TV Ad Prices: Football Hikes, ‘This Is Us’ Soars, ‘Walking Dead’ Stumbles, ‘Empire’ Falls

Sunday Night Football Ratings
Andy Clayton-King/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Despite ratings issues, Madison Avenue seems more than ready for some football.

An audience distracted by the 2016 presidential election and turned off, perhaps, by the absence of star NFL players and better match-ups migrated away from NFL broadcasts last season – which saw overall viewership dip by 8%. Nonetheless, advertisers for the most part are willing to pay more to sponsor the sport than they did last season.

The average cost of a 30-second spot in NBC’s “Sunday Night Football,” TV’s most expensive program for advertisers, has increased by 12% for the 2017-2018 TV season, according to Variety’s annual survey of prime-time ad price. Last fall, the average cost of a 30-second spot was a whopping $650,000. This autumn, the average price is mammoth: $728,434. Meanwhile, the cost of a 30-second ad in NBC’s “Thursday Night Football” is up 3.7%, to $524,047. And the cost of a 30-second spot in ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” has hiked 3.6%, to an average of $385,000. The average price of a 30-second spot dipped slightly for CBS’ Thursday-night broadcasts.

All of those costs fall short of what may actually be TV’s most expensive regular broadcast. A 30-second spot in Fox’s Sunday-afternoon NFL games costs an average of $759,280, according to Variety’s survey.

Aside from football, the annual list is topped by AMC’s “The Walking Dead.” Despite declines in the cost of a package of ads in the show, the zombie drama continues its reign as TV’s most expensive scripted program for advertisers.  A suite of commercials across the network’s multiple airings of a single episode cost an average of $415,000 – an 11.8% drop from the $470,410 it cost last year.

Sponsors who supported NBC’s “This Is Us” last season got a bargain. In 2017, the cost of a 30-second spot has soared an eyebrow-raising 65.7% to $394,314. Last fall, a 30 second spot in the tear-jerking serial cost an average a mere $237,910 – not peanuts, to be sure, but certainly a lot less than current price levels.

Fox’s “Empire,” however, saw its pricing power wane this season. A 30-second ad in the music drama costs an average of $294,141, according to the Variety survey. That figure represents a 33.5% tumble from last year’s average of $442,413.

The Variety survey averages figures from as many as seven different media-buying agencies, along with other sources.

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 an advertiser and a 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 advertisers buy commercial inventory in advance. Those figures may be quite different in TV’s “scatter” market, when inventory is purchased much closer to the ads’ actual air date, and typically comes at a premium when the economy is robust.

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

TV’s Most Expensive Shows For Advertisers
1. Sunday Night Football NBC Sunday $728,434 $650,000 +12%
2. Thursday Night Football NBC Thursday $524,047 $505.463 +3.7%
3. Thursday Night Football CBS Thursday $496,276 $529,989 -6.4%
4. The Walking Dead* AMC Sunday $415,000 $470,410 -11.8%
5. This is Us NBC Thursday $394,314 $237,910 +65.7%
6. Monday Night Football ESPN Monday $385,000 $371,793 +3.6%
7. Empire Fox Wednesday $294,141 $442,413 -33.5%
8. Big Bang Theory CBS Monday $294,094 $313,119 -6.1%
9. Big Bang Theory CBS Thursday $255,419 $253,099 +0.9%
10. The Voice NBC Monday $233,242 $212,775 +9.6%
11. The Voice NBC Tuesday $218,950 $200,742 +9.1%
12. Fear The Walking Dead* AMC Sunday $207,500 $211,323 -1.8%
13. Modern Family ABC Wednesday $205,652 $208,938 -1.6%
14. Grey’s Anatomy ABC Thursday $184,273 $219,952 -16.2%
15. Saturday Night Live NBC Saturday $183,730 $147,000 +25%
16. American Idol ABC Sunday $179,807 N/A N/A
17. Roseanne ABC Monday $176,411 N/A N/A
18. Young Sheldon CBS Thursday $171,998 N/A N/A
19. Will & Grace NBC Thursday $170,749 N/A N/A
20. X-Files Fox Wednesday $167,871 N/A N/A
21. American Idol ABC Monday $164,492 N/A N/A
22. Scandal ABC Thursday $151,177 $177,213 -12.4%
23. Law & Order: True Crime NBC Tuesday $149,504 N/A N/A
24. The Goldbergs ABC Wednesday $146,993 $154,120 -4.6%
25. Star Fox Wednesday $144,432 $240,572 -40%
*Prices for Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead represent the costs of a package of commercials sold across multiple broadcasts of an episode of each series
Source: Variety’s annual survey of primetime ad prices is constructed using estimates from seven media buying firms and other sources

