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In discussions about prime-time network TV's upfront buying season, agency media buyers and network sellers have differed over the medium's delivery and value.

Despite these disagreements, one observation seems to emerge: this spring will feature a healthy prime-time upfront that should top last year's mark of $6 billion in ad commitments.

"All indications are leading to it being a strong upfront," says Joseph Abruzzese, president of CBS sales. "Scatter has been high. Cutbacks in clients have not been dramatic."

NO LESS IN '97-'98

"I don't see people paying any less for '97-'98 than they did in '96-'97," says Larry Hoffner, president-NBC sales. "It won't be any lower-I just don't know how much more. That will be determined by the law of supply and demand.

"If we put out a package of shows that's at a $20 CPM and nobody's buying it, we'll go down to a $19 CPM," he says.

"Most of our brands have planned for pricing in the low single-digit increases," says Brian McHale, partner-national media director at Cincinnati-based media-buying service Media That Works.

Making these predictions more interesting are forecasts that other TV media could stand to gain from the networks' pricing cable is getting and at their ratings, there's a huge disparity in the relationship," says Perri Stein, senior VP-network sales for UPN. "It doesn't make sense compared to what you get in broadcast. I think you're paying a lot for what you're getting in cable."

In addition, some executives note, many of the best-known programs, are on network TV. On a scale of 1, for least interested, to 5, a group of influential agency media buyers said their interest in upfront time on each of the six broadcast networks was at 3 or higher,

according to Myers Reports. In fact, Fox and NBC received scores of 5 (see chart on Page S-8).

Mr. Hoffner expects NBC's "Must See TV" lineup reign to continue.

"There's no question of the demand-that's where people want to be, advertising on 'Seinfeld' or 'ER,' " he says. "If somebody cares what their advertising programs are, they have to move before they're sold out."

Gene DeWitt, president of DeWitt Media, a New York-based media-buying service, anticipates an increase in most advertisers' budgets coupled with a low supply of network inventory will create a difficult upfront.

"For the first time, some advertisers are looking to make their cable upfront buys ahead of their network buys," Mr. DeWitt says. "Cable ratings are up, but they still can't handle the overflow from the networks. It's going to be a tough media-buying year."


Fox and ABC are already running neck and neck for second place behind NBC for 18-to-49 year olds, according to Jon Nesvig, Fox's president-sales.

"I don't think we have any way to surpass ABC in terms of revenue," he says. "We're ahead of ABC in 18-to-34 [year olds]. We'll certainly narrow that [18-to-49] gap and get in a horse race with ABC" in terms of unit costs.

Buyers say few ideas presented at recent network program development meetings stood out as gems. But among the programming trends noted by some buyers was an emphasis on family-suitable shows.

"ABC's done something pretty smart putting 'Wonderful World of Disney' back on Sunday nights," says Steve Grubbs, exec VP-director of national TV buying, BBDO Worldwide, New York.

"At the networks," Mr. McHale says, "the 8 p.m. time period across the board is a time we're very interested in."

Indeed, Mr. McHale says that time period is the key to determining how well the networks will be able to stave off, or at least slow, their collective ratings decline.

Since the networks will start announcing their fall lineups this week, buyers and sellers agree it's too soon to say with absolute certainty where buyers will put their money, what prices will be or how much money actually will be spent.

"Until we get to the point when someone's ready to see, call or fold, nobody's really sure" how the upfront will play out, Mr. Nesvig says. "Once you get to that point, then there's a crush to get in-if it's a good marketplace-and secure

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