TV’s biggest moneymakers

The cornerstone of CBS's crime franchise, CSI rakes in $5.96 million an episode.
The cornerstone of CBS's crime franchise, CSI rakes in $5.96 million an episode.CBS
/ Source: Forbes

American Idol regularly attracts the biggest audience in TV. No surprise it generates the biggest ad dollars in TV, too: Advertisers pay an average of $745,000 for a 30-second spot on News Corp.'s Fox network.

But big audiences alone don't guarantee big money. In American Idol's case, its average audience of 32.4 million includes many of the famously fickle young folks that advertisers will pay a premium to reach. That same audience is part of the reason advertisers pay $344,000 for a spot on Fox's 24, which draws an average of 14.5 million viewers an episode. And why CBS's venerable 60 Minutes, which attracts, um venerable viewers¸ generates just $109,000 per spot.

To determine which TV shows generate the most money, we turned to TNS Media Intelligence, a division of Taylor Nelson Sofres that tracks ad spending. The company provided us with networks' asking price, as of Jan. 31, for the season's 50 most-watched shows on prime time.

One large caveat: These figures are estimates, since the amount individual buyers actually handed over for those spots varies, depending on a host of variables, including the advertisers' perceptions about the value of a show, the timing and size of their purchases and their clout with the respective network.

The result looks something like airline pricing, says Jon Swallen, TNS's director of research. Just as the person seated beside you on a plane didn't pay the same amount as you for his seat, the company advertising on a spot beside yours didn't pay the same amount either.

But that doesn't mean they can't make informed guesses. For instance, if they're buying airtime on a reality show — even a popular one — they should expect to pay coach prices. Consider Walt Disney-owned ABC's Dancing with the Stars: The popular pro-am dance competition, which boasts an average audience of 20.7 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research, fetches only $179,000 for a 30-second spot. By comparison, ABC's Grey's Anatomy, which draws a similar-size audience on the same network, draws $281,000.

New shows can also prove a good deal for advertisers, since networks generally start selling shows that will debut in the fall several months earlier, at "upfront" sales presentations. After all, it's tough to extract a premium for a show no one's seen yet.

That's why Heroes, which has become a hit for General Electric's NBC, goes for a relative song — just $126,000 for a 30-second spot. When NBC trotted the show out to advertisers last spring, it had a hard sell: A superhero show with no costumes and a little-known cast.

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Look for NBC to jack up rates next year, though. "This show is what Grey's Anatomy, Desperate Housewives and Lost were to ABC a couple of years ago," says Brad Adgate, senior vice president of research at Horizon Media, an ad-buying agency. "Something [on the schedule] that you could build around."

But early purchases can just as easily work to the advertiser's disadvantage. Consider ABC's Six Degrees. Thanks in part to high-profile talent in front of and behind the camera, the show fetches $176,000 per spot. But the New York-based serial lured only 9.7 million viewers on average before getting pulled off the air for several months. (The show returns to ABC's schedule this week).

And then there are the hangovers. ER, NBC's medical drama now in its 13th season, is nowhere near the hit it once was. Yet the show remains the 11th most expensive buy in prime time, fetching $213,000 per ad, despite an average audience of only 12.1 million. Working in the show's favor: a lucrative Thursday time slot. Since Thursday night is the last night for advertisers to reach consumers before the weekend, they will often pay a premium for this opportunity as well.