TV Ad Prices: Football Hikes, ‘Walking Dead’ Stumbles, ‘Chicago Fire,’ ‘Goldbergs’ on the Rise

Brian Steinberg

When it comes to primetime football, many TV advertisers are paying more for less.

The cost of a 30-second ad in CBS’ “Thursday Night Football” rose nearly 15%, while the price of a spot in NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” is up nearly 2%, according to an annual Variety analysis of primetime ad costs for the 2016-2017 season, even as ratings for TV football have tumbled in recent weeks.

Meanwhile, Madison Avenue seems to have questions about another ratings giant. The average cost of an ad package in AMC’s popular zombie dramas, “The Walking Dead” and “Fear The Walking Dead,” dropped 6.4% and a whopping 46.5%, respectively. The point may be moot: AMC said Sunday it had renewed the original “Walking” series for an eighth season, days before its seventh season is unleashed.

Football remains TV’s priciest property for advertisers. A 30-second spot in NBC’s Sunday night franchise costs an average of $650,000, according to the Variety survey. A 30-second ad berth costs an average of $529,989 for CBS’ Thursday-night football games and an average of $503,463 for NBC’s Thursday evening run of the same. An NBC Sports spokesman said the network is seeking $560,000 in negotiations.

And yet, advertisers have had cause for concern in early autumn. Yes, football games continue to attract some of TV’s biggest crowds, but, due to multiple factors, those audiences have been smaller this season. Ratings declines for each of the first four weeks of the National Football League’s games have ranged from 7% to 12% in total viewers.

“We wouldn’t say it is one direct reason that is causing the down-tick in ratings this season, but a cumulative effect of a number of circumstances,” said Billie Gold, VP and director of programming research at Amplifi U.S., a media research unit that is part of Dentsu Aegis. Poor match-ups and increasing attention on the presidential race, she said, are two potential factors in this season’s viewership tackle. There is also more football available on more TV networks, thanks to the NFL’s recent decision to split Thursday-night games among NBC and CBS.

Many TV ad prices slumped year over year despite a favorable upfront market for TV.  The nation’s five big English-language broadcast networks secured between $8.41 billion and $9.25 billion in advance ad commitments for primetime, according to Variety estimates, as part of the annual session when TV companies try to sell the bulk of their ad inventory for the coming season. It’s the first time in three years they’ve managed to break the $9 billion mark. The upfront finish is a clear signal that Madison Avenue is growing more confident in TV, despite a plethora of new digital-video options. Last year, the volume of advance ad commitments totaled between $8.02 billion and $8.69 billion

Changes in viewing behavior are likely at the root of the dynamic. A recent report from Magna Global, the large media-research unit of Interpublic Group, cited an acceleration in live-streamed viewing that has begun to affect even TV’s tentpole properties, including sports. NBCUniversal’s late-summer broadcast of the Olympics also suffered from ratings declines.  Advertisers are likely to spend equally on TV and digital in 2016, according to Magna — the first time they will have done so.

Football’s ability to command increases (although the average price for a 30-second ad in ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” is on the decline) under such conditions is remarkable, given that the costs of advertising in many of TV’s top-priced favorites are falling. Even Fox’s “Empire” saw the average cost of a 30-second ad fall to $442,413 this season, compared with $531,794 in 2015.  Of TV’s 25 most expensive programs for advertisers, just seven – or about 28% – managed to command higher ad prices year over year, according to the Variety survey.

Two of them are the aforementioned football broadcasts, NBC’s “Sunday Night Football’ and CBS’ “Thursday Night Football.” The others are scattered across the schedule. A handful of TV veterans appear to be gaining new marketplace power. The cost of a 30-second commercial on CBS’ short-lived Monday-night broadcast of “The Big Bang Theory” rose nearly 9%, according to Variety’s survey.  The cost of a 30-second spot on ABC’s long-running “Grey’s Anatomy” increased a remarkable 36.6%.  The price for the same ad slot on Fox’s veteran “The Simpsons” eked out an incremental .07% gain.

Meanwhile, two younger programs are showing rising popularity with sponsors. The average cost of a 30-second spot for the fifth season of NBC’s “Chicago Fire” rose nearly 9%. And the cost of the same type of ad in the fourth season of ABC’s “The Goldbergs” hiked almost 14%. “Chicago Fire” and “The Goldbergs” have never in their time on air stood as one of Madison Avenue’s costliest TV options.

