Lost finale: Raking in ad dollars is harder than with earlier series finales

Although advertisers paid $900,000 for a 30-second spot, earlier series got more ad dollars than the Lost finale because they had bigger audiences and less Internet interference.

Mario Perez/AP Photo
In this publicity image released by ABC, Matthew Fox is shown in a scene from the Lost finale which aired Sunday night and drew 13 million viewers. Other series finales have drawn higher ad revenues, but they've also attracted much larger audiences.

As millions tuned in on Sunday night to catch the long awaited, and much-hyped, "Lost" finale, advertisers hoped they would pay as much attention to the commercial breaks as the conclusion of the six-year sci-fi thriller.

They paid a pretty penny for those spots, after all. A 30-second commercial in the finale cost about $900,000, more than three times what advertisers paid for a spot on “Lost” last season, and just a half million dollars less than this year’s Academy Awards, according to Ad Age.

That's a hefty price tag, but not up to the standard set by the final episodes of earlier big TV series:

  • In 1983 the “M.A.S.H.” season finale on CBS brought in about $450,000 per 30-second ad, or about $1 million in today’s numbers.
  • A 30-second ad slot on the finale of“ Everybody Loves Raymond” in 2005 went for about $1.3 million, or about $1.4 million in 2010 money.
  • The “Seinfeld” season finale in 1998 drew between $1.4 and $1.8 million, or about $2.36 million today.
  • The “Friends” season finale tops the chart, drawing in between $1.5 and a whopping $2.3 million for a 30-second ad in 2004—around $2.6 million today.

Why are newer series finales not bringing in as much? The fragmentation of the TV audience and the rise of the Internet are two key factors.

The "Lost" finale drew 13 million viewers (the highest ratings in the show’s history), while the earlier series finales drew much bigger audiences – 105 million for "M.A.S.H." and 86 million for "Seinfeld."

The Internet is also sucking away marketing dollars. Though television ads may still serve as the "centerpiece" of a marketing strategy, advertisers are redirecting dollars to other channels.

“Much of the marketing activity happens online now,” said Thomas Fauls, associate professor of advertising at Boston University. “The Internet is one of the few marketing channels that has been up significantly, even during the recession.”

Now, advertisers are using a more integrated approach in their marketing strategies – using TV ads to propel viewers to company websites where visitors can play games and watch videos to increase their "engagement" with the product, adds Dr. Fauls.

And social networking tools are being used heavily to increase anticipation for so-called "television events," like "Lost."

“Event TV is becoming where you can make money,” said Walt Guarino, professor of advertising at Seton Hall University. The show drew "not only its loyal fans, but also an influx of people who wanted to say, ‘I watched the last episode of "Lost." ' ”

How the recession fits into all of this is not quite clear.

Television advertising did drop during the recession, but it’s starting to bounce back, with the number of “upfront” sales, the commercial time bought before the start of the television season, increasing.

The fact that TV events – like March madness and the Olympics – are drawing more viewers than ever (and therefore more advertising dollars) could also have something to do with the recession.

“People want to turn towards something more positive,” said Guarino. “A lot of these events give people a reason to have a little party, they bring them closer together.”

Another television show with a very loyal fan base will end its run tonight; the 2-hour series finale of “24” will air at 8 p.m. tonight on FOX. The advertising rate for this season finale reportedly reached $650,000, according to Ad Age.

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