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Madison Avenue Pushes Back On Price For TV’s Live ‘Wiz,’ ‘Grease’

Whipped cream is known to be sumptuous, but its taste might seem a tad bittersweet for NBC.

When the Peacock airs its much-anticipated live telecast of “The Wiz” this Thursday, it will also launch a video segment paid for by ConAgra Foods’ Reddi-wip whipped topping. In the vignette, students from the musical arts program at Excel Academy Public Charter School in Hyattsville, Md., will put on a performance inspired by the popular musical, and will take a crack at a ‘Wiz’ tune that appeared in the segment that precedes their appearance. ConAgra will gain some traction in a program, however, that had been dominated by Walmart for the past two years, and chances are likely the food marketer was able to secure the promotion for a better unit price than might have been available last year.

Madison Avenue is battling the costs of advertising in TV’s efforts to transform Broadway perennials into live spectaculars. The prices remain among TV’s highest, but have fallen, according to estimates from media buyers. The cost of a 30-second ad in NBC’s 2014 broadcast of “Peter Pan Live!” was said to have come to between $345,000 and $400,000. In 2015, however, the prices are lower: A 30-second spot in “The Wiz” can be had for between $330,000 and $350,000 according to buyers, with the cost of a 30-second ad in Fox’s January program is said to be going for between $300,000 and $320,000.

Ads in the broadcast are sold out, said Dan Lovinger, an executive vice president at NBCUniversal who oversees ad sales at NBC and USA. “We have seen double-digit increases on the CPM growth side,” he said, referring to a measure of the cost of reaching 1,000 viewers, a common metric used by TV networks and advertisers in talks over commercial costs.  Walmart and NBC decided to part ways “by mutual agreement,” he said, as the network wanted to work with a broader array of retailers. As a result, Reddi-wip will appear in far fewer ad breaks than Walmart did.

“The Wiz” and other programs like it represent broadcast television’s attempt to continue to harness the big audiences advertisers expect it to deliver. In recent years, some of that has been found in live “spectaculars” that give viewers a glimpse of something they do not see every day, whether it be actress Allison Williams trying to recreate the role of Peter Pan from the Broadway musical of the same name or daredevil Nik Wallenda traversing a high wire above the city of Chicago on Discovery. In recent weeks, viewers have even been allowed to witness a live exorcism, on Destination America, and live brain surgery, on National Geographic.

Much of the interest in these projects was spurred by NBC’s 2013 telecast of “The Sound of Music,”which started Carried Underwood in the main role. That broadcast snared around 18.5 million live viewers, but last year’s “Peter Pan” captured around 9.2 million, and that slip has taken some of the air out of the ad costs associated with NBC’s broadcasts.

“The huge ratings for ‘The Sound of Music’ took everyone by surprise, and its success propelled more live Broadway projects to abound, but when ‘Peter Pan’ aired and didn’t perform nearly as well, I think expectations and future ratings projections were lowered a bit,” said Billie Gold vice president and director of programming research for Amplifi U.S., a media-buying entity that is part of Japan’s Dentsu. She doubts “The Wiz” or “Grease” will equal “Music’s” reach, “since it was something new and special at the time.”

To be sure, the price tag is nothing to sneeze at. At $340,000 a 30-second spot in NBC’s “Wiz” would cost more than in every scripted program on TV except Fox’s “Empire” or AMC’s “Walking Dead” programs, according to Variety’s annual survey of primetime ad prices.

NBC expects to continue to push forward on this type of program. “These shows are not done easily. They require huge commitments creatively and financially. NBC has taken that leap for three straight years and will continue to take that leap. We know that it’s important to viewers and to our advertisers,” Lovinger said. “I hope we’ll get a little bit of credit for the innovation as we continue to try and do more of these event-oriented projects.”

The original “Wiz” is adapted from “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” by L. Frank Baum, with a book by William F. Brown, and music and lyrics by Charlie Smalls. The production opened on Broadway in 1975 at the Majestic Theatre and won seven Tonys, including best musical. “Wiz Live!” stars Queen Latifah, Mary J. Blige, Shanice Williams, David Alan Grier , NE-YO, Elijah Kelley, Amber Riley, Stephanie Mills,Uzo Aduba and Common. It is executive produced by Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, who led NBC’s past two live Broadway projects, and includes new written material by Harvey Fierstein.


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