Factors vaulting the nine-year-old "Friends" to the No. 1 spot for the first time include: an audience yearning for familiarity in a post-9/11 world, revitalized plot lines, higher ratings and expectations that this likely will be its final year.
"There's the anticipation that this is probably going to be the last year and so advertisers want to be part of it," said Stacey Shepatin, VP-director of network buying for Interpublic Group of Cos.' Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos, Boston. The cost of "Friends" soared 29% vs. a year ago; the show's ratings last season rose a surprising 21% in the key 18-49 age group with an average Nielsen 11.9 rating/31 share.
While "Friends" jumped, another pillar of NBC's lucrative Thursday line-up reached a near-plateau. "ER" remains the second-highest priced show with an average of $438,514, up only 3% from last year. The show has suffered from defections of star cast members and saw a slight ratings drop last season in the 18-49 demo.
Viacom's CBS lost its place as owner of the most expensive show as "Survivor," which topped last year's survey with a $445,000 average, dropped to third at $418,750.
The Ad Age survey is based on estimates provided by media buyers and network executives.
As the economy continues to sputter, network TV remains a bright spot in advertising. The six broadcast networks hauled in a robust $8.1 billion in the upfront market in which advertisers make commitments for the coming fall season. Pricing remains strong and demand high for the fourth-quarter scatter market.
General Electric Co.'s NBC led all networks this season with an average commercial price of $176,462. NBC had six of the 10 highest-priced shows. CBS was next in average cost at $124,247, and had three of the top 10 shows by price. News Corp.'s Fox followed closely at an average of $123,617. Walt Disney Co.'s ailing ABC, with one in the top 10, came in fourth at $118,850.
The average 30-second prime-time commercial on broadcast networks this season is $115,799, according to the Ad Age survey.
Largely because of CBS's challenge to NBC on Thursday, the night remains by far the most lucrative in TV with an average price of $166,707. Seven of the top 10 priced shows are on Thursday. The top three are joined by NBC's "Will & Grace" ($376,617), NBC's "Scrubs" ($294,667), CBS's "CSI" ($280,043) and NBC's "Good Morning, Miami" ($279,813).
"Good Morning, Miami" is the top-priced new show, due to its valuable Thursday time slot between "Will & Grace" and "ER." Similarly, second-season "Scrubs" is positioned for high pricing between "Friends" and "Will & Grace."
CBS's overall average was also bumped up by its Monday line-up headlined by "Everybody Loves Raymond," which averages $301,640, the fifth highest-priced show. That's slightly higher than ABC's "Monday Night Football," which averages $298,000 in sixth place.
Last year, "MNF" outpriced "Raymond" by 8% at $330,200, according to the survey. "MNF" may find prices dropping again next fall if CBS's spin-off "CSI: Miami" on Monday is as much of a hit as its Thursday companion. The show premiered Sept. 23 to 23.1 million viewers and outdrew "MNF" in household ratings. It also drew slightly more 18- to 49-year-olds in its hour, though "MNF" won significantly among men in that demographic.
Advertisers may sense a new winner on Fox with David E. Kelley's new "Girls Club," a drama about women attorneys. The show is priced at an average of $178,400-more than an established Monday Kelley show, "Boston Public" ($146,887), about life in an urban high school.
`"Boston Public' is a show that a lot of advertisers have problems with because of the controversial topics covered," said Hill Holliday's Ms. Shepatin. `"Girls Club' is probably cleaner and more advertisers are probably willing to go in there."