'Friends' tops TV price chart

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With a little help from its "Friends," NBC tops the network chart with the top three highest-priced programs in Advertising Age's exclusive annual fall prime-time network pricing survey.

Going into its last season, "Friends" hit No. 1 for the second consecutive year, with 30-second spots selling for an average of $473,500, up from $455,700 last year, according to the survey of leading media buyers. Unexpected was the network's "Will & Grace," which came in second at $414,500, pushing NBC's "ER," which came in second last year, to third, and CBS's "Survivor" to the fourth slot. The veteran medical melodrama "ER" coughed up $404,814 per 30-second spot, down from last year's $438,514.

In all, the peacock network snared five of the top six slots in the survey, with "Survivor"-at $390,367 for 30 seconds of real estate-the lone exception. Topping the freshman class is "Coupling," which NBC views as a successor to "Friends." The saucy sitcom attracted $316,400 a spot.

Thursday night also dominated the survey, grabbing the top seven slots. "This demonstrates the validity of the Thursday theory," said Shari Ann Brill, VP-director of programming services at Aegis Group's Carat. "It's one of the strongest nights for the 18-to-49 audience because it's the last TV night before the weekend. "

The success of "Will & Grace," which was No. 4 in pricing last year, as well as "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" on NBC sibling cable channel Bravo and ABC's new "It's All Relative" appears to demonstrate that gay themes are not only mainstream but profitable. "It's definitely not like it was seven or eight years ago with `Ellen,' when you had an outcry," said Jason Maltby, senior partner-managing director national broadcast at WPP Group's MindShare. "`Will & Grace' is the main reason. It's a show with a nice cushy time slot, has decent numbers and raised the bar in terms of the acceptance level."

"The unit-price decline in `ER' could be due to the fact that it already hit its high mark. With a significant turnover in the cast, ratings might be a little lower, while `Will & Grace' is stable," said Lyle Schwartz, senior VP-director of marketing research at WPP Group's Mediaedge:cia. "`Will & Grace,' since it's been in the Thursday time [slot], has been a fairly highly priced unit."

few good options

The death last week of sitcom actor John Ritter could hurt ABC's comeback plan. Mr. Ritter was the star of "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter," which opens the network's Tuesday lineup and earns a respectable $151,240 per spot. Last season the show raked in $97.5 million in national TV ad dollars and $25.4 million in spot buys, according to TNS Media Intelligence/CMR.

ABC has only three half-hour episodes in the can and with less than two weeks until the premiere, few good options, said media buyers. "It's a key show for them and they are going to have to recast it," said Mr. Schwartz. "But even by recasting it you don't know if it is going to be the same show and accepted in the same way. ... They may pull it off for half a year, or they may go with a half season. We don't know."

some drops

Some, though not all, networks contacted by Ad Age disputed the survey prices as too low. The survey, surprisingly, shows that many programs have dropped in price despite the fact that during the upfront this past May the networks reported double-digit price increases. But those increases are based on the cost-per-thousands viewers. As broadcast audiences shrink, CPMs rise.

"We are paying more for eyeballs [in broadcast TV] but not so much more for units," said Michael Drexler, CEO of Publicis Groupe's Optimedia International. "As ratings have declined, and they continue to do that at broadcast networks, CPMs increase significantly. Unit costs have not gone up that much, or at all, because if they did, the CPMs would be completely unthinkable."

"There aren't too many people who can afford `Friends,' `ER' and `CSI' with unit prices in the $300,000 to $400,000 range. You've got to create package deals with other shows to keep the CPMs in line because if you just cherry-pick those shows, you could never afford it," he added.

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