The costliest new program on TV for advertisers isn’t so new after all. ABC’s revival of “American Idol” is commanding an average of $179,807 for a 30-second spot in a Sunday broadcast and an average of $164,492 for a 30-second spot in a Monday show, according to Variety’s survey. “Roseanne,” the popular sitcom led by Roseanne Barr that ran between 1988 and 1997, is also fetching a good sum. The average cost of a 30-second spot is $176,411.

Indeed, the ranks of shows costing advertisers the most are filled with programs that enjoyed long runs in the past. NBC’s relaunch of “Will & Grace” commands an average of $170,749 for a 30-second commercial. A 30-second ad berth in the next season of Fox’s “X-Files” revival costs an average of $167,871.

CBS’ “Young Sheldon” is the original freshman series that commands the top price from Madison Avenue. A 30-second ad in the program costs an average of $171,998, according to the Variety survey.

And then there’s the interesting case of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live.” The program has historically not been included in this annual exercise, because, well, it never really aired in primetime (aside from occasional specials and retrospectives. But this fall, for the first time, every broadcast of the Lorne Michaels-led program will be seen coast to coast – meaning that “SNL” will air in prime time in the majority of the nation, aside from the eastern seaboard.

The average cost of a 30-second ad in the program this fall comes to $183,730 – less than what advertisers pay for “Grey’s Anatomy,” but more than the cost of either broadcast of “American Idol.” NBC has since last year run fewer commercials in the program, a move analysts say has boosted the cost of a commercial.  A 30-second ad in “SNL” cost just $89,500 in the 2015-2016 season, according to Standard Media Index, a tracker of ad costs and spending. Ads in the early fall have sold for prices ranging between $100,000 to $300,000, SMI said. Not bad for a show that is in the midst of its fifth decade on air.

The cheapest show on the air for advertisers is the CW’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” which command an average of a paltry $15,465 for a 30-second commercial.

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 $55,711
8PM  To Tell the Truth $60,517
American Idol * $179,807
Bachelor Winter Games* $60,517
9PM Shark Tank  $84,000
10PM 10 Days in the Valley $85,164
The Crossing* $104,360
7PM 60 Minutes $114,869
8PM Wisdom of the Crowd $95,643
9PM NCIS: Los Angeles  $87,693
10PM Madam Secretary $70,185
7:30PM Bob’s Burgers $76,412
8PM The Simpsons $121,374
8:30PM Ghosted $110,710
9PM Family Guy $128,329
 9:30 Last Man on Earth $83,156
7PM Football Night In America $104,815
Dateline Sunday* $53,000
8PM NBC Sunday Night Football $728,434
Ellen’s Game of Games* $124,061
Good Girls* $94,191
Little Big Shots* $120,090
Shades of Blue* $89,247


8PM Dancing with the Stars $103,921
The Bachelor* $140,343
10PM The Good Doctor $117,921
For The People* $106,160
8PM The Big Bang Theory $294,094
8PM Kevin Can Wait (as of 10/24) $114,136
8:30PM 9JKL $103,106
9PM Kevin Can Wait $122,481
9PM Me Myself & I (as of 10/24) $89,994
9:30PM Me Myself & I $89,829
9:30PM Superior Donuts (as of 10/24) $88,396
10PM Scorpion $99,052
8PM Lucifer $106,019
The Resident* $92,918
9PM The Gifted $126,873
8PM The Voice $233,242
Reverie* $115,023
The Wall* $90,000
10:PM The Brave $117,925
Genius Junior* $91,654
8PM Supergirl $48,301
9PM Valor $34,264


