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Taking on TV’s Summer Marketing Slump

July 13th, 2017   ||    by Todd Wasserman

Summer marketing can be a struggle these days thanks to changes in the overall TV market that are exacerbated during the season. Just a few years ago, cable networks typically benefited from summer viewership.

But starting in 2015, binge-watching on Netflix and Hulu began cutting into those audiences, according to The Wall Street Journal. That year, cable network ratings fell by double digits. And that trend continued in 2016 as Netflix’s Stranger Things became a summer hit, with Variety pegging average viewership at 14 million for its first 35 days.

Ratings always slip in the summer, but the summer of 2017 comes after a precipitous drop in viewership. As Vulture notes, CBS’s freshman series Man With a Plan was renewed with only 7.5 million viewers—which is less than any series CBS ran in the 2014–2015 season.

Therefore, there are two primary questions for advertisers: How cheap will inventory get? And how low will ratings go?

How Low Will They Go?

The summer ratings plunge began in early June. After the May ratings sweep, syndicated programs like Dr. Phil and Live with Kelly and Ryan fell 18 percent and 5 percent, respectively, according to Broadcasting Cable. CBS’s June premiere of the 19th season of Big Brother was also a series low.

In addition, there’s no major event like last year’s Summer Olympics to goose ratings this summer. However, The Wrap predicts that NBC will have its seventh summer TV ratings victory off the strength of America’s Got Talent. The network also has a fledgling hit in Jennifer Lopez’s World of Dance.

It’s unclear how all this will affect advertising. At this writing, the upfronts were still in progress, but the Hollywood Reporter noted in May that the upfronts seemed to be cooling-off after pulling in $9 billion in 2016. Scatter (ads bought closer to the shows themselves) was already down 11.5 percent for the first three months of the year.

Summer Hits 2017

Most worrying for advertisers is that many of the most talked-about shows of summer 2017 are running elsewhere. In its roundup of the “10 most talked-about summer TV shows right now,” Business Insider names four Netflix shows—Marvel’s The Defenders, season five of Orange is the New Black, Disjointed and GLOW—and the new season of HBO’s Game of Thrones.

If history is any guide, Game of Thrones is likely to be the big hit of summer 2017, while Big Brother’s shaky premiere sheds doubt on the recurring strength of that franchise. For its part, ABC is reaching for nostalgia with reboots of Battle of the Network Stars and The Gong Show this summer. So far, the premiere of the former has been unspectacular, drawing 4 million viewers, as Variety points out, and The Gong Show drew 3.8 million in its premiere.

What to Do?

For media buyers, the expected summer slowdown means they’ll have more leverage to swing deals over scatter. There are downsides to scatter—it’s often overpriced, ratings aren’t guaranteed, and there are no makegood commitments. But the upside is that buyers can purchase time close to the air date. Savvy media buyers can look at past ratings and social media buzz to determine whether they might be buying time on a nascent hit, which would be a big win.

Buying local is another option. While it is often assumed that local is more expensive than scatter, an analysis by SQAD Research cited in MediaPost found that’s not the case—in many dayparts, local is cheaper than scatter.

Media buyers can also take advantage of the uncertain market by swinging deals. If summer ratings continue their decline, for instance, buyers will be in a good position to get better pricing. They can also hedge their bets on formats that command more live viewing—like reality TV.

So, while summer may seem like a time for media buyers to check out, it’s actually a great opportunity to score smart advertising bargains. It’s time to take on the summertime marketing slump.

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