On Thursday Nights, Not a Pretty Picture for TV Networks

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'Star Wars: The Last Jedi' will be blanketing TV with advertising soon enough. But movie advertising on TV is changing.
'Star Wars: The Last Jedi' will be blanketing TV with advertising soon enough. But movie advertising on TV is changing. Credit: Star Wars via YouTube

Once deemed the most crucial night of the week for movie studios looking to get fannies in theater seats on all-or-nothing opening weekends, Thursdays no longer provide the sort of ratings juice that can help ring up registers at the box office. As a result, buyers continue to push more of their theatrical clients' marketing dollars into higher-impact nights like Sunday and Wednesday, when the trailers and teasers for the latest releases have a better shot at drawing an audience.

According to iSpot.tv data, Sundays accounted for $453.3 million in studio spend across broadcast and cable TV last season, or nearly one-quarter (23%) of the category's overall $1.96 billion investment in TV during 2016-17. In a further sign that Thursday is on the downhill slide, Wednesday studio spend jumped 16% to $293.2 million, making Hump Day the second-biggest TV target for the likes of deep-pocketed studios like Twentieth Century Fox, Universal Pictures, Warner Bros. and Paramount Pictures.

While the studios last season essentially spent the same amount of dollars ($280 million) on total-day Thursday TV inventory as they did in 2015-16, primetime investment on the night fell about $20 million to $140.4 million, per iSpot. And while that's more or less a rounding error for an industry that dropped 100 times that amount on TV marketing over the course of the 35-week season, it's difficult to overstate the significance of where Thursday nights now stand in relation to the rest of the calendar. Having already dropped to third place among the studios' top targets in total-day spend, Thursday prime ranked fourth in 2016-17 behind Sunday night ($242 million), Monday night ($165.1 million) and Wednesday night ($163.5 million).

Top Dayparts for Movie Advertising, 2016-17 TV Season
Source: iSpot.tv

That so many other nights of the week are usurping the once dominant Thursday primetime daypart is simply a function of buyers reacting to rapidly evolving viewer habits and an increased emphasis on the plumped-up C7 ratings currency. As Thursday night ratings continue to evaporate in the face of multiple streaming options and the sort of time-shifted viewing that all but advocates for ad zapping, buyers have steered their studio clients into programs with outsized live deliveries and unusually robust commercial deliveries.

Must-Flee TV?
Comparisons to the heyday of NBC's "Must-See TV" era are both specious and inevitable. For one thing, the competition wasn't exactly robust; outside of sports, news and Shark Week, original cable programming 20 years ago was more or less limited to USA Network's execrable "Silk Stalkings" and the qualitative polarities that were HBO's "The Larry Sanders Show" and "Arliss." But the raw numbers remain a source of fascination to this day.

Wedged between "Seinfeld" and "ER" at 9:30 p.m., "Suddenly Susan" was TV's third highest-rated show of 1996-97, averaging a now-unfathomable 15.5 million adults 18-to-49 per episode. That's about 12 times the number of targeted viewers the Peacock averaged last season with its entire Thursday night scripted lineup.

The inefficiencies of buying low-impact TV are self-evident when you compare today's ad rates to those of 20 years ago. While it cost advertisers around $21 to reach 1,000 "Suddenly Susan" viewers in the target demo, the CPM on NBC's lone comedy hit of 2016-17, "The Good Place," was more than twice that amount. ("The Good Place" pulled around $47.38 per thousand 18-to-49-year-old impressions, given a 1.5 average C3 rating and an upfront unit price a little north of $90,000 a pop.)

Nostalgia aside, Thursdays are subject to the same erosion that's eating away at all linear TV ratings. So while there remain a handful of big draws on the night, with "Thursday Night Football" averaging a 3.7 with adults 18 to 49 and "The Big Bang Theory" drawing a 4.5 rating among viewers in CBS' core adults 25-to-54 demo, the night is fairly sleepy otherwise. Per Nielsen, the average rating for all first-run programming on the Big Four nets last season was a 1.3, or 1.67 million adults 18-to-49; take the NFL out of the mix and that dropped all the way down to a meager 1.0 (1.28 million adults 18-to-49).

