With the three major networks' prime-time audience levels eroding steadily for the past decade, television's late-night arena--with its much lower costs per commercial and its young, movie-going and soft-drink-and-beer-swilling audience--has become an increasingly tempting alternative.
"Late night is very attractive because you can reach the young viewer," said John Sisk, senior vice president at the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency in New York. "And we believe that at that time of night, the audience's receptivity to commercials is better. They have stayed up late and this is really what they want to watch and so they are attentive and responsive to what they see."
The total amount of national advertising dollars spent in late night soared nearly 25% in 1988 over the previous year to more than $1.2 billion, despite little change in the quantity or quality of the programming available, according to the Television Bureau of Advertising. The bureau has yet to compile figures for the first seven months of 1989, but with the significant programming changes late night has seen this year, programmers and advertising executives said they expect the total to rise again.
"The increased competition in late night is definitely bringing new viewers to (that time period)," said Bob Niles, a research and marketing executive at NBC. "And if you look at the advertisers that are buying into late night--10 years ago (when Carson was the only game in town) it was primarily the packaged goods companies; now you have import automobiles, movie studios, the soft-drink companies. There is clearly a change in the kind of advertisers and the amount of money being spent. Advertisers looking for an upscale audience are flocking to late-night (talk shows).
"And the syndicators and network programmers see that happening--they see the increase in the audience and the flood of advertising dollars and it makes sense to try to get in the game. With (Carson and Letterman's) success in drawing the upscale demographic, we've created our own monster that naturally breeds more competition."