Evening News Remains Strong Upfront Option

Viewers watching the Big Three broadcast networks' evening news half hours each night are getting older and fewer, but unlike the daytime soap operas that are steadily disappearing, the evening news telecasts are here to stay.

Just 10 years ago, the three broadcast nightly news telecasts had a cumulative audience of 28 million viewers, while today that total is closer to 22 million. At the same time, the median age of the evening news viewer has risen from 58 to 62.

But the nightly news telecasts are seen by broadcast executives as the face of their networks and point out that if an advertiser wants to buy a 30 second commercial on each of the newscasts in the half hour, they reach the same number of viewers as a spot in the Fox mega-hit American Idol for less than half the $650,000 Fox charges per 30.

The median age is higher, 62 to Idol's 44, but to be able to reach more than 20 million people in a half hour is still a significant opportunity, particularly for pharmaceutical and financial companies, and high-end automakers.

So there will continue to be a strong desire in the broadcast upfront selling season on the part of a significant number of advertisers to jump into the evening news game. And once again, because the inventory is really limited to a half hour per network per night, it is another depart that can sell out quickly in the upfront.

NBC last fall did a survey of Baby Boomers, or Alpha Boomers as they described them-adults 55-64-and found that they actually can be in many instances more desirable than the younger demos. People 55-plus today have more disposable income and are heavy purchasers of products like consumer electronics, cell phones and even home improvement items.

If their pitch resonates with advertisers, the traditional evening news advertisers in this upfront may be joined by some of those categories not traditional seeking older demos. Time will tell on that.

And much like daytime, the evening news daypart is much cheaper than broadcast primetime. One media buyer, who did not want to speak for attribution, said a 30 second commercial in one of the three broadcast networks' nightly news telecast can be between 30 and 40 percent cheaper than a spot in the average primetime entertainment show.

"The evening news is still viable and it's one of the only departs where you can reach a 50-plus audience efficiently," one media buyer said. "It's not overpriced and just because an audience is older, doesn't mean it's less desirable. It depends on the product you're trying to sell. There is still consumption power within the older demos and it is something an advertiser can't ignore."

The NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams has been the ratings and viewer leader among the three networks for years, and this season has been averaging 8.8 million viewers, compared to 7.8 million for ABC's World News Tonight with Diane Sawyer, and 5.8 million for The CBS Evening News with Katie Couric.

Over the past two months, ABC's telecast has been making some inroads, and during that time period has cut it's viewer deficit behind NBC to about 750,000 per night. CBS still lags far behind, but again, reaching 5.8 million people in a half hour with a 30 second spot priced reasonably well is not something to scoff at.

CBS' replacing of Couric as its evening news anchor is not expected to have much impact on upfront ad buying, media buyers said.

"I don't think Katie staying or leaving will have much impact at all," one buyer said. "The advertisers are in the habit of buying the daypart regardless of who the anchor is and viewers seem to be loyal more to a network telecast rather than an anchor."

The pharmaceutical category has softened a bit of late and this could impact upfront revenue for the networks in the evening news daypart, but network sales execs are optimistic that there will be enough new drugs coming into the marketplace that need promoting. And some advertisers with more mainstream or younger skewing products, may just test out the daypart-with its lower pricing structure-to see how well their commercials work.

If primetime buying is as strong as it is being predicted to be, and at the double-digit increases that many are suggesting, then advertisers may see evening news as another daypart where they can get some dollars down to balance out the higher cost of primetime.