World: Stuart Elliott in America

Madison Avenue has caught finale fever. And it's a malady for which the cure may be worse than the disease.

Over the past two Thursdays, agencies spent tens of millions of dollars to run commercials for clients during the farewell episodes of two NBC sitcoms, Friends and Frasier. The Friends finale, in particular, took on the trappings of a national popular-culture phenomenon, inspiring the kind of extensive media coverage that has not been seen since ... well, the farewell episode of the NBC sitcom Seinfeld in 1998.

It's estimated that NBC took in almost $100 million in ad dollars for its primetime and late-night programming on 6 May, most of it Friends-related. The most expensive commercials, of course, came during the send-off show itself, with each 30-second spot costing an average of $2 million. That's not much cheaper than what US TV networks have recently charged for commercial time in Super Bowls.

The strong demand to take part in the farewell for hit series such as Friends is regularly cited as evidence of the power of broadcast TV. Big-event TV, the broadcasters call it, as they talk up their wares to agencies and advertisers. It's a potent sales tool that they claim is available only on their airwaves when they bring Americans together around the electronic hearth to simultaneously share an experience that gets discussed the next day in homes, workplaces and schools.

The broadcast networks maintain that the unparalleled reach they provide by amassing large, diverse audiences for big-event TV is worth the eyebrow-raising rates they charge for commercials during those shows, especially for purveyors of mass-market merchandise including cars, mobile phones and FMCG as well as movie studios. The broadcasters also tout data indicating that viewers pay more attention to the spots appearing during big-event TV than during regular fare.

So agencies advise clients to open their wallets wide and pay the high prices to capitalise on the benefits of big-event TV, even if it hurts.

But what may hurt more is the likely disappearance of big-event TV, at least from the broadcast networks, as the media market continues to fractionate.

The Friends finale "marks the end of an era", a media newsletter, the Jack Myers Entertainment Report, declared. The reason? The clout of broadcasters to set the pace for TV is fading because as more cable channels (and satellite services) become available to the average American TV household, more viewers are switching over to sample the alternatives.

A portent was provided by the recent hoopla over the finale of another sitcom, Sex and the City. It was carried by a pay-cable network, HBO, which draws far fewer viewers than a free broadcast network such as NBC.

But the farewell to the Sex and the City quartet was almost as fervent as that accorded the Friends sextet.

It's also funny how the more difficult it becomes for the broadcasters to deliver significant mass audiences to advertisers, the more big-event TV is prized - meaning the more they can charge for ads during those special shows. As Chandler Bing might put it: "Can advertisers get any more annoyed paying higher rates for lower ratings?"

But at some point the law of diminishing returns comes into play, and that point may have arrived as American viewers bid adieu to their TV friends from Friends.

- Stuart Elliott is the advertising columnist at The New York Times.

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