Reality Goes Upscale

Mar 22, 2004  •  Post A Comment

The sudden popularity of network reality programs with upscale viewers has created a new reality for formerly reluctant TV advertisers, many of whom are finally beginning to buy time in shows of the genre.
This season, 10 reality shows are ranked among the top 25 broadcast prime-time shows in the audience-composition index for adults 18 to 49 with incomes of $75,000 or more. That figure represents a big change from the 2002-03 season, when Fox’s “Joe Millionaire,” at No. 21, was the only reality show to crack the top 25 in that upscale demo.
Through February, NBC’s “The Apprentice” is tied with NBC’s “The West Wing” as the show with the highest index score in the demo. That is a major psychological advantage for networks going into the upfront buying season, which typically begins in late May. Over the past two years, many blue-chip TV advertisers generally avoided buying reality shows except for big ratings successes such as “Survivor” and “American Idol.” Content has been a problem, as some ad executives have privately referred to reality programs as lowbrow “freak shows.”
Advertisers Interested
Now, with the improvement in reality show ratings among upscale viewers, advertisers are taking another look.
“A lot of these reality shows are drawing in light viewers,” said Steve Sternberg, executive VP and director of audience analysis for Magna Global USA. “Upscale viewers generally are light viewers who watch less television overall. You don’t have to watch shows each week [to follow the story lines].”
Some observers contend upscale viewers are coming around to reality because they are increasingly fed up with other types of programming. “There really haven’t been any decent new sitcoms. These reality shows fill a niche because of the dearth of sitcoms,” said Brad Adgate, senior VP and corporate research director for Horizon Media.
ABC’s “The Bachelorette” is the second-highest-ranked reality show in upscale audience composition this year, scoring seventh overall in the index rankings. NBC’s “Average Joe” is next in eighth place. CBS’s “Survivor: All-Stars” is tied for 16th place with “The Bachelor” and this season’s short-lived new version of Fox’s “Joe Millionaire.” “Average Joe: Hawaii,” “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” “My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance” and “Survivor: Pearl Islands” round out the top 10 reality shows in upscale audience composition.
Some advertisers have already changed their tune, but it isn’t only because of the growing appeal of reality shows to upscale viewers. Observers credit improved content for the new acceptance of reality, pointing to one show in particular: “The Apprentice.” Technology and computer advertisers, for example-marketers who haven’t bought reality shows in the past-now are buying.
“`The Apprentice’ turned this around,” said Doug Seay, senior VP and director of national broadcast for Publicis & Hal Riney. “It is high-rated and does very well in upper income. The fact that real CEOs comment on the show in USA Today is testament to that.”
NBC on Top Again
For many years, NBC has been the hottest network among many major TV advertisers because of its dominance in higher-income viewers with shows such as “The West Wing,” “ER” and “Frasier.” Higher-income viewers are important to advertisers because they are light TV viewers and consequently cost more for advertisers to reach.
Now, with reality shows such as “The Apprentice” and “Average Joe,” NBC dominates in the upscale category again this year. For instance, in adults 18 to 49 with incomes of $75,000 or more, NBC overall posted a 109 index for upscale viewers. That means NBC’s shows average 9 percent higher in upscale audience composition than the average for all network shows. CBS is a distant second with a 98 index-CBS’s shows are 2 percent below the average in upper-income audience composition. ABC was just behind CBS with a 95 index; Fox was next with a 93.
“Just because you have high overall ratings, you are not going to have an overall high concentration in this demo,” said Alan Wurtzel, president of research and standards and practices for NBC. “`The West Wing’s’ overall number is not particularly large. But it does extraordinarily well in this group. If you are an advertiser such as Mercedes, these viewers are who you want to reach.”
But even when advertisers agree to buy reality, there are other issues to consider.
Because of content concerns, media agency executives have publicly complained that reality shows don’t deserve the same pricing as popular scripted shows such as “The West Wing” and “Everybody Loves Raymond.” Reality shows that are low on media agency executives’ buy lists include “The Littlest Groom” and “My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance,” as well as NBC’s “Fear Factor.”
NBC believes more advertisers will come around because of its history with upscale viewers. “That’s the whole point,” Mr. Wurtzel said. “We decided we were going to do upscale reality that was consistent with the NBC brand.”
NBC is now using its advertising leverage with “The Apprentice,” as well as its status as the No. 1 network among upscale viewers, to make gains in advertising revenues for less-attractive reality shows.
“Fear Factor,” the show known for having its contestants eat bugs and perform other unsavory tasks, has been a major push for NBC, said media agency executives. The show’s unappealing content has kept some advertisers away. Now one media agency reports NBC is willing to cut deals, lowering its overall cost per thousand viewers (CPM) in the show for advertisers who buy into “Fear Factor.”
NBC’s new marketing spin for “Fear Factor” is selling the show as a family program.
“`Fear Factor’ is not quite the same as it was,” Mr. Wurtzel said. “It’s not only about eating bugs. And there is huge co-viewing-parents and kids watch it together. `Fear Factor’ doesn’t have a bad index [among upscale viewers] either.” With a 96 index, “Fear Factor” falls slightly below the prime-time average. It ranks 59th overall in upscale audience composition.
No Avalanche
In general, media buyers think reality shows’ stronger performance with upper-income viewers will help networks gradually sell more reality inventory to advertisers, but there won’t necessarily be an avalanche of dollars coming soon.
“Advertisers will embrace these shows only if the environment fits their marketing communication messages,” said Bob Flood, executive VP of national electronic media for Optimedia USA. “Just because they deliver specific audience segmentation doesn’t necessarily mean advertisers will buy. It certainly helps these shows. If there is a tipping point one way or another, an advertiser might say, Maybe I should take a harder look.”
However, as networks increasingly place more reality shows on their schedules, advertisers may have little choice but to buy. “In absence of scripted programming, you are still going to have to get your message out there,” Mr. Flood said. “Whether it’s network or cable, it’s all TV. Reality is ubiquitous now.”