Miércoles 17 de Octubre de 2007, Ip nº 212

'Stay tuned' has never meant so much
Por John Doyle

At regular intervals we all need to be reminded that about 90 per cent of television is about delivering eyeballs to advertisers.

Remember this – when the U.S. networks first unveil their slates of new fall programming every May, at the so-called “upfronts,” they're doing it for advertisers and buyers at ad agencies. They unveil those shows to TV critics in July. Finally, they present the shows to viewers in September. That's the hierarchy.

Television is a commercial endeavour. The fact that drama or comedy of any merit gets made is actually remarkable. You can have your favourite show and develop affection for characters, but if the advertising dollars aren't there, your feelings count for nothing.

But right now, the biggest drama on TV isn't a cop show or a medical show. It's the attempt by you to dodge the commercials. It used to be that you'd go to the fridge, check the answering machine or maybe even change the channel for two minutes. Or you taped shows on a VCR and fast-forwarded past the commercials. Now, thanks to digital video, you can skip the commercials with greater ease and, worse for the TV industry, you might be watching a show days after it, and its ads, aired.

Just last week the magazine Advertising Age revealed its list of the top-earning shows.

Grey's Anatomy is at the top, as the most expensive show on network TV. It costs $419,000 (U.S.) for a 30-second spot. Last year it cost $394,000 to reach viewers of ABC's Desperate Housewives. That was the top amount.

For this new TV season, Grey's Anatomy is followed by NBC's Sunday Night Football ($358,000); Fox's The Simpsons ($315,000); NBC's Heroes ($296,000); Desperate Housewives ($270,000); CBS's CSI ($248,000); and CBS's Two and Half Men ($231,000). There's a tie for eighth: CBS's Survivor: China and ABC's Private Practice, the Grey's Anatomy spinoff, each $208,000 per 30-second spot.

What does this tell us? Several things, actually. First, it costs a lot to advertise on Thursday nights. That's because, as ad buyers see it, viewers are making choices for what they'll buy on the weekend. And you thought it was because Thursday night was a nice night to stay in and watch TV. Sunday night is also important for advertisers because men – especially young men who don't watch much TV – watch NFL football and often several animated shows on Fox later that night. Some unshaven guy on a couch, idly wondering if he should buy a new razor, has enormous power.

However, by the end of this TV season, the system could go haywire. Advertisers and the TV networks have agreed on a new system. Instead of ad prices being based on the number of overall viewers, the key component will be the number of people viewing during a commercial break. The methods used to gather ratings numbers will now include viewer numbers for the commercial breaks and, further, count a portion of those viewers who might see the commercials days later thanks to the use of digital video recorders.

According to Advertising Age, the networks are fully expecting the new data to indicate that at least 5 to 10 per cent of viewers aren't watching the commercials at all. That's when advertisers will wonder why they are paying so much.

Still, some series are safe from the expected crisis. The amounts paid to advertise on Grey's Anatomy and Desperate Housewives are small when compared with American Idol – the cost of a 30-second commercial varies from $500,000 to more than $700,000, depending on whether it's beginning its run or close to crowning a new winner.

Even Fox's 24 can manage to charge $300,00 per 30-second spot and it is far from being a No. 1 show. That's because the fast-paced action and endless twists and turns mean that viewers aren't willing to change the channel or wait a few days to see it.

Idol is live, and talked about the next day. 24 is so perversely full of twists that it requires close attention. There's the solution for the networks – grab viewers for every second of a broadcast by making it totally compelling viewing.

  10/10/2007. The Globe and Mail.