CBS in Super Shape as It Bowls for Dollars

Exactly two months remain before Super Bowl XLIV is set to kick off in Miami on Feb. 7, and already CBS is deep inside the red zone. Eschewing the sort of inflexible approach built on traps and trickery, the network’s sales team has been running a spread-option offense to adapt to the needs of individual advertisers while allowing it to steadily advance the ball downfield.

As of late last week, CBS has sold more than 90 percent of its Super Bowl inventory, leaving the broadcaster with just a handful of in-game avails. By comparison, at this time a year ago, NBC had moved around 85 percent of its SB spots; with two weeks to go before Pittsburgh and Arizona clashed in Tampa, the Peacock had yet to sell its remaining 10 avails.

(Ultimately, NBC closed out with a few days to spare, bringing in a record haul of $206 million.)

According to Tony Taranto, CBS’ senior vp of National Football League sales, the Tiffany network sold “a few more units” last week, leaving a dusting of fourth-quarter spots up for grabs, and at least one major post-game opportunity.

“Because of the lack of participation by General Motors, the sponsorship of the MVP Award is available for the first time in forever,” Taranto said. “We’re negotiating that [with potential sponsors] right now. It’s a prime piece of real estate that’s particularly valuable because there are in-game mentions.”

While the presentation of the Pete Rozelle Trophy has long been a showcase for GM — in years past, the automaker would drive a new Cadillac Escalade onto the field, tossing the keys to the newly minted MVP — any number of sponsors has a shot at the high-profile moment. “We’re not limiting it to any particular category. It’s such a strong branding opportunity that we’re willing to work with anybody who’s interested,” Taranto said, adding that the trophy handover is packaged with an in-game spot.

Media buyers have indicated that CBS is commanding between $2.4 million and $3 million for each 30-second spot, a range the network isn’t willing to acknowledge one way or the other. “We’ve been approaching each deal on an individual basis,” Taranto said. “It’s a matter of selling slot by slot, offering the client the chance to get what they want at a price they thought was fair.”

Although GM, Ford and Chrysler have increased their TV spending to various degrees, it appears that this will be the second straight Super Bowl without an American auto sponsor.

As was the case a year ago, foreign automakers are picking up the slack, with Hyundai topping its efforts with a five-spot buy. The Korean car manufacturer will launch new campaigns for its redesigned Sonata sedan and the Tucson SUV, buying a pair of in-game spots and three pregame ads.

The two other car sponsors from last year’s contest, Toyota and Audi, have yet to make their intentions known, although Taranto said the foreign auto category has been “extremely active.”

Among the roster of perennial sponsors that will once again splash their messages across TV’s greatest canvas are InBev Anheuser-Busch, Pepsi-Cola, Frito-Lay, Coca-Cola,, and GoDaddy. Bridgestone will serve as the presenting sponsor of the halftime show and, as was the case in Super Bowl XLIII, commit to two 30-second in-game spots.

Thus far, no major film studios have been identified, but Paramount and Walt Disney Studios may well be shoo-ins, as the former is prepping Iron Man 2 for a May 7 release, while the latter is set to bow the much-awaited Pixar feature Toy Story 3 on June 18.

Other candidates for a Super Bowl spot are Universal, which on July 9 will release the animated 3-D romp Despicable Me, and 20th Century Fox, which is rolling out its big-screen remake of the ’80s kitsch classic The A-Team on June 11. CBS confirmed that a number of studios have already signed on.

Certainly there’s much to look forward to as the last few weeks of the NFL season play out, but the health of the Super Bowl isn’t necessarily a harbinger for the state of the overall television marketplace.

“The only indicator I’d look at is the percentage of inventory sold now versus last year, and CBS is pacing ahead,” said Larry Novenstern, executive vp and director of electronic media for Optimedia. “I think they also had to take a much more methodical approach to selling the Super Bowl because when they started we were still in the worst part of the recession.” Last season, Novenstern steered client Denny’s to its first Super Bowl spot, a comic 30-second ad that poked fun at rival IHOP, while offering recession-weary consumers a free breakfast.

Despite the price of entry, Novenstern is a true believer in the great American secular holiday.

“From simply a reach perspective, it’s the greatest thing around,” Novenstern said. “Twenty years ago the average household rating in prime was a 14; today, it’s a fraction of that. Compare that with the Super Bowl. Last year’s game did a 40, about what NBC did in 1989.”

(The numbers are dead-on. Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl XLIII win averaged a 42.1 Nielsen rating and a record 98.7 million viewers, plumb with NBC’s 43.5 rating for its coverage of Super Bowl XXIII.)

In the meantime, much of the improvement seen in the general TV market may be chalked up to simple scarcity.

“We’re seeing an awful lot of money coming back in the near term, but I wouldn’t say we’ve turned the corner,” said one national TV buyer who asked not to be named. “I think CBS took a very reasonable approach to the marketplace, all things considered, and they’re being rewarded for that. But the Super Bowl is its own animal.”