TV Ad Prices: Football, ‘Empire,’ ‘Walking Dead,’ ‘Big Bang Theory’ Top The List

Empire Season Finale TV Review
Courtesy of Fox

Football is having a tougher time scoring a touchdown with advertisers.

Pigskin perennials like NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” and ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” have long commanded some of TV’s highest ad prices, and continue to do so today. But those programs’ ability to secure more money for commercials that accompany their content is being squeezed by a growing horde of flesh-eating zombies and a contentious group of music moguls.

Of TV’s three primetime football programs, only one –“Sunday Night Football” – was able to command higher ad prices from sponsors compared with a year ago, according to a Variety analysis of primetime ad costs for the 2015-2016 season. And in the case of the increase, the hike was meager: The average price for a 30-second spot in “Sunday Night Football” rose just 2.2%, according to Variety’s study, which is put together using estimates from as many as six different media-buying agencies as well as other sources. Meantime, the average price of a 30-second ad in ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” fell 2.44% and the average price of a 30-second spot in CBS’ “Thursday Night Football” dipped 6.1%.

Some of TV’s best-watched scripted programs showed more power in the marketplace. Fox’s “Empire,” which just launched its sophomore season after breaking out as a hit in its freshman run, saw its average ad price soar a whopping 277.6% over last season’s according to the Variety study. The average price of a package of commercials sold in multiple airings of AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” meanwhile, rose 21.5%. Last season, the horror serial gave Sunday football a run for the massive ratings it normally generates.

The ad prices are meant to be taken as directional figures, not industry gospel. The cost of a TV ad can vary according to many factors, including the relationship between the advertiser and the network and the amount an advertiser spends overall with a particular outlet. The Variety numbers are based on deals made during TV’s “upfront” market, when advertiser buy commercial inventory in advance. They may be quite different in TV’s “scatter” market, when inventory is purchased much closer to the ads’ actual air date.

Below, a list of TV’s 25 most expensive programs for advertisers, with year-to-year comparisons:

TV’s Priciest Shows

  • “Sunday Night Football” (NBC, Sunday): 2015: $637,330 2014: $623,445 +2.2%
  • “Empire” (Fox, Wednesday): 2015: $521,794 2014: $138,200 +277.6%
  • “The Walking Dead”* (AMC, Sunday): 2015: $502,500 $2014: $413,695 +21.5%
  • “Thursday Night Football” (CBS, Thursday) 2015: $462,622 2014: $492,000 -6.1%
  • “Fear The Walking Dead”* (AMC, Sunday) 2015: $395,000 2014: N/A
  • “Monday Night Football” (ESPN, Monday) 2015: $388,176 2014: $397,898 -2.44%
  • “The Big Bang Theory (CBS, Monday) 2015: $289,621 2014: $327,885 -11.7%
  • “The Big Bang Theory” (CBS, Thursday) 2015: $266,163 2014: $322,891 -17.6%
  • “Modern Family” (ABC, Wednesday) 2015: 236,296 2014: $226,935 +4.1%
  • “The Voice” (NBC, Monday) 2015: 234,371 2014: $262,041 -10.6%
  • “How To Get Away With Murder” (ABC, Thursday) 2015: $229.794 2015:$164,938 +39.3%
  • “The Voice” (NBC, Tuesday) 2015: $219,461 2014: $254,485 -13.8%
  • “Scandal” (ABC, Thursday) 2015: $207,255 2014: $217,423 -4.6%
  • “Better Call Saul”* (AMC, Monday) 2016: $200,000 2015: N/A
  • “The X-Files” (Fox, Monday) 2016: $195,893 2015: N/A
  • “Blindspot” (NBC, Monday) 2015: $190,216 2014: N/A
  • “The Blacklist” (NBC, Thursday) 2015: $180,618 2014: $200,166 -9.6%
  • “The Catch” (ABC, Thursday) 2016: $167,566 2015: N/A
  • “Life In Pieces” (CBS, Monday) 2015: $163,377 2014 N/A
  • “Grey’s Anatomy” (ABC, Thursday) 2015: $160,415 2014: $159,411 +1.27%
  • “Once Upon A Time” (ABC, Sunday) 2015: $159,160 2014: $145,582 +9.33%
  • “Gotham” (Fox, Monday) 2015:$158,547 2014: $192,111 -17.5%
  • “Supergirl” (CBS, Monday) 2015: $157,592 2014: N/A
  • “black-ish” (ABC. Wednesday) 2015:$155,928 2014: $131,160 +18.9%
  • “The Simpsons” (Fox, Sunday) 2015: $155,727 2014: $205,885 -24.4%

*Price is for a package of ads that run across multiple airings of an episode

Source: A Variety survey of estimates from as many as six media-buying agencies and other sources

To be sure, “Sunday Night Football” remains the most expensive program on TV for advertisers, commanding an average of $637,330 for a 30-second spot. But its ability to gain more from Madison Avenue remains in doubt. Last season, the average price of a 30-second ad in the show fell 0.8% to $623,425. NFL content has long been the TV-industry equivalent of a sure thing: Viewers tune into the games live, and must watch the ads along with the show rather than skipping past them with a DVR. Yet there’s only so much anyone can pay for any TV program and CBS’ move to bring NFL games to Thursday night last season may have saturated the market. The NFL has also come under more scrutiny, thanks to incidents involving its players behavior and questions about the toll playing the game takes on athletes.

