TV’s most memorable and most-watched commercials will no longer be relegated to the TV set.
For nearly half a century, the only way for the average consumer to see all the glitzy commercials that accompanied the Super Bowl was to watch a broadcast of the game on television. In 2016 CBS intends to shake things up by live-streaming — in as close to real-time as possible — every single national ad that supports its February 7, 2016, telecast of Super Bowl 50. The maneuver is one that could have seismic ramifications for the media business, as it essentially forces the event’s big-spending sponsors to consider online impressions and TV ratings at the same time, not separately, as has been common practice.
Details of CBS’ plan have been making the rounds of media-buying agencies, according to two executives with knowledge of the offer as well as another person familiar with the situation. “It’s a huge deal,” said one buyer. “They are not going to let people opt out” of live-streaming. CBS did not make executives available for comment.
Some Super Bowl ads have been available on live-streams of the game in the past. But the TV broadcast and the stream are typically not sold together in such a bold fashion. Advertisers never had to buy both. In recent years, viewers of a live-stream of the Super Bowl would often see a handful of the same ads being broadcast on TV, but not the majority of them. In some cases, fans might see the same ad multiple times. In NBC’s live-stream of Super Bowl XLIX this year, for example, just 18 of more than 70 Super Bowl advertisers chose to put their commercials online.
The move represents “a significant industry admission that the manner by which viewers are watching TV — or better, ‘consuming video’ — has, effectively, migrated to a variety of screen environments beyond the confines of just the TV set,” said Tim Hanlon, a longtime student of the future of TV advertising and founder and chief executive of Vertere Group, a Chicago-based media-industry consultant. “Given that splintering of viewing behavior, why wouldn’t advertisers demand that the presenting broadcaster ensure that their expensive and heavily promoted ads are seen across every viewing environment by which the game is being watched?”
CBS has pressed for a price increase for Super Bowl commercials, according to executives familiar with negotiations. The buying executives suggested the network wanted at least $4.5 million to $4.7 million for a 30-second spot in the game, while another person with knowledge of talks suggested that range represented the low end of what is being discussed with sponsors. In comments made to investors and analysts in February, CBS Corp. CEO Leslie Moonves said the network wanted “north of $5 million” for a 30-second Super Bowl spot.
NBC in 2015 sought between $4.4 million and $4.5 million for the same amount of time, meaning that CBS is seeking yet another record ad price for the game.
One buying executive estimated the network had about 20 to 25 30-second spots left for sale, but the person with knowledge of talks suggested the number of ads available was less.
Among the advertisers expected to return to the game are Anheuser-Busch InBev, PepsiCo and Fiat Chrysler. “We know viewers look forward to our iconic ads, and Anheuser-Busch will indeed return for Super Bowl 50 as exclusive category advertiser,” said Jorn Socquet, vice president of marketing at Anheuser-Busch. PepsiCo will again sponsor the Super Bowl halftime show, a spokeswoman for the company said. A Fiat Chrysler spokeswoman declined to comment. Movie studios, automakers and consumer-technology companies are also showing interest in the event, according to executives.
With more couch potatoes unhitching themselves from their favorite piece of furniture to watch video with mobile devices, and with others viewing well-loved series days after they air with the use of a digital video recorder, CBS’ effort could have the unintended effect of striking a blow for the media industry. At present, advertisers use Nielsen ratings of TV broadcasts to determine how much to pay for TV commercials, while relying on other measures to determine what to pay for video streams, social-media extensions and other digital viewership. The result has been that TV networks do not feel as if they are paid appropriately for audiences using nontraditional means to watch TV.
In February, for example, NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke told investors of parent company Comcast that 70% of the views of NBC’s “Tonight Show Srarring Jimmy Fallon” occur online and cannot be monetized. “So here you have one of the hottest shows on television where 70% of the views are in an area that we don’t get credit for it,” Burke said. “That’s not going last forever.”
Placing the Super Bowl ads on TV and online at almost the same moment — one buyer suggested there could be a delay of 20 seconds to 30 seconds between the Super Bowl broadcast and its stream — would yoke the two video-distribution methods together more tightly at a critical time. Many of the biggest companies in the media sector are seeking ways to gain more revenue for content based on a broader number of impressions — not just what is collected by old-school TV viewing.
The National Football League could also stand to benefit from CBS’ plan. In recent months the league has experimented with digital distribution of game clips — and more. A pact with Facebook relies on the posting of short video clips on the social-networking site, which are sponsored by Verizon Wireless. Verizon and McDonald’s support the posting of game highlights on Twitter. Yahoo has gained the rights for something even bolder: the first free global live-stream of a regular season match-up between the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Buffalo Bills, slated to be played in London on October 25.
If advertisers accept TV commercials and streaming ones as something be either interchangeable or complementary, it could help digital broadcasts gain more traction. An NFL spokesman did not respond to an email seeking comment.
The Super Bowl webcasts lure a smaller audience than the TV broadcast, but their numbers have grown. NBC’s live-stream of Super Bowl XLIX this year produced 2.5 million unique viewers, up 9% from Fox’s live-stream of Super Bowl XLVIII in 2014 and 19% more than NBC’s live-stream in 2012, which marked the first time the event was made available in such a fashion. That webcast attracted 2.1 million unique users.
Despite the growing numbers, the TV broadcast has only increased in stature, abetted, perhaps, by the social-media whirlwind that swirls around truly big-audience happenings. NBC’s 2015 broadcast won an average audience of 114.4 million, making it the most-watched broadcast in TV history. Indeed, since 2009, every Super Bowl broadcast has notched more viewers than the one before it, except for CBS’ 2013 telecast, which was disrupted by a power outage at the Superdome in New Orleans that lasted more than half an hour.
Madison Avenue’s interest in the event — perhaps the last true mass-audience property on TV — has come under scrutiny in recent months. NBC raised eyebrows last year when it sought an eye-popping $4.5 million per 30-second ad, but then also required a match of a similar amount for other NBCUniversal ad inventory. Several staunch Super Bowl sponsors opted to retreat from the game, forcing NBC to rely on a larger-than-usual number of rookie clients. NBC did not sell out its Super Bowl broadcast until just days before the event took place — the longest it has taken a network to stock the advertising roster of the Big Game in several years. Fox took a similar approach for the previous game, seeking a big match for ads placed on Fox Sports 1, which had just launched in 2013.
For advertisers, the move would only accelerate a trend that began in 2011. With a week to go before the broadcast of Super Bowl XLV on Fox, Volkswagen decided to put its Super Bowl spot — a winning commercial featuring a young boy dressed in a Darth Vader costume — on YouTube the week before it was supposed to debut in the Super Bowl. The 60-second video generated social-media chatter and millions of views, prompting consumers to zero in on the commercial, created by the Deutsch agency, when it finally appeared in shorter form on TV.
Since that time, most advertisers tease their Super Bowl ads digitally in advance of the in-game appearance. Holding the ad back until it actually appears in the pigskin classic, once the norm, is no longer really the practice.