Why Upfront Prices Are Slow to Rise This Year — It’s Not Just Because Ratings Are Down

June 14, 2013  •  Post A Comment

The reason broadcast networks are being forced to settle for smaller ad rate increases than in past years isn’t just because ratings in the key 18-49 demo are down, according to a B&C analysis by John Consoli. A more important reason, he says, is the absence of must-buy shows.

“While some series are drawing more than 10 million viewers and decent 18-49 ratings, those shows don’t really offer a compelling reason for media buyers to overpay like they may have done in past upfronts,” Consoli writes. “Conversations with assorted media agency executives, none of whom would speak for attribution, say this is the upfront where they have felt more comfortable holding their ground on paying ad rate hikes they believe are too high.”

Marketers are more concerned than ever about the return they get on their advertising investment, the piece notes, and it appears to be a winning strategy for them to drag their heels in negotiations while they shop around among the networks.

“With only a handful of major media agency holding companies representing close to three-quarters of the upfront ad dollars, no network can afford to not do deals with every one of them because of the large chunk of bucks each has to spend,” the piece notes. “So if the agencies each stick to their guns — with no collusion of course — they can hold prices down a bit like they have so far.”

One place the networks do have leverage is on Thursday nights, which are still a key for the movie and retail categories.

“That’s one of the reasons why Fox did early deals in this upfront before watching negotiations start to lag,” Consoli writes. “Even though ‘American Idol’ saw a 24% decline in its Thursday night 18-49 ratings this season, it still averaged a 3.9 in the demo and 13.1 million viewers with a fairly young median age of 49. And ‘The X Factor’ on Fox on Thursday nights in the fall averaged a not-too-shabby 2.9 18-49 demo rating (also down 24%) with a median age audience of 45. For marketers who need eyeballs on Thursday nights, those two shows can still fill the bill.

“But for advertisers who don’t need to be running commercials on Thursday nights, they can opt for NBC’s ‘The Voice’ on Mondays or Tuesdays instead. And they can play one against the other in an attempt to get better pricing. ‘The Voice’ has a median age audience of 45, averaged 12.5 million on Mondays and 11.8 million on Tuesdays, with 18-49 ratings of 4.4 and 4.0, respectively.”

Ratings leader CBS wrapped up most of its upfront deals ahead of the other nets, settling for rate hikes toward the low end of forecasts by CBS Corp. President and CEO Leslie Moonves. The quick wrap by CBS, Consoli notes, indicates that the networks “just don’t have that strong a hand to play this year.”

“If any network held out, it should have been CBS, which reportedly got between 7.5% and 8.5% increases, lower than last year’s upfront,” the piece adds. “CBS won the 18-49 ratings category for the first time in 21 years (even factoring out the Super Bowl telecast) and also won in viewers and in adults 25-54. The network had the top seven scripted series in total viewers and nine of the top 15 scripted series in the 18-49 demo, most among all the broadcast networks.”

Advertisers spent about $2.6 billion on the CBS upfront, the story notes, adding: “CBS drama ‘NCIS’ was the most-watched series in all of television among viewers and posted a solid 3.2 18-49 rating, which was down just a tick from last season’s 3.3. But the series also has a median age of 60, so lots of older folks are watching and many advertisers hold them in less regard, rightly or wrongly. Similarly, ‘NCIS: Los Angeles’ averaged 15 million viewers and a 2.7 18-49 rating, down only slightly from a 2.8, but it too has a median age audience of 60.”

Even CBS’s top sitcom, “The Big Bang Theory,” a Thursday night fixture — boasting 15.5 million viewers and a 4.8 average rating in 18-49 (up from a 4.4 last year) — faced some resistance, according to Consoli. “There are some media buyers who at least tried to negotiate by saying they could buy ‘Big Bang’ cheaper in repeats on cable where it airs on TBS,” he wrote.

Please click on the link in the first paragraph to read Consoli’s full report.

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