THE NETWORK TV RIDDLE

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Forty-two new prime-time TV series began taking their opening bows last week as the '95-'96 season got under way. Despite increased competition from the new mini-broadcast networks, the onrushing penetration of cable and the proliferation of syndicated programming, ad prices for the top-rated broadcast series reached levels that would have made Super Bowl advertisers blanch a few years ago.

Yet there are already predictions of doom-or at least a slow start-for the Big 4 broadcast nets. Based on patterns of past seasons, they may be down as much as six share points from the same period a year ago.

Conversely, basic cable is enjoying one of its strongest prime-time audience surges ever. In week 51 of the '94-'95 TV season, the aggregate basic cable rating hit a 20.2, cable's highest ever and a strong comparison against the Big 4's 25.7 Nielsen rating for the week. One reason: the expanding reach of the big cable nets. ESPN has become the first basic cable network to reach 70% of U.S. TV households, thanks in part to direct broadcast satellite and wireless cable. Just behind is CNN, in 69.4% of U.S. homes.

So why the near million-dollar-a-minute prices for broadcast's top-rated shows? It's because of the very success of cable and other non-network venues at splitting the mass audience. Like sturdy buildings after an earthquake, a few stalwart broadcast network shows still attract the big numbers so appealing to mass market advertisers. The problem is too much ad money is chasing too few rating points. (For the less discerning advertiser, there are plenty of low-rated network shows with :30s priced at $100,000 or less.)

Meanwhile, if new network owners Disney and Westinghouse look at the price spikes for the top shows and think they're buying money machines, they should be alert to the aftershocks yet to come.

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