GOP bigwigs aren't the only ones worried about Donald Trump winning the Republican presidential nomination.
Trump has emerged as the candidate to beat while spending far less than his rivals — a potentially troubling development for local TV stations, which rely heavily on revenue from political ads.
"In an environment like this where somebody is proving a disruptive model — Trump is saying 'I'm a reality TV star and I know how to move things without using television advertising' — it's a scary space, " said Bill Day, a vice president for Frank N. Magid Associates, a consulting firm with a number of broadcasting clients.
Political advertising has become a major profit center for TV stations located in hotly contested swing states like Florida, Ohio and Colorado. Presidential election years in particular can be bonanzas. But if Trump becomes the nominee and decides that his celebrity allows him to advertise less than a typical candidate, following his pattern during the primary campaign, TV station owners could be stuck with significantly less revenue than they have been counting on and little time to adjust.
"Most broadcasters think they will net out coming close to expectations, but they are really nervous about it, " Day said. "They have so much baked in on the back end of the year, and if they are wrong there is no recovery time."
Trump brings an unpredictability to campaign spending — and that also includes a possible increase in dollars from the Republican Party in support of Senate and House candidates fearful of being pulled down by a crushing loss at the presidential level. Trump is shown running behind Hillary Clinton, his likely Democratic opponent, in every poll.
Trump's confidence in his free media skills could result in him spending less than the $492 million that 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney put into TV ads, said Elizabeth Wilner, senior vice president of Kantar's Campaign Media Analysis Group, or CMAG. But the amount Trump spends can't drop too much if he wants to be competitive against Clinton. He has already been hurt by independent "Stop Trump" groups that have spent more than $20 million in opposition to his nomination.
"He may not spend what a typical Republican nominee would spend and he will get a lot of earned media, " or free airtime through news coverage, Wilner said. "But the Democratic Party is going to be on his case every day, and he's going to have to spend a lot more money then he's spending right now in order to run a credible, viable campaign that he has a chance of winning."
CMAG has projected that political TV ad spending will hit $4.4 billion in 2016, up from $3.8 billion in 2012, thanks in part to the Supreme Court decision that removed limits on spending by independent expenditure groups that include corporations and unions.
The research arm says local TV stations can expect to get $3.3 billion of that pot, and some analysts have predicted an even higher take. National TV networks see little presidential ad spending because campaigns use their money to target the battleground states that will get them closer to the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House.
Those robust projections were made before a Trump nomination emerged as a real possibility. During the primary season, Trump has spent just $17.5 million on paid advertising (TV, radio and cable) through March 24, according to CMAG and Ad Age Datacenter. That's much less than the amounts spent on behalf of his vanquished opponents Jeb Bush ($80 million) and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio ($70 million) and below the totals for the remaining GOP contenders, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz ($32 million) and Ohio Gov. John Kasich ($18.5 million).
Trump has not taken independent expenditure money and does not have the kind of war chest typical for a general election campaign.
"If you're a TV station group owner and you have a lot of competitive House and Senate races in your state, then you're OK, " Wilner said. "If you're an owner who has a lot of stations that have nothing else going on but the presidential race, you're worried."
The uncertainty over how much Trump will spend on advertising comes with the billionaire's ability to lead in the Republican delegate count largely through his skills as a TV personality to get free airtime.
A study by research firm MediaQuant said Trump has received $189.80 in free TV exposure for every dollar he has spent on ads this year through February. Cruz, by comparison, has received $14.20.
"Trump's rise to prominence was media-driven, " said Chuck Todd, NBC News political director. "Whether it was as the [United States Football League] guy, as the Atlantic City guy, as the New York City developer guy, as the 'Celebrity Apprentice' guy — it's what he knew. It's what he was comfortable doing."
If Trump decides to be less outrageous to become more palatable to general election voters in the fall, he may not be as entertaining for TV viewers — another reason that he may need to buy advertising and run a more conventional campaign.
"If he becomes the nominee and he starts becoming more presidential and his interviews are not exciting, you're not going to see as many of them, " said one veteran network TV news producer who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.