden campaign having run nearly 48,000 spots in those cities this month — more than twice the roughly 17,000 spots run by the President — voters might not be swayed by Trump.
How CNN reported this story
For this story, CNN examined data collected by Kantar Media, a data and consulting firm that monitors political advertising. To identify the most frequently targeted TV shows, CNN identified the 10 cities with the largest number of campaign ad spots run during the general election cycle, which spanned the period between June 19, the first day Biden started advertising after the Democratic primary, and October 24. CNN defined campaign ad spots as those run by the candidates’ campaigns and affiliated political action committees (PACs) and super PACs.
The 10 cities included Green Bay, Wisconsin; Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Miami; Milwaukee; Orlando; Philadelphia; Phoenix; Pittsburgh; Tampa, Florida; and Tucson, Arizona. Several targeted shows are local news programs from those cities.
CNN then combined “spot count” data provided by Kantar, which measured how frequently each ad aired during different TV shows. We ranked these totals to identify the broadcast programs most frequently targeted for advertising by each campaign. For the sake of showing a broader example of each campaign’s taste in TV programming, CNN asked Kantar to combine local news programs into one entry.
For our findings on cable advertising, we created a similar dataset for spots that ran nationally on cable networks during the same period of June 19 through October 24.