Cable News Saw Big Ad Spend Increases in May, But Broadcast Prime Time Took a Hit

Even with declining ratings, Empire had the month's highest ad rate

Empire's ratings are falling, but the show still had the highest average 30-second unit cost in May: $568,700. Chuck Hodes/Fox
Headshot of Jason Lynch

In May, the last month of the 2016-17 TV season, the national advertising market was up slightly year over year on the continued strength of cable news and lifestyle networks. But broadcast prime time spend was down 4 percent and shorter NBA and NHL playoff series also ate into ad revenue, according to new data from Standard Media Index.

The national TV market was up 2 percent year-over-year. Cable networks jumped 2 percent, and broadcast networks were up 1 percent compared to May 2016.

According to SMI, which tracks 70 percent of national ad spending from global and independent agencies, broadcast entertainment prime time spend was down 4 percent among NBC, ABC, Fox and CBS. CBS was off just 1 percent, while NBC was down 4 percent and ABC fell 6 percent.

Fox had the steepest year-over-year declines for May, down 8 percent, due mostly to lower unit costs for Empire, whose ratings continue to decline. Yet the show drama had the highest average 30-second unit cost among all TV programs in May, including sports and specials: $568,700. That was more than double the average rate for the No. 2 drama, Scandal, at $200,600.

ABC also saw strong early interest in The Bachelorette, which featured the franchise’s first Bachelorette of color. The premiere averaged $210,400 per spot, more than a 40 percent jump over last year.

On the sitcom side, the two long-running shows that signed two-year extensions competed for the top unit cost, with The Big Bang Theory edging out Modern Family, $275,000 to $265,000.

Sports programming was down 5 percent in cable and broadcast, due to shorter NBA and NHL playoff series compared to a year ago. Airing six fewer NBA games than they did in May 2016, TNT and ABC missed out on around $24 million in ad spend compared to 2016.

The Trump bump continues

Meanwhile, Donald Trump’s presidency continues to drive major ad rate bumps for the cable news networks, as MSNBC was up 43 percent year over year, Fox News jumped 14 percent and CNN increased 12 percent. In its first full month in Bill O’Reilly’s old time slot, Tucker Carlson Tonight had an average unit cost of $14,100. That’s 21 percent ahead of the $11,600 that The O’Reilly Factor averaged one year earlier.

MSNBC’s surging Rachel Maddow Show rode its ratings streak to a 69 percent year over year increase, up to $4,500 per 30-second spot, from $2,600 a year ago.

Outside of the news ad spend jumps, lifestyle networks led the biggest year-over-year increases, as HGTV jumped 16 percent and Food Network was up 15 percent). E! (15 percent) and Discovery (12 percent) also saw double-digit increases.

On the other end of the spectrum, these networks saw the biggest declines: ESPN (down 14 percent, though that number seems to be related to fewer NBA playoff games), History (a 13 percent decrease) and Comedy Central (a 17 percent drop).

“May results show a definite pick up in the overall market with digital spend rebounding solidly after a slow start to the year following concerns from advertisers around brand safety. The national TV market is being kept in the black by cable news and lifestyle programming, both of which racked up some big year on year gains in May,” said Standard Media Index CEO James Fennessy in a statement. “On the flip side, the major networks will be very concerned at the continued softness in broadcast prime time. Live sports programming also didn’t deliver with shorter playoffs series, thanks to the dominance of [the NBA’s] Golden State [Warriors], really impacting year on year comparisons.”

Across cable and broadcast networks, the entertainment industry’s ad spend was down almost $60 million, or 24 percent, year over year. Digital spend in the category, however, was up by $13 million, or 25 percent.

Automotive vehicles and dealerships fell 5 percent year over year, but prescription pharmaceuticals were up 19 percent ($40 million)—51 percent increase in sports. QSRs (quick service restaurants) jumped 11 percent and telecommunications was up 10 percent. Those three categories also saw double-digit increases in digital spend, which indicates that ad budgets are increasing overall, as opposed to brands shuttling money from tv to digital, or from digital to TV.

@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.