8PM The Middle $111,895
8:30PM Fresh Off the Boat $106,370
9PM Black-ish $124,829
9:30PM The Mayor $106,184
10PM Kevin (Probably) Saves the World $75,863
Roseanne* $106,184
Alex Inc.* $93,872
Deception* $74,376
8PM NCIS $136,447
9PM Bull $115,502
10PM NCIS: New Orleans $88,955
8PM Lethal Weapon $124,561
9PM The Mick $95,648
New Girl* $114,100
9:30 Brooklyn Nine-Nine $88,957
LA to Vegas* $101,993
8PM The Voice $218,950
9PM This is Us $394,314
10PM Law & Order: True Crime $149,504
Rise* $121,223
Chicago Med* $132,875
The Handmade Project* $89,346
8PM The Flash $65,709
9PM DC’s Legends of Tomorrow $43,483


8PM The Goldbergs $146,993
8:30PM Speechless $126,241
9PM Modern Family $205,652
9:30PM American Housewife $114,193
10PM Designated Survivor $144,229
Splitting Up Together* $109,141
8PM Survivor $132,532
9PM Seal Team $119,026
10PM Criminal Minds $96,399
8PM Empire $294,141
X-Files* $167,871
9PM Star $144,432
911* $104,478
8PM The Blacklist $111,037
9PM Law & Order:SVU $106,373
10PM Chicago PD $130,126
8PM Riverdale $33,935
9PM Dynasty $38,171


8PM Grey’s Anatomy $184,273
Untitled Grey’s Spinoff* $107,272
9PM Scandal $151,177
For the People* $104,964
10PM How to Get Away with Murder $145,772
Quantico* $75,866
8PM Thursday Night Football (Started September 28) $496,276
8PM The Big Bang Theory (Starting November 2) $255,419
8:30PM Young Sheldon (Starting November 2) $171,998
9PM Mom (Starting November 2) $123,344
9:30PM Life in Pieces (Starting November 2) $122,792
10PM S.W.A.T. (Starting November 2) $109,273
8PM Gotham $91,418
Masterchef Junior* $129,935
Showtime at the Apollo* $122,135
9PM The Orville $83,627
Beat Shazam* $91,105
8PM Thursday Night Football (9/7, later in season) $524,047
8PM Superstore (Started 9/28) $116,916
8:30PM The Good Place (Started 9/28) $106,838
9PM Will & Grace (Started 9/28) $170,749
9:30PM Great News (Started 9/28) $115,277
10PM Chicago Fire (Started 9/28) $131,232
A.P. Bio* $99,722
Champons* $74,643
8PM Supernatural $33,287
9PM Arrow $35,165


8PM Once Upon a Time $73,704
9PM Marvel’s Inhumans $82,635
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.* $67,750
10PM 20/20 $54,553
8PM MacGyver $70,637
9PM Hawaii Five-0 $71,678
10PM Blue Blood $79,118
8PM Hell’s Kitchen $79,998
9PM The Exorcist $49,860
8PM Blindspot $83,844
9PM Taken $72,211
10M Dateline $48,593
8PM Crazy Ex-Girlfriend $15,465
9PM Jane the Virgin $21,360


8PM ABC Saturday Night Football $104,542
ABC Saturday Night Movie* $21,344
8PM Crimetime Saturday $20,942
9PM Crimetime Saturday $24,786
10PM 48 Hours $31,521
Fox Sports Saturday $87,531
8PM Saturday Dateline Mysteries $32,170
10PM SNL Vintage $34,914
11:30PM EST Saturday Night Live $183,730


Instinct $110,053
By the Book $113,043
The Amazing Race $98,045
Undercover Boss $48,649
Man With A Plan $92,227
Code Black $77,798
Elementary $90,805
The Awesome Show $71,307
Black Lightning $34,500
Life Sentence $38,500