CBS, Media Buyers: Don't Judge Super Bowl Numbers by Playoff Declines
By John Consoli -- Broadcasting & Cable, 1/25/2013 2:08:03 PM
"I think it doesn't bode well for another record Super Bowl audience; nothing lasts forever," says Brad Adgate, senior VP and director of research at Horizon Media.
But Sean McManus, CBS Sports chairman, believes the Super Bowl isn't any other game; it's an event that each year has multiple story lines that help bring in the massive audience beyond just the avid fans tuning in to watch their team. This year, he expects, won't be any different.
"The playoff ratings will have no effect at all on the Super Bowl," McManus says. "We'll get a large base audience and more tune-in because of the story line of the Harbaugh brothers. [For those who somehow haven't heard: Jim is head coach of the NFC champ San Francisco 49ers and John is head coach of the AFC's Baltimore Ravens.] Whether the audience stays the entire game will be determined by how close the score is. The last several Super Bowls have been close games. If the action is as good as it's been the past few years, we'll be in for a good day. If it's a blowout, fans will leave."
Despite the debate created by the regular- and postseason ratings declines so far, there are many reasons to believe the Super Bowl will still draw another record audience.
First, regular season TV ratings for the NFL were not down that much when looking at the large number of viewers and overall 18-49 ratings. Nielsen data shows NFL viewership on NBC (an average 21.4 million per telecast) and on Fox (19.8 million) was down only 1% for each network. NBC's 8.2 18-49 demo rating was down only 2% while Fox's 7.0 was down 4%. CBS' viewership (17.7 million) was down 4% and its 6.1 demo rating was down 7%. On cable, ESPN's viewership (12.8 million) was down 3% and its 18-49 demo rating (5.1) was down 6%. The percentages of decline were not that significant, media buyers say, when looking at the number of viewers per telecast each network drew throughout the season.
A look at cumulative regular season ratings for the five TV rights-holders, including NFL Network, shows that viewership was down 5% and 18-49 ratings were down 6%.
Media buyers still believe in the NFL as prime content for their clients and realize that ratings can't keep going up forever.
"Sports in general is still the safest bet on television," says Dave Campanelli, senior VP and director of national television at Horizon Media. "Viewership will trend up or down slightly from year to year but sports as a whole delivers consistent, strong ratings week-to-week and year-to-year. The NFL is a prime example of that and it's not going to change anytime soon. Even if viewership declines a bit, it won't diminish its value as an ad property."
Kevin Collins, senior VP, director of national broadcast at Initiative, adds, "The Super Bowl is the No. 1 sporting event on television. It's actually the No. 1 event on television each year. It's more than a game. It's an event that cuts across sports and pop culture. Is this year's game the ideal matchup or would it have been better if it were San Francisco vs. New England with [Patriots quarterback] Tom Brady? But Ray Lewis [the Ravens future Hall of Fame linebacker, who is retiring after the Super Bowl] is a good story. CBS will promote the game on all of its primetime shows, which get big audiences. Plus, it's one of the only telecasts where almost every viewer watches the commercials."
Why do media buyers believe the more recent playoff ratings fall-off from last season will not negatively impact Super Bowl viewership?
"It's impossible to say why specifically playoff ratings were down," Campanelli says. "It could be a lot of different factors. Having no New York team in the playoffs definitely didn't help, but historically, NFL playoffs have been pretty immune to that. Some of it could have been due to Patriots fatigue and having the same two teams in the AFC championship game as last year probably didn't help ratings either. And Atlanta [which lost to San Francisco in the NFC Championship game] isn't a team with a strong national following. However, while ratings were off, viewership was still substantial."
Initiative's Collins also points out that last year's NFC championship game between the New York Giants and the 49ers went into overtime, not only keeping audience throughout the game but drawing new viewers as time went on.
"This year's NFC championship game seemed to be a blowout early and a lot of viewers could have tuned out," Collins adds.
Even if Super Bowl viewership is down a bit, Campanelli says, "For me, that's no concern. There is still nothing like it as a TV event for many, many reasons."
If viewership is down, are buyers who paid in the $4 million range per 30-second commercial unit protected with ratings guarantees? Insiders at CBS say the network did not offer ratings guarantees for the Super Bowl telecast, which was confirmed by a number of media buyers who did not want to speak for attribution for this story.
In general, buyers say that while the price of a Super Bowl spot is steep, reaching an audience of more than 100 million means getting pretty solid mass reach for their clients. If viewership does not reach the 111.3 million it did for last year's Super Bowl, and happens to decline by a few million, it's not going to really matter.
One buyer says "a 2% decline won't matter much, but if it's a 10% decline then you may see some agencies trying to get CBS to give them back something. In that case, if it is an advertiser who bought only one unit, the network will probably do nothing. But if it is a blue chip advertiser with several units in the game and who advertises every year, then I'd bet that CBS would be more accommodating to find a way to compensate or appease that advertiser. From a relationship point of view, I would think CBS would not want to alienate its major advertisers."
Adds another buyer, "I'd find it hard to believe that multi-unit advertisers like Anheuser-Busch or Pepsi wouldn't get some ratings protection."
Where would buyers want make-goods from CBS? Some said in the NCAA Men's Basketball Championship tournament telecasts, while others said perhaps in next season's regular NFL telecasts.
CBS did not want to comment on its Super Bowl ad sales policy.
Although it hasn't happened for seven years, a decline in Super Bowl ratings would not be an anomaly. Among the previous 46 Super Bowl telecasts, ratings have gone down from year-to-year 12 times. According to Nielsen Media Research data, the last decline came in the 2005 Super Bowl on Fox between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Patriots. That game drew 86 million viewers, 3.7 million fewer than the 2004 Super Bowl between the Carolina Panthers and the Patriots. But you can't blame the market size in that one: Philadelphia is a larger market than any city in North Carolina.
The most viewers a Super Bowl lost year-to-year was in 1981 when the Philadelphia Eagles vs. Oakland Raiders drew 68.2 million, a decline of eight million from the 1980 Super Bowl when the Los Angeles Rams vs. Pittsburgh Steelers game drew 76.2 million viewers. A decline of eight million for this year's Super Bowl would knock down viewership to about 103 million -- which is still a huge chunk of audience.
If viewership were to go down, would that mean a decrease in the cost per 30 charged by Fox for next year's Super Bowl commercials?
"I doubt it, unless there is a huge drop-off," says one media buyer. "And even then, you're more likely to see a leveling off of pricing, or a smaller uptick in unit cost rather than a decline."
Initiative's Collins adds, "as long as the demand is there, prices will continue to go up. If a network knows it can sell out the Super Bowl, it is never going to cut back on pricing."
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