The Price Is Wrong: TV's Thursday Night Ad Rates Out of Whack

NBC, ABC Deliveries Lagging Ratings Guarantees

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'Heroes Reborn' is part of NBC's Thursday night block, where ratings are flat but the cost of a 30-second ad is up.
'Heroes Reborn' is part of NBC's Thursday night block, where ratings are flat but the cost of a 30-second ad is up. Credit: NBCUniversal Media

Advertisers looking to get a jump on the weekend tend to make big bets on Thursday nights, when TV usage is near its peak and the programming mix is about as eclectic as it gets on broadcast TV. But as ratings inconsistencies have made the night harder to price, two networks are already struggling to make good on the guarantees they made during last summer's upfront bazaar.

According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, NBC last week reached a dubious milestone, as its new Thursday night lineup achieved ratings parity with its year-ago roster. Through the first six weeks of the 2015-16 TV season, NBC's "Heroes Reborn," "The Blacklist" and "The Player" together are averaging a 1.2 rating among adults 18 to 49, which translates into 1.52 million viewers in the demographic. That means the network is in the same boat it was a year ago, when its Thursday night schedule ("The Biggest Loser," "Bad Judge," "A to Z," "Parenthood") was averaging a 1.2 in the demo.

Flat can be perceived as a small victory during a fall in which NBC's overall prime-time ratings average (2.3) is down 21% versus the year-ago 2.9 among 18-to-49-year-olds. The trouble with the Thursday night results is that they're a lot more expensive than they were in October 2014. According to Ad Age's annual survey of media buyers, the going rate for a 30-second spot in NBC's Thursday prime-time block is around $142,902 a pop, or 48% more than advertisers paid for a unit in the same night one year ago.

Soft year-ago comparisons may have prompted a significant pricing spike in the 9 p.m. hour, where NBC's transplanted crime thriller "The Blacklist" is plugging the hole left by the doomed comedy battery that was "Bad Judge" and "A to Z." Ratings on the hour (1.5) are up 36% versus the year-ago period, when the two freshman comedies were barely eking out a 1.1 in the demo. That said, pricing is up 85% to around $193,793 per :30; the year-ago rate was $100,164.

For what it's worth, "The Blacklist" is holding up rather well when compared to its initial run of Thursday night episodes. After NBC last February shifted the James Spader vehicle from its plum post-"Voice" Monday night slot, the remaining 13 installments averaged a 1.7 in the demo.

As was the case last winter, when it was the only edible portion of a prime-time sandwich that included the likes of "The Slap" and "Allegiance," "The Blacklist" isn't getting any help from the shows around it. Lead-in "Heroes Reborn" is scraping by with an average draw of a 1.3 in the 18-to-49 demographic, up from the 1.2 delivered a year ago by "The Biggest Loser," while the unsalvageable "The Player" is fractional with a 0.9. (NBC on Oct. 23 effectively canceled "The Player" when it announced it had slashed its initial episodes from 13 hours to nine.)

Buyers said NBC was banking on the "Heroes" reboot to help do more heavy lifting in the anchor spot, noting that the average unit cost in the show is about 40% higher than the time-slot's occupant a year ago, "The Biggest Loser." At 10 p.m., ratings for "The Player" are down 31% when compared to the first six weeks of the final season of "Parenthood," while pricing is up 10%.

The Jennifer Lopez-Ray Liotta cop drama "Shades of Blue" will take over the Thursday 10 p.m. slot starting Jan. 14, or eight weeks after "The Player" is set to go dark. That span coincides with three scheduled holiday preemptions, which leaves NBC on the hook for just four hours of encores/repeats.

Comedy waiting in the wings
If "Heroes Reborn" gets the hook -- NBC has yet to announce a back-nine pickup – it's possible that the network may bring comedy back into the Thursday night fold for the first time since January. NBC has four half-hour sitcoms in the hopper for 2016, and a pair of dramas that could work in the 8 p.m. slot.

If NBC's deliveries aren't keeping up with its negotiated ad rates, it's not the only broadcast net facing a GRP shortfall on Thursday nights. While ABC's three Shondaland dramas continue to be the top-rated entertainment options on the night, rapid declines at 10 p.m. threaten to destabilize the entire block.

Last season's highest-rated new series, "How to Get Away with Murder" has been dropping steadily since it returned to a 2.6 on Sept. 24. Through the first half-dozen installments of its sophomore season, "Murder" has fallen from an average 3.1 rating in the 18-to-49 demo to a 2.2, a drop of 29%. That's particularly unsettling in light of the hard sell ABC made in the upfront, when it pushed for broadcast's highest CPM increases. In the case of "Murder," it was a bad bet; per the Ad Age survey, the average unit cost for a spot in the show jumped 74% to $252,934.

As rate increases for "Grey's Anatomy" (up 5%) and "Scandal" (3%) were nowhere near as steep, their respective ratings declines of 8% and 16% are much more manageable than what is currently happening at 10 p.m. And despite putting up much more robust numbers in the C3 and C7 ratings, "Murder" is still down as much as 25% in the currency.

On the other side of the ledger, household ratings for CBS's "Thursday Night Football" are up 5%, which matches the network's average price hike for each 30-second unit in its prime time NFL package. Deliveries were helped immeasurably by a much more competitive slate of games; the average margin of victory on Thursday night was 12 points, down from 21 a year ago.

Lastly, while Fox isn't exactly setting the world on fire with its two-hour "Bones" and "Sleepy Hollow" block, it's still an efficient buy for advertisers not looking to spend NFL and/or Shondaland dollars. Season-to-date, Fox's Thursday night deliveries are down 8% to a 1.1 in the demo, while its average unit cost has been reduced 35% to $96,467 a pop (down from the year-ago $147,738).

"Bones" is off two-tenths of a point, or 13%, to a 1.3, while its ad rates are down 24%. "Sleepy Hollow" is flat when compared to year-ago Thursday 9 p.m. occupant "Gracepoint," which averaged a 0.9 in the demo. All things considered, a 30-second spot in "Sleepy" is a steal at $98,253, as that represents a discount of 42% when compared to the $170,275 unit cost negotiated for "Gracepoint" in the 2014-15 upfront.

As is the case with nearly all shows that fail to deliver big live-plus-same-day ratings, "Sleepy Hollow" doesn't earn back many commercial views in C7. According to Nielsen, the first two installments averaged a 1.3 in the demo in C7, up only a few ticks from a 1.0 in live-plus-same-day.

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