If network prime-time ratings continue the downward trend of the first three weeks of the season, advertising make-goods for the fourth quarter could easily surpass $60 million -- the make-good total estimated for the year-ago period.
If the trend doesn’t reverse itself, the full-season total might reach $200 million-$300 million.
Ad buyers acknowledged that those are big ifs because it is early in the season and trends for the core schedules are being disrupted by huge ratings for the Major League Baseball postseason. Add sweeps stunting and normal viewing patterns may not be apparent until late November or early December.
Still, buyers found the early ratings returns troubling and are monitoring the situation closely. Despite the concern, several buyers stressed that it’s still early and the networks will likely make moves in the next few months that could stem the erosion.
For the first three weeks of the season, the six-network rating for adults 18-49 is down 7%, and for adults 25-54 down 5%. It’s even worse for adults 18-34, which is down 9%.
Buyers and sellers stressed that the networks always factor in a level of audience erosion when calculating delivery guarantees in the upfront market.
As for which networks seem to be at greatest risk, the tables are turned from a year ago, when Fox was in the worst shape on make-goods, having to replace about $50 million in spots for the fourth quarter. With baseball working this year, ratings are up, and the network has no make-good shortfall so far.
ABC, which dropped sharply in the ratings last season, is holding steady among both the adults 18-49 and 25-54 categories.
Among the "Big Four" networks, NBC and CBS appear more at risk from a make-good standpoint. Both networks said that so far, make-goods are in line with expectations and planned-for make-good spots are being issued as underdeliveries occur.
Throughout the week, NBC is down 12% among its core demo, adults 18-49. CBS is down 8% among its core 25-54s and 14% among adults 18-49, which it also sells to a lot of advertisers. NBC is down 10% among adults 25-54.
But NBC’s biggest problem is Thursday night, its biggest revenue producer, which is down 21% in rating among adults 18-49 versus a year ago. Underdelivery on Thursday causes problems, especially on ads promoting new movies.
CBS is down on Thursday, as well -- 12% in 18-49 and 7% among 25-54 -- although not nearly as much as NBC. It has a bigger shortfall on Monday night, where it’s down 17% in 25-54 and 19% in 18-49.
UPN and The WB Television Network also have their ratings issues. Both are down sharply in their core 18-34 audience. The WB is down 20% for the first three weeks of the season, UPN, 16%.
The CBS spokesman said that for now, UPN, like CBS, is handling make-goods with spots tucked away for that purpose and hasn’t issued any more than planned.