Advertising rebound helps networks forget audience woes

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The so-called upfront market, when the majority of commercials for the fall television season are sold, is wrapping up, and all the networks are smiling. Ratings may be down, but optimism about the economy and continued audience fragmentation came together to work in their favor. ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and the CW all did better selling commercials for prime time than they did a year ago.

How can that be? The audience shrinks, and they get more money?

There are a couple of reasons for the improvement this year. Unlike last year, when the networks sold about 65% of their inventory, this year they sold closer to 80%, which accounts for the gain in ad dollars.

Furthermore, although all five networks saw their audience decline (when big sports events are factored out), broadcast television remains, as any network ad salesman will repeat ad nauseum, the best way for advertisers to reach the teeming masses. But with the network masses becoming a little less teeming every year, that means advertisers have to buy more commercials if they want to reach the same number of car buyers, beer drinkers and Big Pharma customers as days of yore.

Still, in terms of the overall share of the ad market, cable’s portion is again expected to grow against the broadcasters when the all the numbers are tallied. NBC was the last broadcast network to finish its advance ad sales. Like ABC, the network didn’t want to talk about its prime-time advertising take. Instead, it focused on how the network and its cable networks (which include USA, Bravo and Syfy) performed and spread the word that it booked a little more than $4 billion in sales for all its media properties.


In terms of prime time, NBC captured about $1.6 billion, according to Advertising Age. That is flat with how the network did last year, when it sold less inventory and was also selling ads for Jay Leno’s 10 p.m. show, which commanded rates much lower than the dramas the network had previously scheduled at that time.

NBC, which is in the process of overhauling its struggling prime-time lineup, trailed the other big networks. CBS led the way in prime time with $2.5 billion, followed by ABC with $2.2 billion. Fox, which programs fewer hours, had $1.9 billion in sales, and the CW finished with around $375 million.

-- Joe Flint