Dharma & Greg: Buyers have high hopes for ABC's returning show. NETS' PACE SLOW, BUT BUYERS DON'T EXPECT PRICE DROP -- NETWORK TV OUTLOOK: 'NETLETS' EXPECT STRONG UPFRONT SEASON

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when compared with the faster pace of the last few years, it looks like the network upfront selling season could be a bit slow this year, at least for the Big Four.

Is it a lack of interest in network offerings, or simply a return to normal?

"There's no indication there will be the urgency that has existed in the marketplace in recent years," says Steve Grubbs, exec-VP national TV buying for BBDO Worldwide, New York. "It's a reflection of the current pace of the first and second quarter scatter markets."

"As far as pace, we think it's going to move a little slower than last year and start a little later this year," says Brian McHale, national media director at Media That Works, Cincinnati.

"It's a softer marketplace. Second quarter is extremely soft. I think people are going to take a breath and a wait-and-see approach. I don't mean it's going to be long and drawn out, I just think people will take a little more time deciding."

"Buyers and sellers are on an even footing," Mr. McHale says, "partly because cable is getting a larger share of advertising budgets than they have in the past. But based on the scatter market, which really is a buyers' market, I think the upfront will be less of a sellers' market than it has in past years."

"This is all pre-upfront posturing, that's all," says Joe Abruzzese, president of CBS Sales. "We don't see it as a soft marketplace or a super buyers' market."

He concedes it will probably be slower than the last couple of years, but doesn't foresee any drastic changes.

"The marketplace is about people getting comfortable with the programs," says Jon Nesvig, Fox's president-sales. "The economy is good, so I don't think there's going to be any dramatic changes in wholesale prices."

Mr. Abruzzese says the second-quarter softening is only part of the equation. He says of the $6.7 billion spent in 1997 on prime-time advertising, a whopping $6.1 billion was billed upfront.

"Only $100 million to $200 million has gone for rates that are below upfront. It's a small piece of it," says Mr. Abruzzese.

Mr. Abruzzese says some buyers forget the $600 million that was spent on the Olympics.

"There's a lot of money that's coming back into the market from the Olympics. That is going to help fuel the upfront."

"The pace always has a lot to do with buyers' and sellers' expectations. I don't think there's any big influencing factor effecting the prime-time market," says Rino Scanzoni, exec-VP national broadcast at TeleVest, New York. "But there are six networks now, adding more inventory."

"UPN and WB have some impact, but their audiences are different from the Big Four networks. They're competing for different budgets," Mr. McHale says.

"We're getting to the point this year that we're being taken seriously," says WB's CEO, Jamie Kellner. "So I expect the upfront will be pretty brisk for us. We'll be dealing with the incumbent advertisers wanting to increase their ads with us."

"Dawson's Creek" -- WB's latest hit -- has already netted $285,000 for a 30-second spot, says Mr. Kellner. It was only a year ago WB executives were cheering as "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" crossed the $100,000 mark for a 30-second spot.

"Distribution is important, but at the end of the day, it's programming that's important," Mr. Scanzoni says. "The success WB has had with `Dawson's Creek' and `Buffy The Vampire Slayer' has gotten the network noticed."

While these shows still aren't pulling the ratings of NBC, they're holding their own. The premier of `Love Boat: The Next Wave' earned UPN its highest household rating in two years for the time period.

Nationally, the premiere episode pulled in a 4.5 rating and an 8 share, and the second episode held 77% of the audience.

The show's successful launch has UPN anticipating a strong upfront.

"If you put on a good show, the numbers will come. The ratings on the `Love Boat' show distribution is not a problem," says Perri Stein, senior-VP network sales for UPN. Ms. Stein also expects UPN's animated version of "Dilbert" to do well.

Until fall schedules are finalized, it's too early for buyers to comment on new shows, but they've got high hopes for several returning shows.

"ABC has `Dharma & Greg', Fox has `Ally McBeal,' NBC has `Just Shoot Me,' CBS has `Kids Say the Darndest Things,' " Mr. Scanzoni says.

"Fox is having a very good year," Mr. McHale says. "They're really expecting it to continue, and I think it will. Fox would love to have another `Ally McBeal' -- anyone would love to have another `Ally McBeal.' It's been a surprise hit, and most buyers didn't predict its success."

"Certainly `Ally McBeal' is the hottest thing out there," Mr. Nesvig says. "But `The X-Files,' `The Simpsons,' `King of the Hill,' `Party of Five,' and the soaps -- `Melrose Place' and `90210' are still going strong."

"ABC has `Dharma & Greg' but beyond that, they have some programming issues to address. They need some new hits, many of their current hit shows are a little long in the tooth," Mr. Grubbs says. "On NBC, I think `Caroline in the City' is creating a lot of buzz. It's a good show and it's very well written. `Law & Order' is a strong drama for them. On CBS, I still like `Everybody Loves Raymond.' "

"Our Sunday nights should continue to be really strong, especially with the NFL promotion," Mr. Abruzzese says. "We're definitely in an upswing."

As for the Big Four, "I think there's going to be two-tier pricing," says Gene DeWitt, president at DeWitt Media, New York. He says "first class" shows like "E.R." might command a 20%-30% premium over lower-rated "coach class" shows. "There aren't that many high-rated programs left. NBC's Thursday night is up in the air."

"NBC's loss of `Seinfeld' gives the other networks an edge, because no matter what NBC puts there, they aren't going to get the same numbers as `Seinfeld,' " Mr. McHale says.