Here is a list of TV’s 25 most expensive programs for advertisers, with year-to-year comparisons:

TV’s Most Expensive Shows For Advertisers
1. Sunday Night Football NBC Sunday $650,000 $637,330 +1.99%
2. Thursday Night Football CBS Thursday $529,989 $462,622 +14.6%
3. Thursday Night Football NBC Thursday $505,463 N/A N/A
4. The Walking Dead* AMC Sunday $470,410 $502,500 -6.4%
5. Empire Fox Wednesday $442,413 $521,794 -15.2%
6. Monday Night Football ESPN Monday $371,793 $388,176 -4.2%
7. The Big Bang Theory CBS Monday $313,119 $289,621 +8.1%
8. The Big Bang Theory CBS Thursday $253,099 $266,163 -4.9%
9. Star Fox Thursday $240,572 N/A N/A
10. This Is Us NBC Thursday $237,910 N/A N/A
11. Grey’s Anatomy ABC Thursday $219,152 $160,415 +36.6%
12. How to Get Away with Murder ABC Thursday $215,055 $229,794 -6.4%
13. The Voice NBC Monday $212,775 $234,371 -9.2%
14. Fear the Walking Dead* AMC Sunday $211,323 $395,000 -46.5%
15. Modern Family ABC Wednesday $208,938 $236,296 -11.6%
16. The Voice NBC Tuesday $200,742 $219,461 -8.5%
17. Scandal ABC Thursday $177,213 $207,255 -14.5%
18. Timeless NBC Monday $175,297 N/A N/A
19. Designated Survivor ABC Wednesday $166,896 N/A N/A
20. Lethal Weapon Fox Wednesday $164,853 N/A N/A
21. The Simpsons Fox Sunday $155,838 $155,727 +.07%
22. Kevin Can Wait CBS Monday 8:30pm $154,746 N/A N/A
23. Chicago Fire NBC Tuesday $154,479 $141,925 +8.85%
24. The Goldbergs ABC Wednesday $154,120 $135,226 +13.97%
25. Kevin Can Wait CBS Monday 8pm $151,017 N/A N/A
*Price is for a package of ads that run across multiple airings of an episode
Source: A Variety survey of estimates from as many as six media-buying agencies and other sources

The Variety survey averages figures from as many as six different media-buying agencies, along with other sources. The ad prices are meant to be taken as directional figures, not industry gospel.

The cost of a TV ad can vary according to many factors, including the relationship between an advertiser and a network, and the amount an advertiser spends overall with a particular outlet. The Variety numbers are based on deals made during TV’s “upfront” market, when advertisers buy commercial inventory in advance. Those figures may be quite different in TV’s “scatter” market, when inventory is purchased much closer to the ads’ actual air date, and typically comes at a premium when the economy is robust.

Despite the fluctuations, the ranks of TV’s most expensive programs for advertisers remain largely the same: “Sunday Night Football,” “Thursday Night Football,” “The Walking Dead,” “Empire,” “Monday Night Football” and CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory” continue to dominate the list.  Other regulars also continue to make the list: ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” and “How to Get Away with Murder”; both broadcasts of NBC’s “The Voice”; ABC’s “Modern Family”;  and ABC’s “Scandal,” even though it will start in midseason this cycle. But there are some interesting new entries.

Two freshman programs, Fox’s “Star” and NBC’s “This Is Us,” command some of the biggest ad prices of the new season. The Fox drama, a spin-off of its popular “Empire” that will take over the original’s time slot for several weeks in mid-season, requires an average of $240,572 for a 30-second ad. “This Is Us,” which has debuted to some acclaim on NBC, gets an average of $237,910 for a 30-second spot, according to the Variety survey. Other top-priced freshman programs this season include NBC’s “Timeless,” which costs an average of $175,297; ABC’s political thriller “Designated Survivor,” which commands an average of $166,896 for a 30-second ad; Fox’s “Lethal Weapon,” in which a 30-second ad costs an average of $164,853; and CBS’s “Kevin Can Wait.” A 30-second ad in that sitcom costs an average of $154,746 for its brief 8:30 p.m. berth on Mondays following episodes of “The Big Bang Theory” when CBS airs football on Thursdays, and an average of $151,017 for its run Mondays at 8 p.m.

TV’s cheapest show for advertisers appears to be the Friday-night showing of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” on CW. The program has garnered positive critical reaction, but that isn’t enough to boost its value to Madison Avenue. A 30-second spot in the clever musical comedy costs a mere average of $16,707 – less than some of the repeats aired by CBS and NBC on Saturday nights. Last season, when “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” ran on Monday nights, a 30-second ad in the show cost an average of $24,927.

