UPFRONT SALES SURGE TO $7 BILLION: DESPITE AUDIENCE DECLINES, NETS SEE HEALTHY 17% PRIME-TIME GAIN

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The broadcast network upfront marketplace was blazing hot last week, with buyers and sellers predicting prime-time sales could break the $7 billion barrier.

That would mark a stunning 17% increase from last year, making this the strongest marketplace in years.

"I think everyone had expected a strong seller's market, but this was beyond all expectation," said one buyer. Added a top network seller, "In my 25 years of doing this, this is the first upfront that's closed before Memorial Day."

DEALING INTO WEE HOURS

Buyers and sellers negotiated through late nights and early mornings, often cutting deals until 4:30 a.m. during the latter half of last week.

The WB was the hottest network, writing $425 million worth of business, a 45.5% increase from the $292 million the network wrote last year, according to executives close to the network. Cost-per-thousand increases for the network, which primarily targets 12- to 34-year-olds, were in the astonishing range of 28% to 35%.

But the high CPM jump may have cost the WB some business. "I understand that they were having trouble closing Volkswagen, which then put a percentage of that money in late-night on CBS and NBC," said one network executive, who added that the automaker and WB finally did reach agreement.

Jed Petrick, the WB's exec VP-media sales, was unavailable to comment, as were the other networks' top sales executives.

MEDIAVEST-ABC 'BAD BLOOD'

Another big story developing at week's end was the difficulty MediaVest, the nation's biggest buyer of network TV time, was having closing deals with ABC.

"There's an incredible amount of bad blood there," said one rival media shop executive.

Fox Broadcasting, with a strong showing in 18-to-49-year-olds this past season, had just about wrapped things up by the morning of May 28, hitting close to $1.3 billion in sales, up 15% to 20% from last year. CPM increases on Fox averaged in the 15% to 17% range, according to buyers and sellers.

NBC, which set a record last year by writing more than $2 billion worth of prime-time upfront business, was struggling to match that number this year, but was expected to make it due to the strength of the market. At midweek, buyers were bragging that they could land CPM increases of about 9.5% on the peacock network. But by week's end, NBC was demanding 12% to 13% increases.

$1.45 BILLION FOR CBS

CBS, which closed the season No. 1 in households -- though it continues to lag in the young demos most marketers still crave -- was writing CPM increases in the mid-teen range. It should hit $1.45 billion in sales, up 20.8%.

"CBS was so strong I hear it even turned down some incremental studio money," said one media executive familiar with the proposed deal.

One network insider said it was because the money was not off a high CPM base and that the network replaced it with money that was "non-soft," that is not subject to a 30-day cancellation.

Yet a second network insider denied the network turned the money down.

ABC was averaging CPM increases in the 12% to 14% range. Besides its problems with MediaVest, agency buyers said ABC had not come to terms with at least one major auto company for "Nightline."

"A major story going forward is to see how much money will be in the scatter market after this huge upfront, and what rates it will go for," said one seller. "Most of the networks sold out 80% or more of their inventory."

10% CPM HIKES FOR LATE-NIGHT

In other dayparts, late-night was commanding 8% to 10% CPM increases. Early-morning, with the heated battle between NBC's "Today," ABC's "Good Morning America" and the upcoming Bryant Gumbel show on CBS, was getting 10% to 12% CPM increases.

On the daytime side, CBS, with the No. 1 daytime lineup, was getting 5% to 6% CPM increases, followed by 5% increases at ABC and 3% to 4% increases at NBC. The NBC numbers are hard to calculate since it's adding a new show, "Later Today," that the network wanted to write at early- morning rates; buyers wanted to use lower daytime numbers.

UPN was expected to hit $170 million to $180 million, up about 30% from last year.

Cable networks were sneaking in deals as well. Mediacom, MediaVest, TN Media and Lowe & Partners/ SMS, all New York, plus Starcom Worldwide, Chicago, and Rubin Postaer & Associates, Santa Monica, Calif., were all said to be active in cable last week. And some of the bigger cable networks have already sold about half

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