Football, however, will likely remain at the top of the list. The momentum behind scripted fare tends to come and go. The average cost of a 30-second ad in CBS’ “Thursday Night Football” came to $462,622, making it the fourth most-expensive program for commercials this season. ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” commanded an average of $388,176, giving it the No. 6 spot in Variety’s rankings. Fox’s Sunday-evening post-game program, “The OT” commands an average of $303,200, but it is not counted on the lists because it is not a regularly scheduled primetime program.

All the prices were likely affected by TV’s tough advertising market. With Madison Avenue attracted to new venues such as mobile devices and streaming video, TV’s ability to command outsize prices has been under duress. The five English-language broadcast secured between $8.02 billion and $8.69 billion for their primetime entertainment schedules in the recently completed “upfront” market, according to Variety estimates, compared with between $8.17 billion and $8.94 billion for the 2014-15 season.

Fox’s “Empire” mustered the biggest surge among the chart-toppers. The average cost of a 30-second ad in the hip-hop drama is now $521,794, according to Variety. It is the first time in many years that a scripted primetime series has bested live sports content and the reality-competition “American Idol” in terms of pricing. In a marked departure from previous years, prices for “Idol” have fallen so much in the last few TV seasons that the program is no longer of TV’s most expensive for sponsors (more on that later).

The creatures of “The Walking Dead” continue to feast on ad revenue. The average cost of a package in the drama comes to $502,500 this season, making it the third most-expensive program for advertisers. The cost of a package of ads in the new AMC spin-off series “Fear the Walking Dead,” meantime, came to around $395,000. Inclusion of the programs comes with caveats, because it raises an apples-to-oranges comparison: a package of commercials featured in multiple airings on cable to a single 30-second slot on broadcast.

CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory” also fetches a nice price, though less of one than it did in the past. The Monday airing of the program, which takes place while CBS broadcasts football on Thursdays, commands an average price of $289,621, an 11.7% decline from last season. The Thursday airing of the comedy commands an average price of $266,163, marking a tumble of 17.6% from the year before.

ABC’s “Modern Family” and the Monday broadcast of NBC’s “The Voice” round out the list of TV’s ten most expensive programs for advertisers. The average price of a 30-second spot on “Modern Family” comes to $236,296, a rise of 4.1% over last season. The Monday “Voice” broadcast commands an average of $234,371 for a 30-second ad, a dip of 17.6% from last season’s pricing.

The most expensive freshman program for marketers is Fox’s revival of “The X-Files,” slated to air in the second half of the season. The average cost of a 30-second ad in the series comes to $195,893. NBC’s “Blindspot,” which commands an average of $190,216 for a 30-second commercial, is next on the freshman list, followed by “The Catch,” an ABC drama supervised by hot producer Shonda Rhimes. That program commands an average of $167,566 for a 30-second ad.

Other shows are showing big pricing gains this season. ABC’s Thursday-night drama, “How To Get Away With Murder” this season commands an average of $229,794 for a 30-second ad, a 39.3% hike over last year. And ABC’s Wednesday-night comedy, “black-ish,” commands an average of $155,928 for a 30-second spot, an 18.9% rise over the price it notched in its freshman outing.

Some programs are losing their marketplace heft. “The Blacklist,” which last year was one of TV’s ten most expensive programs for sponsors, saw its average ad price decline 9.8% this season to $180,618. Fox’s “Gotham” last year was the second most-expensive freshman program, behind the now-defunct “State of Affairs.” Its average ad price has fallen 17.5% season over season.  Some programs, like Fox’s “Family Guy” and “Sleepy Hollow,” have fallen off the list of top shows entirely, along with ABC’s Saturday broadcasts of college football.

And then there’s the curious case of “American Idol.” The popular competition program enjoyed a long reign as one of TV’s most costly programs for sponsors, reflecting its broad appeal and historic place in popular culture. Even in its late-era decline, the show has managed to hold on. Last season, both the Wednesday and Thursday night broadcasts on Fox ranked among TV’s ten most expensive programs.

In 2015, however, the show’s age is obvious. The Wednesday-night broadcast will command an average of $151,245 for a 30-second spot, a stunning 43% decline from the $266,333 it garnered last season. The Thursday-night broadcast, meanwhile, stands to attract an average of $134,247, representing a drop of around 46%. Fox has already revealed that the show’s coming 2016 run will be its last.

