For the better part of the last 20 years, Jimmy Kimmel has been the voice of sanity during the upfronts. In a week marked by the selective interpretation of ratings data (“We’re No. 1 among women age 51-to-54!”) and breathless hype for shows about monkey doctors, the late-night host has made a cottage industry of ridiculing the TV networks and their assembled advertising partners.
Because Kimmel’s most blistering jokes are reserved for the people in the room who pay to keep the lights on at ABC—he never misses an opportunity to remind sponsors about the absurdity of coughing up higher rates to reach an ever-dwindling audience of senescent consumers—the laughter is always leavened with a little ruefulness. Even in mid-guffaw, anyone who spends $950,000 for 10 units in a drama that barely ekes out a 0.2 rating probably should feel at least a little bad for setting all that money on fire.
Kimmel’s routine always kills because everyone within hearing range of his voice knows he is telling the truth. When Kimmel illuminates the contradictions of the ad sales market (“The more viewers we lose, the more money you give us? What kind of message is that sending?”), everyone in the place goes nuts. When he takes a blowtorch to the stuporous state of network programming (“They’re rebooting Quantum Leap and Night Court. That isn’t a fall schedule; those are the tapes you find in your dead uncle’s VCR.”), the advertisers in the crowd roar their approval. And yet, before the new primetime slate bows in late September, the networks will somehow manage to book advance commitments for 75% of their available inventory.
Meanwhile, as is evident by Kimmel’s lack of material on the subject, the sports market isn’t exactly fertile ground for gags. The two shots the comic aims in that direction are fairly toothless, inasmuch as they’re limited to an observation about NBC’s Winter Olympics ratings and a quick jab at Fox’s new hire. It’s not that sports isn’t inherently funny (see: Barkley, Charles), but it’s hard to goof on the one thing on TV that still works.
The media agencies won’t begin registering their clients’ ad budgets for at least another week or so, but anyone looking to nail down spots in the NFL, college football or the MLB postseason has already informed the networks about what they’re looking to spend and where they’d like to place their dollars. On balance, the sports-targeting budgets are up versus last year’s already hyper-inflated marketplace, which was fueled by marketers anxious to engage with consumers again after a year of stasis.
Fox is already wheeling and dealing. “We’re knee-deep into negotiations,” said Fox Sports ad sales chief Mark Evans, who succeeded Seth Winter in February. Having confirmed that Fox’s sports unit is “fully registered with all the major holding companies,” Evans said the quick start is a function of how sports has become the one truly indispensable element of a TV-driven media plan.
“Historically, broadcast entertainment would go first. Now it’s sports that’s moving first,” Evans said during a pre-upfront interview with Sportico. Securing real estate in top-shelf sporting events is imperative for advertisers looking to reach the maximum number of TV viewers, and given the fact that as much as 35% of in-game airtime is already locked in thanks to multiyear deals, there’s only so much fall sports inventory to go around.
Compounding the relative scarcity in the TV sports market is the shift of Thursday Night Football from Fox to Amazon Prime Video. The move to the streaming-and-shopping platform has pulled a whole pile of ratings points out of TV; per Nielsen, Fox’s primetime broadcast and the NFL Network simulcast averaged 16.2 million viewers, of whom nearly 6 million were members of the all-important adults 18-49 demo. TNF may have been too dear for Fox to retain—punting the rights to Amazon will save the network a cool $660 million a year—but in its final season on broadcast television, the package was the second most-watched and highest-rated program in primetime. No. 1: NBC’s Sunday Night Football.
“For the first time in nine years, there’s actually less supply in the NFL,” Evans said. “The relative scarcity is pushing demand for what’s already the most desirable property on TV to even greater heights.”
Advertisers are particularly interested in grabbing a piece of Fox’s upcoming Thanksgiving weekend slate, which kicks off with the Giants-Cowboys game on Thursday before giving way to the USA-England World Cup match on Black Friday, the annual Michigan-Ohio State hatefest on Saturday, and a Sunday NFL doubleheader that’ll be capped by Rams-Chiefs in the national broadcast window.
“During the most important time of year for advertisers, we’re doing something that has never been done before,” Evans said. “If you’re a marketer with something to promote, that four-day window is going to be essential.”
As one media buyer noted, while Fox won’t have a stranglehold on the entire TV market during the holiday stretch, it’s going to be a destination for anyone who is crazy about big-time sports. “That is a remarkable schedule they’ve made for themselves,” the buyer said. “I mean, throw out all the record books, right? Or maybe keep the record books and throw out the remote. You’re not going to need it for a couple days.”
Sports generates about 90% of Fox’s fall ad impressions, and its biggest draw is the “America’s Game of the Week” window. The most-watched TV program for 13 years running, the national Sunday afternoon NFL showcase last season averaged 23.1 million viewers, edging CBS’s own coast-to-coast package.
If sports already has a hegemonic grip on the TV market—even the relatively low-rated NHL can out punch nearly everything on the broadcast entertainment schedule, as the first week of playoff action scared up some 1.03 billion ad impressions—the value of the televised games, matches and bouts will be further accentuated by primetime’s slim pickings. Or as Warner Bros. Discovery ad sales boss Jon Steinlauf said during his Wednesday morning pitch, “Sports is the new primetime.”
With just a few days before the 2021-22 broadcast season grinds to a halt, the average network show is drawing just 3.79 million viewers per episode, of whom fewer than 656,000 are members of the 18-49 demo. In other words, 83% of the entertainment deliveries are chaff, impressions that are being served up to people whom most TV advertisers have no interest in reaching. To get a better sense of the magnitude of waste, take a standard 13.5-ounce box of Frosted Flakes and pour it into the garbage until there’s only 2.3 ounces of cereal left. Well done. You’ve just wasted 10 bowls of cereal and now your children are starving.
The hunger pangs will only continue to get sharper as the networks quit stocking up on new primetime programming. In the lead-up to the inevitable shift of much of their entertainment content to various streaming platforms, the Big Four networks this fall will air just nine new scripted shows. So instead of the usual firehose blast of fall series premieres, the novelty of primetime has been slowed to a trickle. This season, 34 entertainment series, or nearly one-third of all broadcast prime programs, averaged a 0.3 rating or lower. Two years ago, only two shows delivered a 0.3 or worse.
As much as tepid primetime ratings should only serve to further accelerate the sports-TV market, the possibility of being shut out of the high-octane fall football bazaar should give advertisers pause. Paying a 20% scatter premium on an NFL unit that fetched $825,000 in the upfront means forking over an extra $165,000 for a unit that is no longer covered by a ratings guarantee. Do that often enough and you’ll be haunting LinkedIn before you know it; as it is, the average tenure of a CMO is a scant 40 months.
Among the categories that are expected to increase their sports spend after a long coronavirus layover include travel and movie studios. The gaming dollars are expected to pile up even faster than they did last fall, as more states go through the process of legalizing sports betting, although representatives of the emerging cryptocurrency category may have to watch how they spend any real money. Despite the ongoing supply-chain chaos, some national auto budgets are up versus last year, as manufacturers of electric cars ready a number of forward-looking campaigns designed to accelerate the slow shift from gas-powered vehicles to plug-ins and hybrids.