by Sara Wiesenfeld


Despite major innovations throughout the world of mass media, television remains a leading force and it’s purpose remains unchanged: deliver vast amounts of advertisements to audiences who have dozens of new ways of avoiding them. Going back to the first invention that provided the world with mass communication (radio) it is clear the function of programming has remain unchanged since it’s development; advertisers fund and enable programming in exchange for publicized association. At it’s time of creation, television executives relied on time periods to determine what age and gender their key audience would be. Since the 80s, thanks to the cable TV, advertisers can more easily target their key audiences through specialized channels. During the 1990s the relationship between cable and advertisers grew stronger, and by the 2000s, TV networks were using branding to pull in the most revenue. However, as with all innovations, the Internet and the DVR (and even the outpour of reality TV programs) have been disruptive for the standard system of television ad sales.

The Real Cost of Production

Many networks have begun operating in a way reminiscent of cable companies; instead of ordering a once standard package of 22-24 episodes, broadcast series are increasingly placing 13 episodes orders. This type of short order is the typical model seen for today’s cable programming. Pricing of ad space remains dependent on time and the popularity of the show.

Despite technologies like the DVR, ad spending grew 8% in 2010. In primetime specifically, there was a 6% increase from 2009, totaling $20 billion spent on television advertisements.

It’s no secret networks love reality TV – it’s cheap, easy to produce and brings in great ratings. Networks want nothing more than to pay as little as possible for the highest ratings possible. A half hour reality show can cost as little as $200,000. $1 million and over is standard for hour-long scripted shows, and just under $1 million for a half hour scripted sitcom is the norm.  [1] [2] [11]

In 2011 Steven Spielberg produced Terra Nova, spending an unheard of $16 million on the two-hour pilot alone.



Programming Trends

Advertisers adjust to market demands. As more specialized channels become available on TV, TV brands have begun targeting specific demographics more specifically than they were ever able to before. For example, Samsung ads used to be targeted at all people under 45; now, they are focused on males under 35, and active and childless 25-34 year olds. The downside to this for the networks and programming is that although they can gear more explicitly towards one type of viewer, it also means there are more networks competing to share the pie (which has remained unchanged in size). [9] [10]

Currently, 53% of all primetime ad space is filled by the standard 30-second commercial; however, in the past year, there has been a noticeable trend towards shorter commercials. Commercials that are 30-second or less increased in number by 12%, while commercials 35-seconds or more decreased 6%. [11]

Women 25-34

This key demographic continues to be “the most valuable audience segment because of both time spent viewing and purchase power.” These women have a large presence in both the home and business environment. Statistically, a large percentage of mothers fall into this category and children have great influence on the success of merchandising.


As of July 2011, 38% of TV households in the US had a DVR system in place. Rating collector company Nielson has developed a complex system to track what programs are being watch via DVR, even if they are watched at a delayed date from the show’s original airtime. However, only 17% of all TV viewing is done via the DVR. Just as in live TV, primetime hours are where DVRs see the most use. [5] [6] [11]

Comedy and Family Programming

After 2006, when loved and highly-rated TV sitcoms came to a final end (Friends, Frasier, Will & Grace, and Everybody Loves Raymond), many feared the end of scripted sitcoms was close. However, the revival of family comedies has put those fears to rest. From 2004 to 2010, the number of hours per week for comedies on ad-supported TV increased by 290 hours. This year, the number rose an additional 70 hours, bringing in this season’s all time high of 870 hours. Despite the average number of TV sets per home in America standing at 2.5 (, during primetime hours around 75% of these homes only have one television set turned on. This means people are watching as families. Half hour family-oriented comedies like Modern Family, Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory have been very successful. [7]

3D Television

The integration of 3D digital films into our theatres was a move exhibitors welcomed as it separated the movie experience from any you could previously get online or on your TV. Thinking the same may be applicable to television; in 2010 many TV manufacturers began producing 3D television sets. However, to date, this has not been a successful shift for the television industry. 83% of people say 3D technology isn’t enough to make them want to buy a new TV, and 33% of people don’t even find anything superior in the 3D TV viewing experience. Perhaps if more 3D content is created for television (as many content producers claim will happen) we will see a real trend develop as opposed to a fleeting, unsuccessful fad. [10]


Thanks to the convenience and inexpensiveness of advertising space on the internet, TV networks have seen a decrease in ad income. Even people who have not cancelled their cable subscriptions (another declining stream of revenue) are not as focused on TV as they may have been in the past: 42% of Americans are searching the web while watching TV. This disruptive innovation is no longer something TV can ignore and in accordance, they have begun embracing the internet through digital downloads and streaming. 143.9 million Americans view video online, watching an average upwards of 4 hours and 29 minutes on PCs or laptops.  [10] [11]


Social Media

Subset of changes resulting from the Internet, social media has emerged as a means of mass communication – and in many cases, a way for free advertisement. The first brands to took advantage of this were MTV and VH1. They incorporated social networks like Facebook and twitter in order to create “ complementary experience to the primary television viewing.” This both encourages and enables viewers have an interactive TV watching experience; viewers “tweeting” about a show while watching facilitates ever-coveted word of mouth, creating buzz and excitement without spending money. It also allows TV execs, producers, writers, etc. to get a sense of what their viewers want, like and dislike. [3]

Baby Boomers

The famed “baby boomer” generation has officially begun transcending into the 65+ demographic, a notoriously difficult demographic to reach. With 80 million people who are more technologically savvy than the last generation of 65+ now entering this category, it can no longer fly under the radar. Internet use in people 50 years and older has increased 42% from 2010-2011 alone. [8]



This audience, which only started capturing the attention of big media in the past five years, has quickly become an extremely coveted demographic. The 2010 census let advertisers know just how quickly the Latino population is growing; currently, there are over 50 million Latino’s in America, up 46.3% since 2000.

Last year the number of Hispanic households with TV sets increased three times more than TV households overall. Ad spending for Spanish-language TV has consisntently been climbing, and is expected to bring in 1.5 billion by the end of 2011. For the 2010-2011 season, Univision, the largest Spanish-language network (with audience sizes competing with networks like ABC, NBC, and CBS), was the only major TV network to grow it’s primetime audience among the key 18-49 demographic.

Five years from now, President Cesar Conde (of Univision) predicts Univision will be the number one network in the U.S. [4]