As for the upcoming season, Mr. Grubbs says, "The biggest question mark will be Thursday nights on NBC and what they put in that [9 p.m.] time slot because that's the bridge between their [8 p.m.] hit show and their [10 p.m.] hit show."when compared with the faster pace of the last few years, it looks like the network upfront selling season could be a bit slow this year, at least for the Big Four.

Is it a lack of interest in network offerings, or simply a return to normal?

"There's no indication there will be the urgency that has existed in the marketplace in recent years," says Steve Grubbs, exec-VP national TV buying for BBDO Worldwide, New York. "It's a reflection of the current pace of the first and second quarter scatter markets."

"As far as pace, we think it's going to move a little slower than last year and start a little later this year," says Brian McHale, national media director at Media That Works, Cincinnati.

"It's a softer marketplace. Second quarter is extremely soft. I think people are going to take a breath and a wait-and-see approach. I don't mean it's going to be long and drawn out, I just think people will take a little more time deciding."

"Buyers and sellers are on an even footing," Mr. McHale says, "partly because cable is getting a larger share of advertising budgets than they have in the past. But based on the scatter market, which really is a buyers' market, I think the upfront will be less of a sellers' market than it has in past years."

"This is all pre-upfront posturing, that's all," says Joe Abruzzese, president of CBS Sales. "We don't see it as a soft marketplace or a super buyers' market."

He concedes it will probably be slower than the last couple of years, but doesn't foresee any drastic changes.

"The marketplace is about people getting comfortable with the programs," says Jon Nesvig, Fox's president-sales. "The economy is good, so I don't think there's going to be any dramatic changes in wholesale prices."

Mr. Abruzzese says the second-quarter softening is only part of the equation. He says of the $6.7 billion spent in 1997 on prime-time advertising, a whopping $6.1 billion was billed upfront.

"Only $100 million to $200 million has gone for rates that are below upfront. It's a small piece of it," says Mr. Abruzzese.

Mr. Abruzzese says some buyers forget the $600 million that was spent on the Olympics.

"There's a lot of money that's coming back into the market from the Olympics. That is going to help fuel the upfront."

"The pace always has a lot to do with buyers' and sellers' expectations. I don't think there's any big influencing factor effecting the prime-time market," says Rino Scanzoni, exec-VP national broadcast at TeleVest, New York. "But there are six networks now, adding more inventory."

"UPN and WB have some impact, but their audiences are different from the Big Four networks. They're competing for different budgets," Mr. McHale says.

"We're getting to the point this year that we're being taken seriously," says WB's CEO, Jamie Kellner. "So I expect the upfront will be pretty brisk for us. We'll be dealing with the incumbent advertisers wanting to increase their ads with us."

"Dawson's Creek" -- WB's latest hit -- has already netted $285,000 for a 30-second spot, says Mr. Kellner. It was only a year ago WB executives were cheering as "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" crossed the $100,000 mark for a 30-second spot.

"Distribution is important, but at the end of the day, it's programming that's important," Mr. Scanzoni says. "The success WB has had with `Dawson's Creek' and `Buffy The Vampire Slayer' has gotten the network noticed."

While these shows still aren't pulling the ratings of NBC, they're holding their own. The premier of `Love Boat: The Next Wave' earned UPN its highest household rating in two years for the time period.

Nationally, the premiere episode pulled in a 4.5 rating and an 8 share, and the second episode held 77% of the audience.

The show's successful launch has UPN anticipating a strong upfront.

"If you put on a good show, the numbers will come. The ratings on the `Love Boat' show distribution is not a problem," says Perri Stein, senior-VP network sales for UPN. Ms. Stein also expects UPN's animated version of "Dilbert" to do well.

Until fall schedules are finalized, it's too early for buyers to comment on new shows, but they've got high hopes for several returning shows.

"ABC has `Dharma & Greg', Fox has `Ally McBeal,' NBC has `Just Shoot Me,' CBS has `Kids Say the Darndest Things,' " Mr. Scanzoni says.

"Fox is having a very good year," Mr. McHale says. "They're really expecting it to continue, and I think it will. Fox would love to have another `Ally McBeal' -- anyone would love to have another `Ally McBeal.' It's been a surprise hit, and most buyers didn't predict its success."

"Certainly `Ally McBeal' is the hottest thing out there," Mr. Nesvig says. "But `The X-Files,' `The Simpsons,' `King of the Hill,' `Party of Five,' and the soaps -- `Melrose Place' and `90210' are still going strong."

"ABC has `Dharma & Greg' but beyond that, they have some programming issues to address. They need some new hits, many of their current hit shows are a little long in the tooth," Mr. Grubbs says. "On NBC, I think `Caroline in the City' is creating a lot of buzz. It's a good show and it's very well written. `Law & Order' is a strong drama for them. On CBS, I still like `Everybody Loves Raymond.' "

"Our Sunday nights should continue to be really strong, especially with the NFL promotion," Mr. Abruzzese says. "We're definitely in an upswing."

As for the Big Four, "I think there's going to be two-tier pricing," says Gene DeWitt, president at DeWitt Media, New York. He says "first class" shows like "E.R." might command a 20%-30% premium over lower-rated "coach class" shows. "There aren't that many high-rated programs left. NBC's Thursday night is up in the air."

"NBC's loss of `Seinfeld' gives the other networks an edge, because no matter what NBC puts there, they aren't going to get the same numbers as `Seinfeld,' " Mr. McHale says.

As for the upcoming season, Mr. Grubbs says, "The biggest question mark will be Thursday nights on NBC and what they put in that [9 p.m.] time slot because that's the bridge between their [8 p.m.] hit show and their [10 p.m.] hit show."

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