Below, a night-by-night rundown of prices for broadcast programs scheduled to air this season in fall or midseason slots:

7PM America’s Funniest Home Videos $56,885
8PM Once Upon a Time $110,710
9PM Secrets & Lies $95,517
Time After Time* $89,356
10PM Quantico $102,430
7PM 60 Minutes $113,597
8PM NCIS Los Angeles $99,291
9PM Madam Secretary $84,825
10PM Elementary $63,525
7:30PM Bob’s Burgers $65,019
8PM Simpsons $155,838
8:30PM Son of Zorn $126,053
Making History* $81,035
9PM Family Guy $129,428
9:30PM Last Man on Earth $101,895
7PM Football Night In America $105,655
8:30PM Sunday Night Football $650,000
Apprentice* $103,493
Dateline Sunday* $28,000
Little Big Shots* $129,729
Shades of Blue* $111,813
8PM Dancing With the Stars $110,463
The Bachelor* $126,515
10PM Conviction $105,981
8PM The Big Bang Theory (through mid-October) $313,119
8PM Kevin Can Wait (after mid-October) $151,017
8:30PM Kevin Can Wait (through mid-October) $154,746
8:30PM Man With A Plan (after mid-October) $106,630
9PM 2 Broke Girls $109,882
9:30PM The Odd Couple $104,069
10PM Scorpion $97,864
8PM Supergirl $54,030
9PM Jane the Virgin $25,495
8PM Gotham $122,680
24: Legacy* $138,720
9PM Lucifer $111,063
APB* $115,128
8PM Voice $212,775
10PM Timeless $175,297
Taken* $140,850
8PM The Middle $123,594
8:30PM American Housewife $93,439
Imaginary Mary* $74,044
9PM Fresh Off the Boat $101,045
Downward Dog* $60,977
9:30PM The Real O’Neals $71,869
10PM Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. $102,254
8PM NCIS $146,268
9PM Bull $113,833
10PM NCIS: New Orleans $91,604
8PM Flash $65,476
9PM No Tomorrow $29,431
8PM Brooklyn Nine-Nine $101,803
8:30PM New Girl $102,329
The Mick* $103,573
9PM Scream Queens $121,438
Kicking and Screaming* $102,516
Prison Break* $131,766
8PM Voice $200,742
9PM This is Us $237,910
10PM Chicago Fire $154,479
8PM The Goldbergs $154,120
8:30PM Speechless $134,861
9PM Modern Family $208,938
9:30PM Black-ish $139,828
10PM Designated Survivor $166,896
American Crime* $59,736
8PM Survivor $124,741
9PM Criminal Minds $107,265
10PM Code Black $78,481
8PM Arrow $44,941
9PM Frequency $33,021
8PM Lethal Weapon $164,853
Shots Fired* 140,132
9PM Empire $442,413
Star* $240,572
8PM Blindspot $120,086
9PM Law & Order: SVU $102,406
10PM Chicago PD $115,619
8PM Grey’s Anatomy $219,152
9PM Notorious $141,278
Scandal* $177,213
10PM How to Get Away With Murder $215,055
The Catch* $116,389
8PM Thursday Night Football $529,989
8PM Big Bang Theory (post-football) $253,099
8:30PM Great Indoors $147,064
9PM Mom $111,939
9:30PM Life In Pieces $130,217
10PM Pure Genius $84,176
8PM Legends of Tomorrow $39,020
9PM Supernatural $32,373
8PM Rosewood $71,881
9PM Pitch $95,728
Bones* $96,459
8PM Superstore $100,340
8:30PM The Good Place $91,201
8:30PM Thursday Night Football (five weeks in first half of season) $505,463
9PM Chicago Med $128,918
Emerald City* $109,500
Powerless* $87,417
10PM Blacklist $136,730
Blacklist: Redemption* $122,163
8PM Last Man Standing $81,303
8:30PM Dr. Ken $61,217
9PM Shark Tank $97,537
10PM 20/20 $72,190
8PM MacGyver $57,157
9PM Hawaii Five-0 $69,911
10PM Blue Bloods $72,211
8PM Vampire Diaries $24,498
9PM Crazy Ex-Girlfriend $16,707
8PM Hell’s Kitchen $77,561
Masterchef Junior* $86,609
9PM The Exorcist $50,551
Sleepy Hollow* $56,860
8PM Saturday Night College Football $92,251
8PM Crimetime Saturday $20,525
9PM Crimetime Saturday $21,355
10PM 48 Hours $36.069
8PM Fox Saturday College Football $85,000
8PM Dateline Mystery $41,023
10PM SNL Vintage $31,508
Riverdale (CW) $38,023
iZombie (CW) $23,870

Related stories

NBCU Ad Sales Shuffles Senior Duties for Dan Lovinger, Mike Rosen, Mark Marshall, Mark Miller, Laura Molen

'The Walking Dead' Renewed for Season 8

TV Ratings: Chargers Beat Broncos, CBS Beats Everyone

Get more from Variety and Variety411: Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Newsletter