The adults 18-49 demo ratings race in prime time will once again come down to the wire with program performances during Nielsen's May sweeps deciding whether ABC, CBS or Fox ends up with bragging rights.
But the parity that has been created by the closeness of the demo race for the second year in a row has lessened the advantage that the winner may hold when selling in the upfront.
"It really doesn't matter who wins," said Pam Zucker, svp, marketplace ignition, at MediaVest USA. "It may be good public relations for the network that comes out on top, but when only one-tenth of a rating point separates each one, that alone is not going to make a difference in who we buy."
Zucker said a stable schedule of solid shows airing across all nights is more important than an overall 18-49 rating.
Steve Lanzano, evp and managing director at MPG, said media agencies are also looking more at the schedules for next season, "how returning shows might hold up, where new shows are scheduled," rather than rewarding networks for past performance.
Lanzano also said advertisers are more interested in targeting more specific demo splices within the 18-49 age group, and that the 25-54 age bracket is getting more attention as advertisers begin realizing that Baby Boomers at the upper end of that demo have a lot more disposable income than viewers at the younger end.
"In the past, no brand wanted to be perceived as old, and the thinking was that older people were more set in their ways, and that advertisers wanted to get viewers to get into the habit of using their products at a younger age," Lanzano said. "But that thinking is changing. Advertisers realize that the Baby Boomers do have money to spend and they are not as loyal to brands as people their age were in the past."
So as the broadcast networks roll into the May sweeps period and the heavily hyped final month of the season, the media agency community is going to pay less attention to which net comes out on top and more to a host of subtexts to the ratings race's conclusion.
"Let's say Fox finishes the season in first place because American Idol accounts for 15 percent of its schedule and 35 percent of its rating," said Steve Sternberg, evp and director of audience analysis at Magna Global USA. "And CBS finishes just a tenth of rating point behind with a much more stable schedule and many more successful programs. And ABC finishes just a tenth of a point back, and is the only network to gain viewers among virtually all demos. Who is in the best situation?"
Sternberg said while first place in the 18-49 demo "has continued interest on Wall Street and in the press, it doesn't really mean much to advertisers anymore." Unlike 10 years ago, he continued, "the network races are so close that no network is firmly entrenched in either first or fourth place."
But one broadcast network exec, who did not want to speak for attribution, said that the media agencies speak out of both sides of their mouths regarding the networks' sweeps finishes. "They tell the network that wins the 18-49 race that it doesn't matter," said the exec. "But they tell the other networks they can't charge more because they didn't win the race. The agencies want it both ways."