Seinfeld is NBC's $1 million/minute man

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There's talk circulating that this may be "Seinfeld's" last season on NBC, but you can't say the peacock hasn't gotten its money's worth out of the show, now entering its seventh season.

NBC is charging virtually $1 million per commercial minute--$490,000 per 30-second spot--for its top rated comedy, making "Seinfeld" the most expensive show of the 1995-96 prime-time season, according to Advertising Age's annual fall price survey.

"Seinfeld" becomes the first regularly scheduled series ever to approach the $1 million-a-minute mark, something previously attainable only for big one-time-only events like the Super Bowl.

But "Seinfeld's" price surge, as well as that of other high-demand prime-time shows, reflects a skyrocketing network marketplace, where average unit prices rose more than 25% during the upfront selling period.

Even the second most expensive show on TV this season, ABC's "Home Improvement" at $475,000 per :30, is virtually in the million-dollar-a-minute club. And given that the estimates are averages, these top shows routinely sell spots at considerably higher levels to advertisers who demand them.

Indeed, it wasn't unusual to see scatter prices in the 1994-95 season rise 50% higher than the prices paid during the upfront.

Regardless of these averages, the inflation rate of top shows is amazing. "Seinfeld" added a cool $100,000 to its average unit rate, or a 26% increase over the $390,000 NBC charged last season, when "Seinfeld" was the most expensive show on TV.

And "Home Improvement" added $125,000 to its 1995-96 unit price tag, or a 36% increase over the $350,000 ABC charged last season.

But talk about the rising costs of national healthcare, a minute in NBC's prime-time emergency room will set you back $900,000, making "ER" the biggest increase of any show season-to-season.

A 30-second unit on the sophomore series costs $450,000, ranking it as the third most expensive show of the 1995-96 season. That's an incredible $285,000-per-unit price gain, or a 173% increase over the $165,000 per unit NBC charged in its rookie season last year.

NBC also made a lot of advertising friends last season with another rookie show, "Friends," which is the only other show this season to be in the $400,000-per-30-second club. At $400,000, "Friends" is commanding $210,000 more, or a 111% increase over the $190,000 NBC charged in its freshman year.

Including new entry "Caroline in the City's" $375,000 per :30, NBC has four of the 10 most expensive series of the season.

ABC, however, has five, including "NFL Monday Night Football," $385,000; "Grace Under Fire," $355,000; rookie "The Naked Truth," $330,000; and "Coach," $325,000.

Moreover, ABC had more overall high-price inventory, because "Monday Night Football" has four times the ad time of NBC's pricey half-hour comedies. Also, ABC commanded significantly high price tags for 1-hour dramas, like $265,000 for a :30 on "NYPD Blue."

CBS, meanwhile, had only one top-10-priced show--"Murphy Brown," at $335,000 per :30--though its overall Monday and Sunday night lineups commanded prices mostly in the solid $200,000 to $300,000 range.

"It is true that the pricing on the top shows is higher, but it is also true that pricing in general is higher," said Werner Michel, senior partner-national broadcast operations at Bozell's BJK&E Media unit, New York.

But Mr. Michel said there's another factor driving up the costs of the top-rated shows besides their higher ratings.

"It's their uniqueness," he explained. "That is very important. And the uniqueness of a show like `Seinfeld' goes beyond its rating. It's a show that creates talk the next morning when people are sitting around their offices at work."

"The top shows that are dominating prime-time today are very different from the shows of yesterday. They are much more unique, because the networks are willing to tackle themes that they did not want to tackle years ago. Shows like `Seinfeld,' or `Mad About You' or `Friends' or `ER' are very unique, and that's why clients are willing to pay a premium for them. I mean, `ER' is a long way from the days of `Marcus Welby, M.D.,' " he added.

Although Fox has narrowed the pricing gap considerably in the past few seasons, that network's overall pricing is still much lower than the Big 3's, which reflects its overall lower prime-time ratings performance.

However, top-rated Fox series, like "Beverly Hills, 90210" and "The Simpsons," both topped $200,000 per :30. Other top Fox series, like "Melrose Place" and "The X-Files," are in the high $100,000 range.

As expected, the lowest prime-time ad rates were also on Fox, including $80,000 per :30 for "Fox Tuesday Night Movie" and Friday night series "Strange Luck."

But unlike past seasons, Fox isn't mired in the prime-time bargain basement, with even most of its lower-price units close to parity with those of the Big 3.

ABC Saturday night series "Jeff Foxworthy Show" and "Maybe This Time" also command $80,000 per :30 and even "Monday Night Football" lead-in "The Marshal" is getting only $90,000.

The cheapest units on NBC are "Unsolved Mysteries" at $90,000 per :30. On CBS, "Dweebs" is the bargain at $90,000 a :30.

Copyright September 1995 Crain Communications Inc.

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