NBC News Pitch: Benchmark Us Against Prime Time

Network Tells Buyers Their Viewers May Be Older but They Are More Attentive -- and the Spots Are Cheaper

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In the TV-news game, NBC's Brian Williams has handily trumped everyone from Katie Couric to Diane Sawyer. Can he do the same to "American Idol" or "The Closer"?

As a new round of highly-scrutinized data confirms the continued erosion of traditional viewership for broadcast-TV news, NBC is pitching its "NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams" to advertisers with a new angle: TV-news audiences may be older than others, but their interest in and receptivity to advertising is slightly stronger. And, oh yes, advertising on the nightly newscast is significantly cheaper than, say, "CSI: New York" or "The Big Bang Theory."

NBC news anchor Brian Williams
NBC news anchor Brian Williams

"One could argue that, given the long-held perceptions" about evening newscasts, "we haven't gotten the full value that I think we perhaps should have for 'Nightly News,'" said John Kelly, senior VP-ad sales, NBC News/MSNBC. NBC has primarily been pitching marketers other than those in the pharmaceutical and personal-care categories, which make up almost two-thirds of "Nightly's" ad base, he said.

Would any advertiser really want to trade in the scores of viewers between 18 and 34 who tend to watch prime time for the pill-popping crowd marketers tend to believe tune in to the daily evening newscast? Since 30-second spots in the three broadcast network evening news shows run anywhere from $23,000 and $45,000, according to media buyers, that's less than a quarter of the about $200,000 it costs to run an ad on Fox's "House" and substantially less than the about $135,000 price tag to run an ad in NBC's own "30 Rock." Indeed, some news veterans think the NBC effort makes sense in an industry where technology is scrambling many preconceived notions.

"Sales rubrics that continue to dwell on the simple number of people a particular form of media delivers will be ill-served. With the scattering of audiences to many distribution platforms, the key to successful advertising in the future is demographic," said Paul Conti, an assistant professor of communication at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, N.Y., and a former longtime news director at NBC affiliate WNYT. "Mass delivery of an advertising message will be effective in mega events like the Super Bowl or the Olympics. With ordinary TV shows or news programs, the more important concept will be the receptivity of the viewers to the message."

NBC's strategy appears to make a swipe for the dollars that also support the network's own weekly prime-time offerings -- and indeed, if new owner Comcast were to turn NBC's lackluster schedule around, this gambit might go the way of the dodo. Yet it is emblematic of the new thinking that has to come into play if the three big evening-news broadcasts are to be sustained going forward. Older audiences may be less desirable to advertisers at present, but NBC research suggests their interest in ads (and in watching them live) makes them an easier target than the legions of boob-tube aficionados who record their favorite prime-time programs and watch them hours or days later.

NBC tested viewers' reaction to ads running both in its "Nightly News" as well as in selected prime-time shows on both broadcast and cable -- though not against NBC's own programs, said Mr. Kelly. Among those rival programs tested were Fox's "American Idol," CBS's "Big Bang Theory" and "CSI: New York" and TNT's "The Closer."

NBC's evening-news viewers were 10% more likely to watch commercials and 3.3% more receptive to them than the norm, according to network research conducted in April of 2010, while prime-time viewers were seen as 6% more likely to watch the ads, and just 0.2% more receptive to them than the norm. About 11% of commercials seen during "Nightly News" are viewed as being "more reliable and credible," compared with just 5% for prime time, according to the NBC research.

What's more, nightly-news audiences, who may not be as accustomed to more recent developments in TV-watching technology, tend on the whole to watch the broadcasts as they happen. According to NBC, 94% of audiences between the ages of 25 and 54 watch "Nightly News" live, compared to 81% who watch prime-time shows live on NBC; 71% who watch prime-time shows live on ABC; 79% who watch prime-time shows live on CBS; 73% who watch prime-time shows live on Fox; and 71% who watch prime-time shows live on CW. Rival networks, of course, may disagree with these statistics.

And advertisers may not bite en masse. "There is a valuable audience" watching TV news, "and it is an audience that's attentive, just by the nature of the programming," said Todd Gordon, senior VP-director of broadcast at Interpublic Group's Initiative. "Whether or not it's a substitute for prime-time is going to be up to the individual advertiser."

Defining the evening-news audience in a different way is becoming more paramount for all the broadcast networks, whose live-news audience has ebbed for more than a decade. The overall audience for all three evening newscast slipped to 21.6 million in 2010, down from 22.9 million in 2008, according to the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism.

John Kelly: 'We haven't gotten the full value that I think we perhaps should have for Nightly News.'
John Kelly: 'We haven't gotten the full value that I think we perhaps should have for Nightly News.'

NBC Universal, parent of NBC News, has reason to push harder to win audience. Ad revenue increased between 5% and 7% at each of the three broadcast-network news divisions, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism. Yet signs of shifting waters continue: ABC last year instituted a brutal series of layoffs at its news division, and CBS recently shuffled top executives at its news unit. NBC has more skin in the game -- and not just because Mr. Williams typically beats Ms. Sawyer and Ms. Couric in the ratings .

As owner of CNBC and MSNBC, NBC Universal derives the lion's share of its news revenues from cable, according to the Pew report. Mr. Williams' "Nightly News" broadcast helps NBC fulfill its mandate to work in the public interest, sure, but it's also a handy promotional tool that can highlight other NBC News properties -- which run the gamut from "Today" to "Squawk Box" to "Morning Joe."

Snaring advertisers more accustomed to prime time -- telecommunications marketers, electronic-device manufacturers, fast-food outlets and movie studios -- would literally help TV news wean itself off of drugs. Pharmaceutical advertising, typically aimed at older consumers more attuned to aches and pains, is an evening-news mainstay. Yet in 2010, ad dollars from pharmaceutical companies fell 8.2% to nearly $4.3 billion, according to Kantar Media, down from around $4.7 billion in 2009 and the lowest dollar amount for the category since 2003.

As audiences change the way they look at video, a promotional push now may be helpful. "There are lots of younger viewers for all the evening newscasts, just not on the television," said Beth Knobel, a former CBS News Moscow bureau chief who now works as an assistant professor of communications and media studies at Fordham University. "Plenty of them are watching them on the web, and almost invariably, whether you watch a whole show or a single segment, you do get a 15-second ad aimed at very broad audiences."

"It's an interesting argument, and it's going to be interesting to see if the advertisers buy it," said Ms. Knobel. "But it's really part of a larger argument about whether the evening-news shows can stay around by keeping the ads coming in."

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