ABC and the art of selling ad time

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ABC is the latest network to wrap up selling commercials for the 2010-11 television season. And the good news is that advertising is up, even though the network performed worse last season. The bad news is that ‘up’ is relative: Last year’s advertising sales were so weak that any improvement looks good.

The Walt Disney Co.-owned network sold about $2.4 billion of advertising inventory, or about 15% to 17% more than a year ago, a person familiar with the matter said. This is in line with higher advertising sales reached in recent days at CBS, Fox and CW.

Ad buyer beware: There’s something of a numbers game going on here. ABC’s figure encompasses all ‘dayparts’ of the network’s schedule, including shows in late night, news and daytime. The network declined to break out advertising sales in prime-time, which handles the vast bulk of inventory.

Last year, Merrill Lynch estimated that ABC sold about $1.9 billion in prime time. Based on the overall 15% to 17% increase, that would make ABC’s prime-time advertising sales for the 2010-11 season total about $2.2 billion, and leave about $200 million in advertising for daytime, news and late-night shows.


But ABC’s increases could have more to do with the network selling a greater quantity of advertising time than it did a year ago, rather than winning higher ad rates. That’s because ABC had to base its 2010-11 ad rates on last season’s weaker performance, which would have made it difficult to win major rate hikes.

In the TV season that ended last month, ABC’s prime-time audience fell by about 5% in viewers and 7% among adults 18-49.

Typically, networks sell about 80% of commercial inventory before the new TV season starts in what is known as the ‘upfront market.’ But in 2009, in the midst of the recession, the networks sold only about 65% of their inventory during the upfront in the hope demand would increase later if the economy recovered.

ABC’s biggest successes last season were its Wednesday comedies ‘Modern Family,’ ‘The Middle’ and ‘Cougar Town.’ It struggled in the 10 p.m. time slot and also saw one of its biggest critical hits, ‘Lost,’ finally end its run. New shows that the network is enthusiastic about include the police drama ‘Detroit 1-8-7' and the comedies ‘Better Together’ and ‘Mr. Sunshine,’ the last of which will air at mid-season.

On Tuesday, CBS said it was done with its upfront. Industry analysts have estimated that the network, which is No. 1 in viewers, cleared about $2.5 billion in prime-time ad sales. Last week, Fox hit the $1.9-billion mark, while the CW ended up selling about $375 million worth of commercial time.

General Electric Co.'s NBC, in fourth place, is still concluding its upfront sales.

-- Joe Flint