TV'S UPFRONT: TOTAL VOLUME BIG QUESTION; FEW CHEAP EARLY DEALS SEEN: CABLETV OUTLOOK: FOR SOME BUYERS, 'NOT THAT BIG A DIFFERENCE' BETWEEN MOVIES ON OPPOSING NETWORKS

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This year's cable tv upfront buying season may be turning into a war of nerves.

After years of cutting big, inexpensive deals early to guarantee a piece of the upfront pie, a number of cable networks seem to be holding back their inventory this time around.

Convinced that steadily improving ratings and hard-to-reach viewerships ultimately will prove irresistible to advertisers, cable networks intend to put on the screws for big increases in cost per thousand viewers.

CONFIDENCE SHOWS

"It is no longer a question of whether money is going to be pouring into cable but how much," says David T. Cassaro, senior VP-ad sales for E! Entertainment Television.

The confidence brought on by that realization, he says, should keep the upfront marketplace from the "panicked" atmosphere of previous years.

High single-digit and low double-digit CPM increases are the current expectation, Mr. Cassaro says.

"And those who wait until the appropriate time will probably get the best prices," he says. "I don't think anyone in their right mind is cutting cheap deals early."

Indeed, offers by agencies such as Leo Burnett USA, Chicago, and TeleVest, the New York-based media-buying arm of MacManus Group-which have made a habit of quickly getting in and out of cable's upfront with big chunks of ad time-have already been rebuffed this year, according to one cable ad sales executive.

HOLDING OUT

In other words, cable networks intend to get their asking prices, even if it takes a while.

By presstime, Burentt executives had not commented and TeleVest representatives had not responded to repeated phone calls.

To Rick Sirvaitis, it is merely a matter of cable getting what has long been overdue.

The president of International Family Entertainment Advertising Sales, which sells ad time for Family Channel, expects cable to be a big winner in this year's upfront marketplace.

"We see this as a very strong upfront for all of cable TV," he says, and healthy increases in CPMs should be the order of the day.

"Cable, overall, roughly delivers over 30% of all audience share but gets only slightly more than 20% of all national TV revenue," Mr. Sirvaitis explains. "That situation could continue, [but] we expect sometime for the revenue to catch up to the audience shifts."

One factor driving price jumps, he says, is the entrance of new product categories into the marketplace, such as mutual funds, and more aggressive spending by movies and newly approved over-the-counter medications.

DESERVES HIGHER CPM

In addition, Mr. Sirvaitis says, "whenever you have got a targeted vehicle like cable, you should get a higher CPM."

However, one media buyer has a word of warning for cable nets that might try to play a little too much hard ball on price.

"I think they will go for big CPM increases, but they have to be careful when there are so many opportunities," says Doug Seay, senior VP at Hal Riney & Partners, New York.

Unlike the network marketplace, he says, "There is little fear that cable will be sold out in general and that reality tends to moderate increases."

Mr. Seay also points out cable has a much stricter caste system than the broadcast networks: "There are so many players that it sort of tiers them."

Along those lines, a group of influential agency media buyers said their interest in securing upfront time on various cable networks varied by network, according to Myers Reports. In contrast, these buyers were generally upbeat about all broadcast networks, including UPN and WB Network (see charts at left and on Page S-8).

At the same time, there is little he sees to differentiate between networks that share similar ratings points.

"There is just not that big a difference between a TNT movie or a Lifetime movie or a USA movie," Mr. Seay says. "It is the movie people watch [in that case], not the network."

MISSING MOTIVATION

With that in mind, he says, "There is no reason for the upfront market to move very quickly, particularly since cable negotiations tend to be more orderly and draw out a little longer" than network.

Overall in this year's upfront market, Mr. Seay predicts, "The major guys are going to try for larger CPM increases and the mid-tier and lower ones are going to go after share."

A buyer for a New York-based agency says that while "once again, people are out shopping for early, cheap deals. From the people that I have talked to, they are not in the cheap-deal mode. The upfront market will bring high single-digit increases and some cases for low double-digit."

TURNER STUDY

One question remaining is whether "what Turner has done is successful in bringing more money into the market," he adds, referring to a Turner Broadcasting Sales-commissioned study by A.C. Nielsen.

The study purports to show that the decline in broadcast prime-time ratings,

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