The 'Good' Bye: Making the Most Out of a Series Finale

Go out with a slap ('The Good Wife') and not a whimper ('American Idol'), as network series, when played right, can turn their last few 30-second commercial spots into an oversized ATM.
Courtesy of CBS
'The Good Wife'

Turning the lights out on a successful TV show can be a financial bummer for a network, but the last flicker often brings one final advertising boon. Series finales, especially those that service a particularly engaged or well-to-do audience (i.e., CBS' The Good Wife) remain one of the few DVR-proof draws in the era of withering linear viewing.

The Good Wife ended its seven-season run May 8 with roughly three months of lead time; CBS announced the wrap-up to its Emmy-winning drama during a Super Bowl commercial. The relatively short heads-up meant that many ads already had been sold during the 2015 upfront market, though some spots still were available at a premium, less than $250,000, say sources, but well north of the season's $100,000 average, according to Kantar Media. Spots that aired during the telecast included luxury auto (Jaguar), talent tie-ins (a Chase ad voiced by Good Wife star Julianna Margulies) and several film trailers (DreamWorks' The Girl on the Train).

"You need to have the dynamic of ending on a high note," says Horizon Media ratings analyst David Campanelli of The Good Wife's season-high 10.5 million viewer haul. "You saw something like American Idol, which was as big of a show as there was in the past 10 years, and it went out with a whimper because it overstayed its welcome by a year or two. You can have the cultural-significance potential — but if a show has outlived its time by a couple years, it's going to underwhelm on a finale."

AMC held out on selling 'Mad Men' finale ads until closer to the airdate, capitalizing on buzz and securing commitments near $1 million.

CBS has a solid track record for building finale buzz. The 2014 finish of How I Met Your Mother might be the post-DVR-saturation benchmark of how to do it. Thanks to more than 14 months' notice and an elaborate presentation by the cast during the 2013 upfront spectacle for buyers, CBS secured placements between $300,000 and $350,000 well before the one-hour series ender. Leaving a few spots open to capitalize on growing interest in the months immediately prior, 30-second hits went for as high as $500,000 before selling out. And advertisers got their money's worth: The divisive episode, a hot topic in the media for many who never even watched the series, saw ratings spike to a 5.4 in the adults 18-to-49 demographic and 13.1 million viewers — both records for the comedy.

"You can sell [on a finale] in the upfront, but you don't have to," says Turner ad sales president Donna Speciale, who scored a premium on the 2012 close to The Closer and trots out a final run of Rizzoli & Isles this summer. "We are talking to clients day in and day out, 365 days a year. If we know what's going on ahead of time, we can bring an idea to them way before a marketplace even hits. It has a lot to do with the demand and the fan base."

One network that recently took a unique (and aggressive) route is AMC. Flagship drama Mad Men ended in 2015, still pulling the most affluent-skewing audience in TV after nearly a decade on the air. Despite a lead time of years before the series' swan song, AMC passed on selling the episode at its upfront in favor of offering spots in the scatter a few months out — with no audience guarantees. The network packaged Mad Men spots with other AMC shows, including The Walking Dead, for as much as $1 million. The finale, which reached 3.3 million viewers on premiere night, sold out more than a month in advance.

CBS started selling ads for the 2014 'How I Met Your Mother' finale more than a year out.

The history of finales paints even loftier highs. ABC secured upward of $900,000 for a 30-second spot during the 2010 finale of Lost. And, before delayed viewing even was an option, the climaxes of Seinfeld (1998) and Friends (2004) brought NBC reported respective highs of $1.8 million and $2.3 million during the most coveted pods. (For a quick comparison, 30-second spots during the 2016 Super Bowl, also on CBS, maxed out at $5 million.)

"Watercooler TV almost doesn't exist anymore, but it's still a powerful part of what makes TV great for advertisers," says Campanelli, noting the lack of high-profile finishes on the horizon. "Every finale has some level of a premium, but that type of cultural significance where everyone gathered around their TV to watch the last episode of Seinfeld or Friends. ... I don't think you're ever going to see that again."

Marisa Guthrie contributed to this report.

This story first appeared in the May 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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