If advertising in Thursday night shows that draw fractional demos isn't a terribly efficient means of getting moviegoers lined up to see "Wonder Woman," there are plenty of other options available to the studios.

Thanks to the still-massive reach of the NFL, fall Sundays are naturally drawing a lot of the Thursday night runoff, and the big football deliveries are enhanced by the way fans tend to consume sports. Last season, 93% of all sports TV viewing was done live, whereas only about 70% of general-entertainment consumption occurred in real-time. Naturally, those watching live are far less likely to sidestep the ads than those who are catching up via a gizmo that enables them to fast-forward through the breaks.

Sunday funday
Not surprisingly, the networks with the biggest NFL packages scarfed up the most movie dollars last season. Per iSpot, Fox, NBC, CBS and ESPN last season raked in a combined $672.3 million in studio dough, of which one quarter ($167.7 million) was funneled into in-game NFL inventory. (Fox's coverage of Super Bowl LI added another $40 million to the NFL tally.)

Thanks to NFL overruns, post-game shows and NBC's "Sunday Night Football" package, Sunday prime was once again the top-rated broadcast daypart, as the NFL-affiliated nets averaged a 1.9 in the dollar demo, or 2.44 million adults 18 to 49. Those numbers do not reflect the performance of ABC, which averaged just a 0.7 rating on Sunday nights. Without the cushion of weekly NFL games, each of ABC's nine Sunday night programs last season delivered fractional live-plus-same-day ratings.

Outside of the broadcast bracket, Sunday also boasts TV's top-rated scripted series in "The Walking Dead" (5.4) and its companion show "Talking Dead," which out-delivers every broadcast entertainment series on the night with an average draw of a 2.0 in the 18-to-49 demo. According to iSpot estimates, "The Walking Dead" in its seventh season scared up some $22.1 million in theatrical advertising, making it the studios' second-biggest scripted TV target behind only "The Big Bang Theory" ($23.6 million).

Studio marketing execs who prefer to buy TV inventory within a day or two of the crucial opening-weekend window don't have to trade reach for proximity, thanks to big Wednesday night ratings draws like "Empire" "Modern Family" and "Survivor." At the same time, the widespread adoption of C7 ratings as a transactional currency has helped the movie makers to become more flexible in their approach to their media planning.

For example, say Warner Bros. buys a 30-second ad unit promoting "Fist Fight" in an episode of Fox's "The Last Man on Earth" that originally airs the Sunday before the movie's opening date. If a viewer time-shifts that particular episode on the following Thursday evening, not only would she be in a position to watch the "Fist Fight" teaser on the day before the movie hits her local multiplex, but her ad view would "count" against the C7 guarantee Fox had worked out with Warner Bros. And given that movie trailers are the most-watched TV ad category, unless our hypothetical Fox viewer has an unusually strong aversion to Charlie Day, odds are in the studio's that she'll watch the "Fist Fight" spot without zapping through it.

The big picture
Studios aren't the only category shifting dollars out of Thursday, as automakers and quick-service restaurants have placed a disproportionate emphasis on Sunday buys. That said, department stores remain an outlier of sorts, as top outlets like Walmart, Macy's and Target last season pinned more than one-fifth of their TV buys to Thursdays.

All told, ad buys made on Thursdays accounted for just 13% of all sales revenue at the four biggest broadcast outlets, while nearly one-third of network-targeted dollars were spent on Sunday inventory ($5.2 billion). Thursdays last season went down another peg, as Saturdays became the second biggest magnet for network ad dollars. According to Ad Age's analysis of the iSpot data, the day that regularly sees broadcasters scare up huge ratings via a steady diet of live sports (college football, NBA, college basketball, MLB, golf, auto racing, etc.) sopped up some $2.71 billion in ad revenue last season, while Thursday programming claimed $2.12 billion.

Fridays, with their low levels of households using TVs, were proportionately unpopular among advertisers. The final day of the work week accounted for $1.34 billion in TV spend, or just 8% of the Big Four's shared take of $16.3 billion.

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