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Peak TV?

TV ads are huge! But growth is slowing and pricing is shrinking.

Michael Yarish / AMC
Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

Advertisers spent the last couple weeks hearing from Web video sites that would like their money. Now they’ll spend a week hearing from the TV networks, where they do spend their money: Today is the beginning of the “upfront” presentations from the four broadcast networks, along with cable heavy-hitters like Univision and ESPN.

This is normally the time when someone points out that it’s ridiculous for advertisers to keep spending billions on TV, since the audience they’re trying to reach is going online, and in front of their phones. And that it’s even more ridiculous that TV ad spending keeps increasing, even as the TV audience scatters.

All true, and it has been for years. It will continue to be so this year.

But three charts from Nielsen, released today as part of its annual “Advertising and Audiences Report,” show that we really might be reaching the peak of the TV era, ad-spending wise.

For starters, note that TV ad spending has continued to grow over the last five years. But that growth is getting slower and slower. It was down to three percent last year:

Meanwhile, the price for a 30-second ad has been shrinking for the five years. It’s down 12 percent since 2009.

So how do the networks react? By jamming more ads into every hour of TV. TV ad loads have increased by nearly a minute for broadcast TV since 2009, and even more for cable TV shows.

Slowing growth, shrinking pricing, pressure to create more inventory where there wasn’t any before. We know where this is headed, right?

The thing is, the Web has been looking at trends like these for years, and assuming that TV money would have to head their way. It still hasn’t happened.

One good reason is that people still watch an enormous amount of TV. More than ever, actually.

So the TV ad money isn’t going away overnight — this isn’t going to be the newspaper business. But it does look like we’re near the top of the ramp.

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