AGENCY EXECS: NO BIG HITS IN '99 NET LINEUP; YOUTHFUL PUSH TROUBLES SOME IN ANNUAL AUDIENCE ESTIMATE SURVEY

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There's one sure thing about the network TV season lineup for 1999-2000: There aren't any surefire hits, agency media executives said.

Prognosticators in Advertising Age's annual survey of audience share estimates tended to agree that no new ratings monster is yet visible on the horizon.

None "jump out at us and say gigantic hit," said Steve Sternberg, senior VP-director of broadcast research at TN Media, New York.

Instead, what did jump out at Mr. Sternberg and his colleagues

at other media shops, "is the fact that the networks all preached stability and then made massive lineup changes," according to Helen Katz, senior VP-director of strategic resources for Zenith Media Services, New York.

Mr. Sternberg quantifies the changes: "There are fewer new shows, yes, but on the six broadcast networks, of the 122 prime-time shows, 38 are new and 33 of the returning shows are in new time periods. So, in reality, 58% of the schedule is new.

"This is very confusing to the viewer," Mr. Sternberg continued. "Ten years ago I could tell you, from memory, when every prime-time show was on. Now I have to look at a schedule grid -- and I do this for a living!"

THE MARCH OF YOUTH

Also notable in the upcoming season is the enduring youth march.

"We're surprised at the continuing trend to program toward younger demos," said Jon Swallen, senior partner-director of media research at Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, New York.

ABC, NBC and Fox especially try to cater to 18- to 49-year-old audiences because many on Madison Avenue target that age group.

But "the perception that all advertisers want is younger audiences is exaggerated," Mr. Swallen said.

He added that the prevailing attitude held by many planners and buyers -- that they don't have to target older viewers because they tend to be heavy TV viewers and will generally be found in the mix when younger viewers are targeted -- is somewhat dangerous.

"If you continue to program toward younger viewers, older viewers will eventually go away to cable. I think we'll likely see a greater erosion next season in network shares in older demos," Mr. Swallen said. "And at some point a network does itself harm because it risks devaluing its inventory in terms of number of viewers. If that happens, they won't be able to overcharge enough for the younger viewer to cover the erosion of viewers at the other end."

FOLLOWING THE WB

Mr. Sternberg also is concerned about the wholesale copying of WB programming by the other networks, noting "teens watch less TV than any other [demographic] group."

One program that agencies had a hard time pinpointing was "Freaks & Geeks," NBC's hourlong Saturday, 8 p.m. (ET/PT) comedy about high-school life in the 1980s, which received forecasts ranging from 7 to 12 for audience share.

Another disturbing trend, Mr. Sternberg said, is "that business decisions seem to be outweighing programming decisions when deciding on the fate of some shows."

He noted that for the first time in many years "the Big Four networks, ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox, own more than 51% of their prime-time series."

One manifestation of this is that shows owned by the networks get renewed when otherwise they might be canceled, Mr. Sternberg said.

"Though it must be said that sometimes that's a good thing, as it sometimes takes a show longer to build an audience today," he said.

A number of agency executives noted that shows in the most attractive time slots, such as "Stark Raving Mad" after "Frasier" on NBC Thursday night, and "Oh Grow Up," after "The Drew Carey Show" on ABC Wednesday night, were given those

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