"Seinfeld" and its Thursday night bunkmate on NBC, "ER," have become the first regularly scheduled network TV series to break the $1 million per minute barrier.
A year ago, "Seinfeld" approached the mark with an average 30-second unit fetching $490,000. This year, the sitcom hit $550,000, while the popular drama "ER" is commanding an average $500,000 per 30-second spot, according to Advertising Age's Fall Prime-Time Pricing Survey.
The cost of commercial time on all of NBC's shows on its hottest night is not far behind, according to the annual survey of TV network and ad agency executives. With an average unit cost of $448,000, the network's lineup makes Thursday the most lucrative night on TV, generating roughly one-third of all of NBC's prime-time revenues.
"Instead of 'Must See TV,' NBC should begin calling it 'Must Pay TV,' " said a top ad agency media buyer, who begrudgingly acknowledged paying upwards of $600,000 for a spot on "Seinfeld" for this fall season.
The buyer, who asked not to be identified, said NBC's Thursday night schedule has become the equivalent of network TV advertising "greenmail," with buyers forced to pay increasingly escalating prices for the finite supply of high-demand inventory.
THURSDAY NIGHT SWEEP
NBC's Thursday night series rank as five of the 10 most expensive shows on TV; even rookie Brooke Shields' untested and extensively reworked "Suddenly Susan" is commanding $370,000 per 30-second spot, largely on the basis of its star power and cushy position between "Seinfeld" and "ER."
Three other star-powered newcomers--ABC's "Spin City" ($395,000) and CBS' "Ink" ($300,000) and "Cosby" ($295,000)--also made the top 10, underscoring the declining audience appeal and waning advertiser demand for once-perennial favorites such as "Roseanne" and "60 Minutes." Fox barely missed the top 10 with its popular "The X-Files," which commands $290,000 per spot, the most ever charged for a series on that network.
And while Fox had fewer premium-price shows than the Big 3, the network appears to have greater stability in overall pricing.
For the first time in the three years Fox's prices have been tracked by Ad Age, it didn't have the cheapest prime-time show on the schedule. That distinction goes to CBS, with four shows--"Diagnosis Murder," "EZ Streets," "Moloney" and the controversial Steven Bochco sitcom "Public Morals"--all with $60,000 per :30.
ABC TAKES CHEAPEST HONORS
Even ABC beat Fox for low-price honors, with a $65,000 average for "High Incident," coming in under a $70,000 average for Fox's cheapest show, "Cops." Overall, the average price of a 30-second spot on Fox, $131,000, was roughly the same as on CBS, $132,000.
And while NBC has the most expensive night, ABC actually earns a marginally higher overall schedule average: $188,000 vs. $187,000.
That's primarily because ABC commands two high-price nights: NFL-charged Monday night, with an average of $305,000 per spot; and the net's linchpin Tuesday night schedule, with an average of $300,000 per spot. (ABC's nightly revenue composition alters dramatically in the first quarter, after the NFL season ends.) Network TV ad buyers noted there is also a significant stratification of demand and pricing in the marketplace. While the highest-demand shows are getting ever more expensive, the lower-end shows are declining in price.
LOW DEMAND AT LOW END
"If you look back over the past decade or so, the average price has not gone up all that much," said Dan Rank, senior VP-director of TV-Radio Group at DDB Needham Worldwide, New York. "What's happening is that everyone is chasing after the same high-demand shows, which is driving their prices up. But demand is actually softening for the low end of the mix," he said.
A look back at Ad Age's estimates over the past several seasons supports that trend.
While the top shows have escalated dramatically--1994's No. 1 show, "Seinfeld," is up 41% from a $390,000 average that year--the bottom shows are getting even cheaper.
Three years ago, Fox's "M.A.N.T.I.S." was the least expensive show on the four-network schedule with an average cost of $70,000 per :30, compared to five shows that fall below that price tag this season.
Joe Mandese, former media editor of Advertising Age, is senior VP of Myers Reports.
Copyright September 1996 Crain Communications Inc.