NETWORK UPFRONT COMES TO SCREECHING PAUSE

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Fox's New World Communications Group deal inadvertently pushes the pause button on more than $4 billion in 1994-95 upfront prime-time ad deals for the Big 4 networks.

The move could delay the upfront market by weeks, as media departments recalculate the impact the new affiliate lineups have on network coverage and ultimately on audience estimates.

"I would say the operative word is pause," said Jay Schoenfeld, exec VP-media director at Backer Spielvogel Bates Worldwide, New York. "It's a fairly significant variable being added to a process that has always been a bit of a gamble."

The uncertainty comes at a critical time for agency media executives, who this week were expected to start finalizing their prime-time share estimates.

While several major agencies are believed to be close to finalizing some deals for next season, the market traditionally doesn't pick up steam until after Memorial Day weekend and usually wraps up by the Fourth of July.

"Fox's numbers will improve. The question is by how much," said Gerri Donini, president of media independent IDM International. "Fox is talking about [ratings] increases of 6%, or 7% or 8%. But that's probably a little high."

Still, the move should provide Fox with the psychological advantage as the network with the greatest upside potential as a result of the station shifts.

Depending on the network and demographic being compared, Fox can average about a 15% to 20% price deficit vs. the Big 3.

For example, the most expensive show on Fox last fall was "The Simpsons," at $230,000 per 30-second spot, compared with the top rate on the Big 3, which average nearly $300,000 per :30.

Because Fox's 15 prime-time hours per week carry significantly less ad inventory than the 22 hours averaged by the Big 3, and because Fox's prime-time ratings average is about 40% less than the Big 3's, Fox can't hope for an equal share of this year's projected $4 billion prime-time upfront.

But Fox executives are shooting for about $680 million, which would be the net's weighted share of a $4 billion market.

That would represent a 2 percentage-point increase over the 15% share that Fox garnered in last year's $3.6 billion upfront market.

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