When it comes to football on TV this fall, advertisers hope to open a new line of scrimmage.
Yes, they want to get their commercials on NFL games to reach some of TV's biggest audiences, but they also hope to use the introduction of Thursday-night football games on CBS to tamp down pricing gains on other networks.
Proposed ad deals for football and other big-audience TV programming are gaining more scrutiny as both networks and advertisers gear up for the annual upfront market, when U.S. networks try to sell the bulk of their ad inventory for the coming season.
Advertisers "have got more choice and more positions" thanks to eight new games on CBS slated to debut during the week this fall, said Sam Sussman, a senior vice president and director at media-buyer Starcom who oversees sports ad purchases for the firm. "That's a good lever to have."
Buyers, of course, have a distinct interest in finding ways to push against costs in the negotiating process, but the current chatter throws a spotlight on concerns emerging around one of TV's surest bets: As much as marketers like the almost guaranteed massive reach offered by broadcasts of NFL matches on NBC, ESPN, CBS and Fox, they wring their hands at the skyrocketing prices associated with buying commercials attached to the games.
Take the case of NBC's "Sunday Night Football," the most expensive program for commercials in primetime broadcast television. The average price of a 30-second spot in the NBC showcase last season was estimated at a whopping $628,000, according to a Variety survey of ad prices in prime time. In 2007, the average price of a commercial in the Sunday broadcast was a mere $358,000, meaning that the cost of advertising in the broadcast has jumped more than 75% over the last six TV seasons.
Indeed, ESPN's "Monday Night Football" is only moderately less expensive. A 30-second spot in one of the match-ups broadcast on Walt Disney's ESPN cost an average of $408,000 last season, according to the Variety survey. And ad prices for non-prime football have been just as costly, with the cost of a 30-second spot in Fox's Sunday-afternoon NFL broadcasts reaching into the $600,000 range.
In 2007, advertisers paid more to hawk their wares in "Grey's Anatomy" on ABC ($419,000) than they did for "SNF." In 2013, a 30-second spot in the Sunday-night program outpaced "Grey's" ($209,542) by nearly three times.
Ad buyers aren't suggesting prices won't rise for football, but they hope to keep the hikes at a more moderate level than in years past. "The addition of the impressions" from CBS "could offer clients more positions and bring the inflation down," said Christine Fuller, managing director of media investment for MediaCom, a large ad-buying agency that counts Subway and Volkswagen among its clients.
The networks don't seem to be sweating the details. In a statement, NBC Sports said, "There has been significant demand for 'Sunday Night Football' already and inventory is moving." Ad buyers suggested the network is probably finalizing details with sponsors who have multi-year deals with the Sunday-night broadcast, rather than selling time to advertisers less invested in the broadcasts.
CBS is likely to command a high price for its Thursday-night games, said Sussman, the Starcom buyer. "I think it's pretty safe to say that it's going to do a number that is better than 'Monday Night Football' ratings, but not quite to the 'Sunday Night Football' level," he said.
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