TV Networks Raking in Record Ad Money

Rumors of network television's demise have been greatly exaggerated. Despite a declining viewership—several studies have shown that a smaller proportion of the population than ever is watching network TV—the networks are pulling in a record amount of money from advertising. Total "upfront" ad sales—those sold in the spring, before Memorial Day, for the following season—for all six broadcast networks will reach $8 billion, according to several news reports the last week in May. The networks have already sold about 80% of available prime-time advertising slots.

"Virtually every network recorded increases over the money taken in last year," wrote Bill Carter of the New York Times on May 26. Heavy ad buyers included auto makers, drug companies, movie studios, and traditional retailers. Last year, Internet ventures were among the most prolific advertisers on television, but that trend has changed; e-commerce companies are going on austerity programs as their sources of seed money dry up.

Advertising sales have already exceeded executives' expectations. Disney's ABC network was the biggest winner, with a 30% increase in ad revenue over last year, from $1.84 billion to about $2.4 billion. ABC's numbers are especially impressive given the fact that they don't include advertising revenue from Monday Night Football or the annual Academy Awards telecast. "Advertisers were calling me up to say, 'Save my job. I'll pay you anything,' " gloated ABC sales executive Marvin Goldsmith.

NBC also stands to benefit from its coverage of the Sydney Olympic Games. Olympic years are always good for advertising, and this year is no exception. The summer games will take place late in the season—with a long lead-in by a glut of Olympic and sports-theme advertising. NBC has so far increased its ad revenue by more than 10% over last year: $2.35 billion vs. $2.1 billion. CBS executives predicted an approximately 16% increase over last season: $1.6 billion compared to $1.3 billion.

Fox and UPN also reported increases. "We're expecting significant overall increases year to year in upfront numbers because we've had a terrific advertiser response to our fall schedule. Also, about one-third of our business in upfront will be new, which is great news for a fledgling network," said a UPN spokesman. The industry overall is looking at a 15% rise in ad sales. "The market is as robust as I have ever seen it," CBS president Leslie Moonves told Daily Variety. "We're exceedingly happy."