'Idol' Spots Going For A Song (Plus $700,000)

Heading into its fifth year, American Idol, Fox’s hit show, has set a new milestone for network TV: a record-high price tag for a 30-second commercial unit.

For the new fall season, the cost of a 30-second spot during the Wednesday night program has surpassed the $700,000 mark. That’s a first for any regularly scheduled prime-time network series. Sources with firsthand knowledge of the numbers confirmed that the average price for a 30-second unit in the program is $705,000, up about 7 percent from a year ago.

For the second year in a row, the Tuesday and Wednesday editions of American Idol are the most expensive shows on network TV. “Deservedly so,” said Andy Donchin, evp and director of national broadcast at Aegis Group’s Carat, noting that they were the highest-rated shows of the 2004-05 season across most of the key metrics, including adults 18-49, the demographic that advertisers covet most.

Sources said Cingular Wireless, Coca-Cola and Ford, last year’s major American Idol advertisers, have all renewed their sponsorships.

The highest-priced new show is NBC’s The Apprentice: Martha Stewart, sources said, with 30-second units pegged at $310,000. Other new shows commanding strong prices include ABC’s Invasion and Commander in Chief, both at about $240,000 per :30. UPN’s highly anticipated new comedy, Everybody Hates Chris, is getting $179,000, a record price for the network.

The 2005-06 season will be the third in a row in which the most expensive network series is a reality show. Two years ago, Survivor topped the list with a price tag of $425,000. The last time a scripted-entertainment series (sitcom or drama) was the priciest show was during 2002-03, when Friends, then in its penultimate season, took in $420,000 per 30-second unit.

No other single show comes close to this year’s eye-popping Idol price tag. Buyer and network sources said the average price of a network 30-second ad for the new fall season is approximately $150,000. The average price last year was about $143,500, according to TNS Media Intelligence.

For every high-ticket show like Idol, there are programs with prices well below average, such as Fox’s Bones (priced at $115,000), ABC’s Wife Swap and Night Stalker (both at $105,000) and CBS’s Ghost Whisperer and Threshold ($100,000 and $88,000, respectively).

Aside from the two Idol editions, only one other regularly scheduled series across the networks is priced at more than $500,000, and that’s ABC’s Desperate Housewives, which is fetching an average of $560,000 per spot for the season, up 275 percent from last fall. Housewives, the highest-rated new show of last season and third overall in the 18-49 demographic, spearheaded a turnaround for ABC on Sunday nights. A year ago, ABC was an also-ran on Sundays, and most of its 30-second ads there were priced around $150,000 or below. By the end of last season, the network dominated the night in the ratings, and prices for the new season reflect that. A spot in Extreme Makeover: Home Edition now costs $355,000, almost double the price of a year ago, and Grey’s Anatomy, a midseason hit that debuted earlier this year, is priced at $440,000, about 125 percent higher than its original cost.

Brad Adgate, svp and corporate research director at Horizon Media, said that dramas in general have made a big comeback, as evidenced by ABC’s Sunday-night resurgence and also by the fact that all six broadcast networks are going head to head with dramas on Wednesday night at 9 p.m. this fall. No one is counter-programming, which suggests a high degree of confidence in the quality of the product, said Adgate. “I don’t think that has ever happened before,” he added.

At CBS, CSI: remains the highest-priced show for the second straight year, with an average spot price of $465,000, up 5 percent from a year ago. Survivor continues as the second-priciest show on the network, at $350,000 per :30, albeit down about 6 percent from last fall, which reflects a comparable drop in the show’s ratings. Monday-night stalwart Two and a Half Men has moved into the 9 p.m. anchor position (in place of the departed Everybody Loves Raymond) and commands rates of $293,000 per :30, almost 20 percent more than last fall.

ER remains NBC’s highest-priced show at $400,000, down about 10 percent from a year ago, reflecting the show’s rating drop of almost 3 points among adults 18-49. The Apprentice also fell in the ratings last year, and the price dropped 13 percent to $350,000.

UPN’s highest-rated show of last season, America’s Next Top Model, is commanding spot rates of $118,000. The WB’s priciest shows for the new season include the returning 7th Heaven and Gilmore Girls, both collecting $96,000 per :30.