back to the Black Table

The figure will be repeated endlessly by the press this week, like it were some sort of incantation: $2 million for 30 seconds of airtime, or $66,666 per second. It's the going price of Super Bowl ad space, and it's possibly the only unit of time worth more than the price the players charged for every minute this season that they were actually on the field.

The figure will mainly be invoked as a barometer of our national economic health -- can anyone afford to pay $2 million a pop, and can the network in question (this year, it's ABC) actually sell every slot at its asking price? Conversely, there's certainly a case to be made that the high-water mark of the New Economy was the January 2000 installment of the game, when flush sock puppets bid up the price so high that real companies couldn't afford to buy in.

But to waste time chasing some larger point about what this game and its hoopla says about America is to miss a smaller but important point about what it says about television itself: that the Super Bowl is the major networks' last stand.

The big three, of course, were born when TV was "new media" and the audience couldn't get enough of it. Cable would break that audience into pieces in the '80s, but more important, the dogma set in on Madison Avenue that the only good viewer was a young one. We spend more so our parents don't have to.

The result, starting in the '60s and still gaining steam, is a total denigration of old age by advertisers, and thus by the media outlets scrambling to be their willing vehicles. This is why, as Advertising Age recently reported, a 30-second spot on the WB's Smallville costs $111,000, while a spot on 60 Minutes -- despite drawing nearly twice the audience (at twice the age) -- will set you back just $90,000.

Thanks to economics like this, the WB managed to turn a profit last year, unlike, say, ABC or Fox, despite having the fifth-most members of the magic demo (18-34, duh) among the networks.

Now do some back-of-the-envelope calculations on what Smallville means to advertisers compared to the Superbowl. A single $2 million spot during the big game translates to 18 ads on Smallville at Ad Age's quoted price. Using Smallville's average 7.5 million audience as a given, and pretending that no one will ever see your company's ad twice, those 18 spots will collect 135 million pairs of eyeballs, compared the Super Bowl's estimated global audience of half a billion to a billion viewers.

In reality, the Smallville audience for your ad will be much smaller, because of loyal fans who tune in every week, thus raising the efficacy of your campaign for Pepsi or girl-marketed razors, or whatever.

That's the scenario advertisers are looking for, and it's why, when you think about it, the $2 million ABC is asking for is actually a discounted price, not a premium. While it's understood that advertisers are paying for raw numbers and grand gestures (this is why the game has been a favorite for companies rebuilding their identities from scratch, like Accenture and Cingular) it should go without saying that Pepsi, Levi's, Reebok, and Sony aren't paying that kind of money to reach the over 40 set. They've already done the numbers -- their marketing goals for the Super Bowl will be met only if enough kids are pulled in; their parents are gravy.

But the Super Bowl is the only thing on TV that swings in both demographic directions; Anheuser-Busch, H&R Block and Cadillac are in the mix precisely because the Super Bowl (like all football games) attracts an older, male, and usually affluent audience. There you have it, the best of both worlds.

This doesn't happen anymore. Back in the pre-HBO and pre-Fox days, selling to every tribe on the demographic map came with the territory. Now, only something as grandiose as the Super Bowl -- the annual event which (sadly, on one level) reaches more human beings than any other in history -- fits the bill.

And why the Super Bowl, quite literally, is not worth your time.


Greg Lindsay, formerly a media reporter with, is a staff reporter for Women's Wear Daily.