WITH RATINGS OFF AND PRICES UP, UPFRONT UP FOR GRABS; NETWORKS FEED OFF ECONOMY: AND TO NO SURPRISE, 'EVERYBODY WANTS TO BE WB'S FRIEND'

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Most media buyers and network sales executives agree on one point: A booming economy plus a surge of new technology and Internet companies should make for a strong upfront selling season.

"A strong economy never hurts," says Keith Turner, president of NBC sales and marketing. "but it really depends on new products and launches." Based on healthy first and second quarter scatter markets, and indicators that the third quarter is off to a good start, "I expect it to be an extremely healthy upfront."

"The surprise this year was the new players that showed up. Everyone had 'dot com' after their name," says Michael Mandelker, exec VP-network sales at UPN.

LOOK TO NEW CATEGORIES

"With the ongoing strength of the economy as well as a lot of action from new categories -- particularly technology and telecom -- plus all of the traditional categories, we anticipate a strong upfront," says Jon Nesvig, president of sales for Fox Broadcasting.

However, the Internet companies could ignore the upfront to participate in the scatter market.

"We believe it's these new advertisers that are going to be in the upfront for the first time that will help fuel the upfront," says David Poltrack, exec VP-research and planning for CBS. "We call them the 'price inelastic advertisers.' They really want the premium product, and are willing to pay a premium price."

Everything from Internet portals and search engines to those multi-numbered discount calling plans are vying for attention in a highly competitive marketplace.

"The overview from a seller's standing point is very bullish," says Gene DeWitt, chairman-CEO of DeWitt Media, New York. "They're getting very good increases in scatter this year. And the tremendous boon in the economy means our clients have bigger budgets."

Even so, the economy can't make up for the decline in overall network ratings.

"Everybody's down from last year. It's really tough when ratings are down and ad rates are up. It's really going to be a tough upfront," Mr. DeWitt says.

"People still realize the value of network prime time, even with the erosion," says Andrew Donchin, VP-director of national broadcast for Carat USA, New York. "Still, I think it's going to be a fast upfront, and relatively strong, but not as strong as most people think it's going to be."

Mr. DeWitt cites Nielsen Media Research's controversial Syndicate Quad Study when discussing why network remains a good value despite erosion.

"What [the study] seems to indicate is viewers tend to be very loyal to the top-rated network shows. The thing that gives credence to this study is it was originally commissioned by the cable networks, but it's saying that the cable networks are getting audience for minutes, not for hours. That makes a big difference to media buyers."

WB CAN CROW

"You've got basically one broadcast network out there with a good story to tell, and that's WB," says Chris Geraci, senior VP-group director for BBDO Worldwide, New York. "I don't think there's anyone else out there who can even approach their growth. They have a real hold on the audiences."

Even a top UPN executive agrees.

"The marketplace leader will be WB," Mr. Mandelker says. "Everybody wants to be their friend. People who snubbed the WB two years ago, today can't get enough. WB has taken the 18-34 portion of Fox's business, and Fox will try to replace it with the 18-49 of NBC. NBC will have to look elsewhere."

ATTRACTING DEMOS

"We remain the No. 1 network, particularly with adults 18-49 with $75,000-plus income," says NBC's Mr. Turner. "I don't think Fox is worrying about the WB taking away its viewers. Everybody's just trying to program to attract the best demographics."

"I think WB is entering a very interesting phase," says Jed Petrick, exec VP-media sales at WB.

"We've got a pretty deep current customer base," he says, and following the tremendous success of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Dawson's Creek" over the past 16 months, "a whole new group of advertisers who only got their toes wet in scatter will probably be buying in the upfront this time."

"WB is doing well because Jamie Kellner [CEO for WB] and his people are really smart," Mr. DeWitt says.

"NBC has not had a great year. They need a hit," Mr. Geraci says. "CBS is getting better, but still skewing old."

NBC has the Sydney Olympics coming up.

"We're more than halfway sold for the Olympics in 2000," Mr. Turner says.

MILLENNIUM QUESTIONS

In the back of their minds many people are wondering how the coming millennium will effect TV advertising.

Internet and high-tech will advertise, touting the dawning of a new age. Major marketers will have millennium tie-ins with their ads, but no drastic impact is anticipated.

"In the fourth quarter, the millennium theme will be nostalgic, reflecting back on the 20th Century," Mr. Poltrack predicts. "Once we make the turn to the new millennium, the theme will look to the future, and will continue through the

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