Mad Ave’s firm grasp on reality

Rates for 'Survivor,' 'American Idol' best scripted fare

NEW YORK — There’s a new crown prince on Madison Ave. — the one-time pauper known as reality TV.

For all the talk of sitcoms ruling supreme when it comes to broadcast network ad rates, a look at the actual ad rate numbers proves a fairy tale come true for the reality genre.

CBS’ “Survivor” franchise is no ordinary survivor; it’s a bonafide treasure island, even catching up with NBC’s “Friends” this spring, long the most expensive show to advertise in on TV. As the upfronts approach, reality will be treated with new respect by buyers.

An average 30-sec spot on “Survivor: All Stars” cost advertisers $405,000, while a 30-sec spot on “Friends” cost $372,000, according to research provided by Nielsen Media Research Monitor-Plus for Sept. 1, 2003 through Feb. 29.

On its own net, “Survivor” is beating out hit sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond,” which commands a rate of $324,000 for a 30-second ad, as well as hit drama “CSI,” which brings in a rate of $317,000.

NBC has its own runaway reality hit this season, “The Apprentice.”

According to Nielsen Monitor-Plus, show has been commanding $237,000 for an average 30-sec spot, nearly as much as NBC’s “Law & Order,” which commands $246,000.

“These are breakthrough programs. If you go back in time and look at the sitcom genre, you’d be talking about ‘Cosby,’ ” says Bill Carroll of Katz Media.

Veteran media buyer Bob Flood says there’s no doubt that advertisers crinkled up their noses at the first reality shows — think MTV’s “Real World” — because they felt the content was questionable.

That has steadily changed as new styles stretched the boundaries of the category and audiences grew.

“There’s a greater sense of comfort regarding the genre,” says Flood, who is exec VP of national electronic media for Optimedia. “These shows are delivering large audiences while others are dwindling year by year. Television is very much a supply-and-demand marketplace.”

With a clutch of reality shows likely to command A-tier rates, the broadcast nets could take in a record $10 billion by the end of May upfront selling window, up from $9.3 billion last year. Nets are predicting a collective increase of 8-10% from 2003.

Not only is reality the toast of the town; it’s also relatively cheaper to produce and quicker to develop than traditional sitcoms or dramas. For the webheads, reality doesn’t get any sweeter than that.

A CBS exec says the days of Madison Ave. reacting skeptically to reality are clearly a thing of the past. Consider this: media buyers are expected to shell out upwards of $490,000 for a 30-second spot on the season finale of “Survivor: All Stars” next month.

While CBS and NBC continue to have substantial scripted strength to draw from as well, reality has virtually saved Fox and ABC this season in terms of ad rates.

Fox has been commanding a $418,000 for a 30-sec spot on “American Idol,” almost four times as much as the same spot costs on the net’s other hit, the nighttime soap “The O.C.” ($138,000).

That makes reality the prize of Fox’s sked in terms of ad dollars, much in the same way “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” are the rare bright spots on ABC’s sked.

According to the research supplied by Nielsen Monitor-Plus for Sept.-Feb., an average 30-sec spot on “Bachelor” cost $236,000 this season; “Bachelorette,” $205,000. A 30-sec spot on ABC sitcom “8 Simple Rules” cost $147,000 this season.

There is nothing more telling about reality’s standing on Madison Ave. than NBC’s decision to make up for the loss of “Friends” next season with a new round of “The Apprentice.”

Everyone — including the Peacock — expected the new Thursday night anchor to be a sitcom, such as the upcoming “Friends” spin-off “Joey.”

The Peacock prides its standing on Madison Ave., insisting it delivers not only the youngest aud, but the most upscale. And by putting forth “Apprentice” as a palatable replacement for “Friends,” NBC is confident that reality can be every bit as sophisticated as a scripted show.

“Does this say anything? Sure. It shows that reality isn’t some bottom-feeder kind of program. Not that it ever was, but there was that myth,” says Garnett Losak, VP and director of programming for Petry Media, which reps hundreds of local TV stations.

“If ever there was a misconception that reality programming was viewed primarily by a downscale audience, ‘The Apprentice’ answers that question. From what I understand, it is the most upscale program on television right now,” Losak says.

Madison Ave. is guessing that the Peacock will get higher ad rates for Trump’s reality show the second time out, just as “Survivor” and “American Idol” prices have steadily climbed with each successive installment.

Media buyers stress the fact that a key reason why reality is thriving is its ability to take on different themes, giving advertisers more opportunity.

“Reality is a genre that is here to stay, proven by the fact that it’s self-segmenting itself. We don’t just have reality –we have competition, lifestyle, dating,” said media buyer Katherine Thomas of Starcom in Chicago.

The coming year is set to bring further subsets, including NBC’s “The Contender,” the Mark Burnett/DreamWorks boxing reality series. ABC has “Wife Swap,” which will follow the travails of different families trading mothers.

For media buyers, one unique draw of reality TV has been product integration. Such has been the case since “Survivor” came on the scene.

“The whole advent of reality was what made the broadcast nets finally adopt product integration, from every standpoint,” Flood says. “The more vested all parties are, the more likely it is going to succeed from all vantage points.”

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