Plunging Ratings Lead to Double-Digits Drop in NFL Ad Revenue in November

Overall broadcast ad spend drops 10.6%

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Whether this season's NFL ratings declines were an election-fueled anomaly—as many network and NFL execs insist—or a lasting trend, they started affecting networks' bottom lines last month, according to new data from Standard Media Index.

NFL ad revenue, which had been increasing in September and October, was down 17 percent year over year in November.

While that was partially attributed to there being four fewer football games this November than last year, the chief revenue drop-off was caused by a sharp increase in ADUs (audience deficiency units, or makegoods), for advertisers who didn't receive their guaranteed impressions earlier in the football season.

In SMI's findings, which tracks 70 percent of national ad spending from global and independent agencies, NBC, the only network with the same number of November NFL games as last year (six), lost 17 percent in year-over-year football revenue. While its football ad rates were up 10 percent, to $720,949, the network had to reserve 20 percent of its inventory for ADUs, compared to just 5.2 percent a year earlier.

While CBS had one less NFL game than last November (eight, down from nine), its 26 percent decline in revenue was due to an ADU increase: close to 20 percent of its football inventory in November, compared to 11 percent last November. The network's football ad rates were down 1 percent from last November, to $455,090.

Just two weeks ago, CBS Corp. chairman, president and CEO Leslie Moonves declared "there have been no makegoods" on any of CBS' NFL inventory this fall, during a talk at New York's UBS Global Media and Communications Conference.

Fox had a 34 decrease in gross spend, but had three fewer games this year (nine versus six). Its average unit cost for November was up almost 21 percent to $642,559, while makegoods increased up only slightly, from 20 percent last year to 25 percent this year.

The average NFL 30-second spot across all three major networks was $590,060 in November. That excluded the three Thanksgiving games, which yielded much higher ad rates: $1.1 million per spot for Fox, $942,000 for NBC, $860,000 for CBS.

The overall TV market ad spend in November was down 2.4 percent year over year. Broadcast dropped 10.6 percent (CBS fell 18 percent, NBC was down 5.8 percent, Fox dropped 14.5 percent and ABC decreased 7.6 percent; with Fox and CBS' drops largely due to football), while cable was up 6.3 percent. However, excluding football, the market was up 5.3 percent.

Excluding sports programming, the average unit cost during prime time in broadcast was $104,906, down 3.1 percent from last November.

NBC had the biggest increase from last November, going from $99,000 to $110,900 per spot.

Meanwhile, ABC's Thursday night took a big hit without Scandal this season (the show was delayed to midseason to accommodate Kerry Washington's pregnancy). Its prime-time lineup in November saw a 26.6 percent drop on gross spend for the evening versus last year, when Scandal was in the picture.

On the cable side, the election gave the cable news networks huge increases from last November. MSNBC was up 85.9 percent, CNN increased 81.7 percent and Fox News surged 34.4 percent (while that was a lower percentage than its competitors, it still has the largest volume of spend among the cable news networks). On election night, both Fox News and CNN had higher average costs per 30-second ad than CBS.

HGTV saw a 15.1 percent growth surge year over year in November, E! jumped 24.1 percent and Nickelodeon was up 11.5 percent.

Viacom, after seven quarters of decline, saw a 10 percent year-over-year ad revenue increase. The company's October and November growth represented its first instances of year-over-year increases since SMI began compiling its AccuTV data in January 2014.

But not all the Viacom news was good: Comedy Central was down 11.7 percent. Other cable networks with big year-over-year ad revenue declines in November included Lifetime (10.3 percent) and ESPN (8.4 percent).

@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV/Media Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.