Some network and cable television news operations covering the war in Iraq are losing less advertising money than they thought they would, owing in part to the fact that the heaviest fighting has happened outside of prime time.
Baghdad is eight hours ahead of East Coast time. That means that during East Coast prime time, which runs from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m., it is 4 a.m. to 7 a.m. in Baghdad. Most of the major bombardments have occurred at night in Baghdad, which is daytime here. Further, Pentagon briefings -- as well as the Thursday press conference with President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair -- have occurred during daytime hours, which means that lower-cost daytime commercials are being preempted instead of more expensive prime-time ones.
"The timing from a preemption standpoint is not really so bad," said Paul Rittenberg, senior vice president of advertising sales for the Fox News Channel, a cable channel owned by NewsCorp. "Generally speaking, things are happening in the mornings and early afternoons our time."
As an example, Rittenberg said that on Thursday afternoon -- as coalition bombs rocked Baghdad -- Fox aired almost no commercials. However, the network was able to broadcast almost all the commercials sold during the network's top-rated "The O'Reilly Factor" show, which airs at 8 p.m. A 30-second commercial on Bill O'Reilly's show costs between $5,000 and $12,000, Rittenberg said.
Fox is losing about $1 million in ads per day, he said, for a total of about $7 million so far since the war began last week. He said about 10 advertisers that normally buy time on Fox have chosen not to buy commercials until the war cools down.
Thus far, Fox News has cable's highest ratings during the war, followed by CNN and MSNBC. Fox News and CNN also have the top-rated prime-time cable broadcasts, with MSNBC coming in fifth, following the Nickelodeon and Disney children's channels.
General Electric Co.-owned NBC and sister cable network MSBNC say their prime-time revenue has not been hit as hard as once feared.
At NBC, which has the top-rated network news operation during the war (followed respectively by ABC and CBS), only about 30 percent of prime-time ads are being preempted by war coverage, said Jim Hoffman, senior vice president for sales for NBC network news and MSNBC. During daytime, however, about 80 percent of ads are being bumped for news.
Hoffman said about 25 percent of advertisers that normally buy time on NBC and MSNBC have declined to so far, which he called a "surprise to everybody," meaning that the network expected more advertisers to ditch. He would not disclose specific figures for lost revenue.
Part of the reason for the higher advertiser retention, Hoffman speculated, was the absence of particularly bloody war images thus far. Advertisers generally like to distance themselves from such footage.
No particular group of advertisers has been more reluctant than another to advertise during wartime, Hoffman said. For example, he said, some defense contractors might not want to air commercials during wartime, fearful that viewers would think they are trying to capitalize on the war. Other defense corporations, however, might say, "This is a great opportunity to get out in front of everybody," he said.
Though it is still the third-rated cable channel, MSNBC's ratings have surged during the war, largely because the cable channel has been using the resources of NBC and putting its correspondents on the air, Hoffman said. NBC and The Washington Post have a partnership in which Post reporters appear on NBC, MSNBC and CNBC.
Viacom-owned CBS would not release figures for lost commercial revenue but said that, like other networks, it saw advertisers pull commercials in the first few days of the war. Unlike NBC and Fox, CBS does not have a cable news channel.
Fox and NBC, if they choose to, can continue to run much of their prime-time programming while allowing their cable news channels to run wall-to-wall war coverage.
Newspapers also are losing advertisers. In announcing its first-quarter earnings yesterday, the New York Times Co. said that it has already seen travel-related advertisers -- such as airlines and hotels -- pulling ads from Times Co. papers, such as the New York Times, the Boston Globe and the International Herald Tribune.
In addition to the lost revenue, the cost of reporting the war is high. CNN said before the war began that it had budgeted an extra $25 million to support its correspondents, provide equipment and buy satellite time to beam its reports around the world.
ABC News, while not releasing figures, said battlefield news-gathering costs are amortized fairly quickly.
"I don't know how to put a dollar figure on those extraordinary reporters, but you figure one or two Ted Koppel reports from the field and that new satellite technology is paid for," said Jeffrey Schneider, ABC News spokesman.
The cost of beaming one report via satellite, he said, is "like the most expensive long-distance phone call you've ever made."