AD AGE SPECIAL REPORT;TV'S UPFRONT;THE ANNUAL 'DANCE' BETWEEN TV AD TIME BUYERS AND SELLERS IS APPROACHING. THE SESSION MIGHT NOT BE AS FRENETIC AS LAST YEAR'S, BUT PRIME-TIME NETWORK TV ALONE COULD TOP $6 BILLION.

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When james Van Cleave was VP-media and programming at Procter & Gamble Co., he had a radical idea about TV's so-called upfront season: change how it's done.

The advance-selling period "doesn't coincide with most companies' fiscal year," he says, recalling his concept. "Lineups on the networks change from the time they are announced to when the programs debut. The frenzied atmosphere is not a conducive business climate. I just thought it was a nutty way to do business."

The idea Mr. Van Cleave proposed a few years ago was a more orderly process with long-term deals made more in line with fiscal calendars.

Mr. Van Cleave, who now heads his own consultancy, Cincinnati Strategies, says his concept might be the best way to maximize business at the lowest cost for both networks and advertisers.

But even he doesn't think his revisionist concept has a chance of being introduced anytime soon.

LITTLE INCENTIVE

Last year's bullish upfront market, checking in at more than $5 billion for prime-time network TV alone, certainly killed any incentive the networks may have had to explore Mr. Van Cleave's plan.

Program lineups for next season won't be announced until mid-May, with upfront following sometime later, but that hasn't prevented buyers and sellers from already jockeying for position.

By most accounts the marketplace is expected to move in a more orderly fashion this year, compared with last season. Cost-per-thousand viewer increases, which hit the 20% range last summer, should be more reasonable.

Many buyers say they're still mad at ABC for what they claim was ungentlemanly conduct during last year's upfront: Rushed deadlines, rationing of time and ungodly hours seem to be the main complaints.

But Peter Chrisanthopoulos, who was ABC's main research maven last year and is now president of broadcast programming at Ogilvy & Mather, New York, says, "Each year the upfront starts fresh, and everyone responds to the marketplace."

While advertiser spending isn't likely to diminish in most categories, scatter prices for time bought during the season, the biggest indicator of how the upfront will go, have been reasonable thus far, and not the 50% more than upfront prices that they were last year.

SINGLE-DIGIT GROWTH

"That high premium caused the upfront frenzy last year," says Mike Neavill, media director for AT&T Corp. "The market will be up this year, but I think only in the low single digits."

He says AT&T's spending should be flat next season.

Though the networks continue to see viewership erode, Alan Gottesman, managing director of West End Communications consultancy, says he is surprised prices don't rise even higher than they have.

"Only the broadcast networks can really deliver a truly national gross rating point," he explains. Therefore, when one looks at GRPs as commodities, the rarer they become-due to erosion in viewers-the higher their price should rise because demand for GRPs isn't diminishing.

ALTERNATE STRATEGIES

While client demands force the biggest agencies to participate in the upfront madness, the smaller shops sometimes pursue other strategies.

Elise Lawless, director of media buying at Fahlgren, Atlanta, says she had one client who wanted to make some sports buys upfront, but since the client is on a calendar fiscal year, "we waited until January to make the buys."

The wait turned out to be a smart move. Since the client hadn't made an upfront buy before, "the networks really wanted our money," Ms. Lawless says, "and since the market had softened somewhat since the upfront, I know we got some better buys than some advertisers who made upfront deals last year."

And what about this year? "We're still deciding what do to. Maybe we'll wait until January again," she says. Mr. Van Cleave will love to hear this strategy.

Likewise, mid-size shop Lowe & Partners/SMS, New York, has the luxury of "not having to buy everything," says Alan Jurmain, executive director of media services. "The shops with the mega-budgets really have no place to hide. We can walk away from deals if they are too pricey."

The problem last year was that the market was so strong, almost everything was pricey.

"I don't think Microsoft and the computers will be spending like crazy this time around," Mr. Jurmain says, anticipating a more reasoned upfront this year. "There just won't be as much money working in the marketplace."

Furthermore, he notes, 1997 will not have two major influences upon the 1996 TV market: a U.S.-based Olympics and a national election.

Some of the bigger shops will likely continue to make pre-upfront deals, a strategy Mr. Van Cleave believes is a good one for advertisers who, like his former employer, P&G, are primarily looking for eyeballs.

"Is it worth it to be in a `Seinfeld,' which has a price index of 125-130, or another show with a price index of 90?" he wonders. "Are the women in the target group who watch the show that's less expensive to buy less valuable? I don't think so."

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