In Depth

'American Idol,' NFL Duke It Out for Priciest TV Spot -- If This Year's Tally Teaches Us Anything, It's That Shows With More Live Viewership Command an Ad Premium

By Brian Steinberg
Advertising Age

Watch out, Steven Tyler. The Green Bay Packers are rushing you.

Long TV's most expensive program for advertisers, "American Idol" is now neck-and-neck with NBC's "Sunday Night Football" as the costliest prime-time show on this year's schedule, according to Advertising Age's annual survey of the costs of running a 30-second commercial in prime time. The average cost of running a 30-second ad in "Idol" runs between $468,100 and $502,900, according to the Ad Age survey, while the average cost of a 30-second ad in NBC's much-watched football contest is $512,367.

While that might sound as if football has trounced the veteran Fox singing program, the tally is relative since "Idol"'s prices tend to go up as the show reaches its finale. Ad Age's survey, compiled using data from as many as six different media-buying agencies and other sources, found that some spots in "Idol" were going for as much as $640,000.

One thing is for sure: The results continue to bolster the notion that the shows most in demand are those viewers tend to watch live, rather than play back days later with a DVR or via video-on-demand. When millions of viewers tune in live, marketers pay a premium.

Ad Age's pricing survey suggests a shakeup is taking place in the power of certain TV programs. Heading into the 2007-2008 TV season, ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" commanded an average price of $419,000 for a 30-second spot, making it the most expensive program of the fall. Today, the show has fallen off the top 10 most-expensive programs, commanding just $203,078. The same holds true for the Disney network's "Desperate Housewives," which led the pack in 2006 by commanding an average price of $394,000. The program, in its last season, has tumbled, this season commanding an average cost of just $149,556, according to Ad Age's survey. Also missing from the top 10: NBC's "The Office" and Fox's "House."

Fox's "X Factor" is the most expensive new program for advertisers, commanding an average of $320,000 for a 30-second spot for its Wednesday-night run. The Thursday-night episode of the series brings in an average of $283,034 for 30 seconds. The shows represent the fourth- and fifth-most expensive programs in prime time overall.

The list of the 10 most expensive 30-second spots also includes Fox's "Glee," which commands an average of $267,141; "Family Guy," which notches an average cost of $264,912; and "The Simpsons," which costs an average of $254,260; CBS's "Two and a Half Men," which brings in an average of $252,418; and ABC's "Modern Family," which lures an average of $249,388 per 30-second commercial.

Some programs are rising in advertisers' eyes. In last year's survey, "Sunday Night Football" commanded an average of around $415,000, for example. "Two and A Half Men" last year took in an average of $206,722; a CBS decision to sell the first two weeks featuring new lead Ashton Kutcher as an event of sorts may have contributed to the price hike. And "Modern Family" last year commanded just $193,635. Even the venerable "Idol" has seen its prices tick upwards. Last year, the show commanded between $400,546 and $467,617.

The prices should be taken as directional indicators, not hard negotiating figures. Ad Age's numbers are based on a range of agency estimates that can vary depending on the amount of inventory purchased from a particular network and the relationship an advertiser has with a specific media outlet. What's more, prices may have changed. Ad Age's numbers are based on what advertisers paid for ad time during this year's upfront market, when marketers commit to advertising weeks in advance in exchange for locking price guarantees. The market for "scatter" advertising, or ads purchased closer to air date, has been robust, so prices are likely to have risen. Additionally, the TV networks have already canceled several programs, which will likely alter the prime-time grid.

Sunday, filled with football and male-skewing animated programs on Fox, remains the most expensive night on TV for marketers, as it has for several years. Thursday, once the dominant night, continued its run in second place.

Here are the spot prices, night by night:

Sunday:

spotpricesunday.gif

Monday:

spotpricemonday.gif

Tuesday:

spotpricetuesday.gif

Wednesday:

spotpricewesday.gif

Thursday:

spotpricethursday.gif

Friday:

spotpricefriday.gif

Saturday:

spotpricesaturday.gif