TV: The Really Big Show Ain’t Over Yet

When I was growing up, I was like most kids: I watched The Ed Sullivan Show every Sunday evening on CBS with my parents. Back then, in the 1960s, TV really was king—and so was Sullivan. He was the electron impresario, the Oprah (if I can bend the metaphor a bit) of his era. An appearance on Sullivan’s stage—or, Studio 50 to the CBS folks—could make your whole career. Witness the Beatles.

These days, as I watch the growing number of people heading off to the Apple Store for their iPads, I feel the gentle tug of those early days when TV was a family event and everyone would gather around the “set.” A couple of years ago, USA Today reported that, on average, the American home now contains more TVs than people. So, forget about the family gathering around anything—let alone a TV.

So you probably think I’m ready to shift into that familiar dirge—the elegy (c’mon, you’ve heard it plenty) that TV is dying or that digital has, at least, kicked it off its throne; that the digital future is here, and all the rest of it. Well, not so fast. Consumer buying power is beginning to rise again, and I believe this bodes well for the TV networks, their advertisers and the ad agencies, too.

Historically, at least, TV has long been advertisers’ favorite medium. But as we’ve seen over the last few years, when corporate profits dip, so does the TV ad budget. Nowhere has that been more apparent than with the automakers. Car brands had been the top TV buyers, but the soft market for new cars has been a blow to the networks, broadcast and cable alike.

But this year, the story changes. I’m projecting that TV ad revenues will climb by about 8 percent—a gain due, in large part, to the resurgence of the automakers’ fortunes. After opting out of the 2009 Super Bowl entirely, GM is back in the big game and in other big sporting events this year. Audi will also be looking to Sunday sports—the Super Bowl included—as it hunts for affluent drivers.

Car sales in the U.S. were up 17 percent in November, and Q4 2010 is a good crystal ball for this year. Already, our data show that ad revenues are 4 percent higher than they were this time in 2010 (that figure doesn’t even include revenues from the ad-buying blitz we just saw during the contentious midterm elections).

Of course, I can’t sing TV’s praises and ignore the digital elephant in the room. According to a recent survey my firm conducted, most ad shops across the country agree that cross-platform digital advertising will continue to make noise, with ad budgets having to make room for campaigns to be synched between TV and the Web. But TV has an opportunity to lead, with digital, mobile and its ilk playing supporting roles.

Yes, supporting. It’s important to remember that for as important as digital is, TV is making more money. It’s TV that’s presenting opportunities to digital to be part of integrated campaigns. And as we continue to watch the merging of platforms, TV will hold the lead while digital subchannels extend the local outreach.

Now that we’re already a month into 2011, I should temper this optimistic forecast by stressing that we’ll be off to a fairly flat start. There’s always a lull at the beginning of the year (with the notable exception of a certain football game in early February). And, of course, the economy’s hardly out of the trench it fell into back in 2007. But in this mixed picture, I see an opportunity to implement new strategies and allocate ad dollars. I see automotive having a big year—maybe even the potential to outspend the money dropped on all those political ads we had to sit through. But the bottom line: The reports of TV’s death have been greatly exaggerated. It’s still a viable, healthy medium, and it’s going to stick around.