CBS’ Moonves Eyes $4 Million Super Bowl Spot

Bullish network boss sees record rates for NFL gem

CBS Corp. skipper Les Moonves on Wednesday made a bold prediction about the broadcaster’s Super Bowl prospects, telling investors that his sales team will set an all-time unit cost record in 2013.

Speaking on the media conglomerate’s Q4 earnings call, Moonves said he anticipates landing “a potential $4 million per spot” in Super Bowl XLVII, which is scheduled to be played in New Orleans on Feb. 3, 2013. While the prediction fell short of Joe Namath’s famous guarantee that the New York Jets would beat the highly favored Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III, Moonves’ comment was delivered with no small measure of brio.

Should CBS follow through on that projection, it would mark a 14 percent increase from NBC’s staggering $3.5 million asking price for time in this year’s game. NBC itself commanded a 17 percent increase hike over Fox’s going rate of $3 million in 2010. 

While there’s nothing binding about a forward-looking statement, Moonves’ remark almost certainly will establish a target rate for CBS president of network ad sales JoAnn Ross. The veteran sales chief is used to meeting Moonves’ lofty expectations; the past several upfronts have been colored by his early reads on pricing and volume.

Elsewhere on the gridiron, Moonves quantified the number of NFC games it will add to its AFC slate as part of its new nine-year, $9.5 billion NFL package: seven per season. 

Noting that “CBS is in one of the best competitive positions in the history of television,” Moonves said that the strength of the network’s prime-time schedule has kept the network flush in a somewhat iffy economic environment.

“Because of our ratings strength, we are commanding the bulk of the scatter market,” Moonves said, adding that CBS in Q1 is cutting deals “in the mid-teens above the upfront.” While scatter rates were much higher in the first quarter of 2011—up between 25 percent and 30 percent over rates established in the upfront—it’s worth noting that pricing in the 2010-11 bazaar was at least 10 percent lower than the following year’s sell-off.

While General Motors canceled 50 percent of its Q2 commitments across the board, Moonves downplayed the move. “What GM did was de minimis,” he said. “In fact, with our schedule, we’re having no trouble replacing [that inventory] at very high rates.”

Because CBS has put together such a strong 2011-12 TV season, it’s likely that the network’s May upfront presentation will be another minimalist affair. CBS this year has launched just six new series—2 Broke Girls, Person of Interest, Unforgettable, A Gifted Man, ¡Rob! and the canceled How to Be a Gentleman—and as it owns bragging rights to 14 of the top 20 most-watched shows on TV, the net will probably bow even fewer new efforts in 2012-13.

Profits at CBS jumped 17 percent to $384 million in Q4, while revenue dipped slightly ($3.78 billion, down from $3.9 billion in the year-ago period). Network ad sales were flat versus Q4 2010.

CBS’ yearly results were impacted by tough comps—in 2010, it aired the Super Bowl, and 2011 marked the first year of its revenue-sharing NCAA March Madness agreement with Turner Sports.

As is always the case when he’s feeling his oats, Moonves took a few swings at his rivals. At the top of the call, the CBS boss jabbed at Fox’s American Idol, telling investors that his Thursday night comedy The Big Bang Theory “is now beating a previously invincible talent show that happens to be on another network.”

Season to date, Fox is actually leading CBS in the all-important adults 18-49 demo, averaging a 3.3 rating to CBS’ 3.2. But whereas Fox is down 3 percent versus this time a year ago, CBS has grown its share of the dollar demo by 7 percent.

CBS is winning the battle for total viewers, averaging 12.2 million through the first 21 weeks of the season. Fox is a distant second with 9.02 million.