Super Bowl

'They're Going to Beg Us for Two Spots': All But Sold Out, CBS Holds Back a Little Super Bowl Ad Time

Network Angles for a Big Studio Payout

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CBS President-CEO Les Moonves.
CBS President-CEO Les Moonves. Credit: Bill Inoshita/CBS

CBS is holding back a few of its last available in-game Super Bowl spots in anticipation of the inevitable zero-hour bid from a movie studio desperate to court the favor of the year's biggest TV audience.

Speaking Monday afternoon at the UBS Global Media and Communications Conference, CBS Corp. President-CEO Les Moonves said the network's ad sales team "could close it out by tomorrow if we wanted," before adding that some inventory was being reserved for a late scatter rush.

"As we get closer and closer to the game, there's going to be some advertiser that has to be in the Super Bowl," he said.

More likely than not, that late arrival will be a studio marketing exec looking to pump up a winter release. "Two weeks before, some movie producer who thinks he has a bad movie will convince the studio to spend more money on it … and they're going to beg us for two spots," Mr. Moonves said.

A last-second buy for 60 seconds of airtime would fetch well north of the $10 million CBS says the same investment would have cost back in August. (This summer, Mr. Moonves told investors that the going rate for a 30-second Super Bowl spot was $5 million; at the same time, buyers reported that the unit cost was between $4.6 million and just north of $5 million a pop.)

Reserving a few odd spots for specific clients or categories is nothing new, and the networks are particularly accommodating when movie dollars are in play. For one thing, the studios are notorious spendthrifts, an inevitable byproduct of a business in which more money is invested in promotional activity than in the actual production. Studio marketing execs also tend to make late buys by virtue of necessity; in many cases, the final creative is only made available to the host network as the stadium is filling up with fans.

Whatever the case, while a late buy will be had for a premium, the reach afforded by the pricey entrance fee is hard to beat. NBC's broadcast of Super Bowl XLIX delivered a record audience of 114.4 million viewers, or 40% of the entire population, making it the most-watched program in U.S. TV history. By comparison, February's Academy Awards broadcast averaged 37.3 million viewers.

If other media executives aren't as candid as Mr. Moonves, CBS's Super Bowl scatter strategy may shed some light on recent late sellouts. NBC did not announce that it had moved the last of its Super Bowl XLIX spots until Jan. 28 of this year, or just five days before the Pats and Seahawks squared off in Phoenix. On a categorical basis, movies accounted for the second-highest in-game spend, behind only automotive.

The year before, Fox closed out its sales with a relative measure of alacrity, wrapping its final deal a full two months before the 2013 NFL championship tilt. The last time CBS hosted the big game, it was out of sale about a month before the opening kickoff.

In a wide ranging conversation, Mr. Moonves also addressed the matter of CBS's "Thursday Night Football" contract, which expires at the end of the season. The CBS chief said that the network hopes to continue its stewardhip of the new NFL package, before noting that it "won't pay something stupid" to retain the rights. A joint deal with CBS March Madness partner Turner Sports would certainly prove to be an interesting wrinkle, although current NFL TV partners NBC, Fox and ESPN are likely to throw their hats into the ring as well. Mr. Moonves noted that the NFL's recent foray into a streaming-only game suggests the league is examining "a lot of different permutations."

Simulcast on NFL Network, the eight-game prime-time slate this season averaged 17.5 million viewers and a 10.8 household rating, up 4% from the year-ago 10.4 rating.

Football aside, 2016 promises to be a banner year for broadcasters, as the Republican presidential field keeps pouring money into TV. "We have a year of political advertising that looks to be phenomenal," he said. "We have 16 GOP candidates throwing crap at each other. It's great! The more they spend, the better it is for us. Go Donald! Keep getting out there! This is fun!"

An indefatiguable cheerleader of the broadcast TV model, Mr. Moonves is never shy about pumping up the CBS brand. With characteristic understatement, the network boss told the UBS crowd, "nobody can live without CBS" before going on to list the network's many hits. (In terms of total reach, CBS has the No. 1 drama in "NCIS," the No. 1 comedy in "The Big Bang Theory" and the No. 1 newsmagazine in "60 Minutes.")

Mr. Moonves also addressed this season's lack of a breakout hit, acknowledging that there is no "ER" or "Survivor" in the class of 2015-16. "We launched four shows, and all are successful," he said, in a nod to "Supergirl," "Life in Pieces," "Limitless" and, truth be told, the underwhelming "Code Black." He went on to add that while there have been "no grand slam home runs out of the box," the new TV model is all about stretching out solid singles and doubles into aftermarket scoring opportunities.