Network TV ad rates appear to be approaching the ceiling.
In a restructuring in the demand quotient for prime-time network shows, many of last season's top programs in advertiser demand --including "Friends," "Home Improvement," "Frasier" and "The X-Files"--have lost some of the greatest amounts of marketplace value, while freshman and sophomore series are skyrocketing.
`SEINFELD' LOSES MOMENTUM
"Seinfeld" remains the most in-demand series among advertisers, though its momentum has waned considerably from seasons past. At $575,000 per 30-second unit, "Seinfeld's" value rose only about 5% from last year's $550,000 average unit rate, according to Advertising Age's annual Fall Prime-Time Pricing Survey.
That relatively modest price increase doesn't reflect a softening of demand for the NBC Thursday night sitcom as much as it demonstrates that there are inflationary ceilings to what even the most coveted network inventory can command.
While individual ad agencies surveyed by Ad Age reported paying as much as $640,000 for a "Seinfeld" spot, NBC executives feared raising the average price much above last year's record rate due to a concern about sticker shock.
"You can't really expect people to pay $700,000 for a half a minute of `Seinfeld,' " said an NBC executive. "We're looking to do business with people, not turn them away."
Instead, "Seinfeld" has become a packaging opportunity for NBC that enables the network to justify price increases for other programs packaged into buys with the big hit. That certainly is reflected in the overall unit rates for NBC's new fall schedule, only one show of which, "Players," is below $100,000 per :30.
NEW ORDER OF DEMAND
But even at NBC a new order of prime-time demand is becoming evident, as powerhouses like "Friends" and "Frasier" fell by tens of thousands of dollars from last year's average unit rates.
Overall, eight of last season's top 10 returning shows recorded lower prices. At a loss of $125,000 in the price of a 30-second unit, CBS' "Murphy Brown" had the biggest decline in value of any high-demand show from last season.
At the opposite end of the value spectrum, CBS sophomore "Everybody Loves Raymond" had the greatest gains, rising by $105,000 to $215,000 per :30. It now is the third-most expensive show on CBS.
ABC heavyweight "Home Improvement" also saw dramatic declines, falling by $105,000, or 23%, to $350,000 per :30, though it remains ABC's second-highest priced show after "NFL Monday Night Football."
Even paranormally hot Fox series "The X-Files" saw a modest decline, though midseason hit "King of the Hill" has blossomed into the network's second highest in-demand show, moving slightly ahead of "The Simpsons."
RECORD PRICES FOR NEW SHOWS
Compensating for the erosion of value in returning series are the record prices being paid for new, untested shows.
NBC Thursday night rookies "Veronica's Closet" and "Union Square" now represent the fourth and fifth highest-priced shows on the peacock network.
ABC newcomers "Hiller & Diller" and "Dharma & Greg" rank fourth and sixth on ABC's pricing menu. CBS freshmen "George & Leo" and "Brooklyn South" rank fourth and seventh. Fox's "Ally McBeal" and "Between Brothers" rank seventh and eighth.
Overall, Fox has the most consistent pricing among the four major broadcast networks, with a range of $60,000 for "America's Most Wanted" to $275,000 for "The X-Files." ABC had the most dramatic spectrum, ranging from as little as $55,000 for "Nothing Sacred"--also the cheapest show among the Big 4 networks--to $360,000 for "NFL Monday Night Football."
Mr. Mandese is senior VP of Myers Reports.
Copyright September 1997, Crain Communications Inc.