Below, a night-by-night rundown of prices for broadcast programs scheduled to air this season in fall or midseason slots:

7PM: America’s Funniest Home Videos $56,581
8PM: Once Upon A Time $159,160
8PM: Galavant $112,914 (midseason)
9PM: Blood and Oil $132,881
10PM: Quantico $139,330
10PM: The Family $99,217
7P: 60 Minutes $112,958
8P: Madam Secretary $88,737
9P: The Good Wife $92,752
10P: CSI: Cyber $79,185
7P: The OT $303,200
730PM: Bob’s Burgers $66,072
8PM: The Simpsons $155,727
830PM Brooklyn Nine-Nine $122,008
9PM: Family Guy $143,490
930P: Last Man on Earth $113,485
Bordertown: $85,806 (midseason)
8PM: Football Night in America $135,716
8:30PM: Sunday Night Football $637,330
7PM: Dateline Sunday $29,000 (midseason)
8PM: NBC Sunday Movie $19,000 (midseason)
8PM: Celebrity Apprentice $80,062 (midseason)
8PM: Dancing with the Stars $121,400
The Bachelor $114,000 (midseason)
10PM: Castle $118,195
8PM: The Big Bang Theory (until November) $289,621
830PM: Life in Pieces (until November) $163,377
8PM: Supergirl (November) $157,592
9PM: Scorpion $133,791
10PM: NCIS: Los Angeles $106,121
8PM: Gotham $158,547
9PM: Minority Report $149,870
9PM: X Files $195,893 (midseason)
Lucifer $87,390 (midseason)
8PM: The Voice $234,371
8PM: Biggest Loser $90,000 (midseason)
10PM: Blindspot $190,216
8PM: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend $24,927
9PM: Jane the Virgin $25,871
8PM: The Muppets $131,446
830PM: Fresh Off The Boat $122,212
8:30PM: The Real O’Neals $80,690 (midseason)
9PM: Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD $132,552
9PM: Marvel’s Agent Carter $135,093 (midseason)
10PM: Wicked City $107,588 (midseason)
8PM: NCIS $145,083
9PM: NCIS: New Orleans $117,752
10PM: Limitless $109,434
8PM: Grandfathered $109,935
830PM: The Grinder $107,368
9PM: Scream Queens $144,560
9PM: New Girl $150,913 (midseason)
930PM: Guide To Surviving Life $89,355 (midseason)
8PM: The Voice $219,461
9PM: Heartbreaker $94,485
10PM: Best Time Ever $98,296
10PM: Chicago Med $109,846
10PM: Chicago Fire $141,925
8PM: The Flash $68,501
9PM: I Zombie $34,805
8PM: The Middle $134,872
830PM: The Goldbergs $135,226
9PM: Modern Family $236,296
930PM: Black-ish $155,928
10PM: Nashville $92,965
10PM: Secrets and Lies $101,882 (midseason)
8PM: Survivor $121,952
9PM: Criminal Minds $129,945
10PM: Code Black $125,715
8PM: Rosewood $89,835
9PM: Empire $521,794
American Idol $151,245 (midseason)
Lookinglass $115,762 (midseason)
8PM: Mysteries of Laura $68,585
9PM: Law & Order: SVU $85,553
10PM: Chicago P.D. $119,065
8PM: Arrow $53,285
9PM: Supernatural $38,293
8PM: Grey’s Anatomy $160,415
9PM: Scandal $207,355
10PM: How to Get Away with Murder $229,794
The Catch $167,566 (midseason)
8P Thursday Night Football (through November) $462,622
8PM: The Big Bang Theory $266,163
830PM: Life in Pieces $142,812
9PM: Mom $123,966
930PM: Angel From Hell $119,138
10PM: Elementary $101,651
8PM: Bones $92,183
9PM: Sleepy Hollow $121,733
8PM: American Idol $134,247 (midseason)
8PM: Heroes Reborn $128,321
8PM: You, Me and the End of the World $63,000 (midseason)
9PM: The Blacklist $180,618
10PM: The Player $104,305
8PM: The Vampire Diaries $45,019
9PM: The Originals $31,492
8PM: Last Man Standing $64,881
830PM: Dr. Ken $63,434
830PM: Uncle Buck $75,000 (midseason)
9PM: Shark Tank $102,047
10PM: 20/20 $62,565
8PM: The Amazing Race $66,841
9PM: Hawaii Five-0 $75,187
10PM: Blue Bloods $72,477
8PM: Masterchef Junior $97,451
8PM: Sleepy Hollow $55,427
9PM: World’s Funniest Fails $43,587
9PM: Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader $77,634 (midseason)
8PM: Undateable $47,937
830PM: Truth Be Told $83,099
9PM: Grimm $100,713
10PM: Dateline NBC $48,236
8PM: Reign $19,521
9PM: America’s Next Top Model $17,267
8PM: ABC’s Saturday Night College Football $104,290
8PM: Saturday Night Movie $27,500 (midseason)
8PM: Crimetime Saturday $17,241
9PM: Crimetime Saturday $18,786
10PM: 48 Hours $32,351
8PM: Fox Saturday Night College Football $84,000
8PM: Reruns $15,625
9PM: Reruns $15,625
8PM: Repeats $28,000
8PM: Saturday Dateline Mysteries $44,500
9PM: Repeats 28,000
10PM: SNL Vintage $28,673