NBC EASES INTO UPFRONT; ABCSCRAMBLES FOR DEALS: NO. 1 PEACOCK NETWORK WANTS TO CINCH $2.15 BIL IN ADVANCE SALES

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Ad agencies representing automotive and movie advertisers, two of the biggest-spending categories on network TV, were busy closing deals late last week as the upfront marketplace for fall prime time broke in earnest.

But the biggest surprise, said a number of top agency and independent media buying executives, was that No. 1 NBC did not attack the marketplace more aggressively.

MORE LEISURELY PACE

Ironically, while most buyers like the more leisurely pace of what is typically an intense scramble for network deals, they wonder if the situation is really in NBC's best interest.

"I'm not talking about the [cost-per-thousand] increases they're getting," said one of the agency executives. "They're certainly plenty aggressive about that. What I mean is the fact they're waiting until after the [May 31-June 1] weekend to release pricing for all the other categories" besides auto and movies.

"Meanwhile," he continued, "ABC is scrambling to write as much business as it can."

Though NBC declined to comment on upfront sales or deals, one executive familiar with the network's plans said, "They feel they're in control, based on their ratings, and they don't feel you can seriously deal with ABC before you see [NBC's] pricing."

NBC, which hit the $2 billion mark during last year's advance sales period for fall, is said to be looking to write about $2.15 billion this year, up 7.5%.

Fox, meanwhile, knowing its strong market position, was shadowing NBC, pursuing only the auto and movies business last week. CBS also closed business in those categories, though the studios generally consider CBS, which has an older skewing audience, less important.

DISNEY HUDDLES

While most of the agencies representing movies, such as DDB Needham Worldwide (Universal Pictures) and TeleVest (Paramount Pictures), were done with their deals last week, late Friday Western International Media, which represents Walt Disney Co., was still huddled in negotiations with the networks.

Both NBC and Fox were writing movie deals with CPM increases in the 12% to 14% range. ABC was writing business in the 9% range, buyers said.

While agency media buyers are usually upset with at least one of the Big 4 networks by this time in the dealmaking process, this year they've saved their ire for the new networks, WB and UPN.

"I don't know which [one of the two] is worse," one buyer said. "They're looking for increases up to 40%."

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