WEAK UPFRONT MARKET COULD DIP BELOW $6 BIL

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The broadcast prime-time upfront marketplace drawing to a close appears to be one of the weakest in years, with sales flat or down from last year's roughly $6 billion.

A number of major ad agency buyers said this year's upfront season -- when the bulk of the networks' commercial time is booked in advance -- could stall at between $5.7 billion and $5.8 billion. Some believe when the dust settles, the market might again hit $6 billion.

WOULD MARK A REVERSAL

But flat sales would be a disappointment and mark a reversal from the strong gains in upfront spending in recent years that have come despite shrinking ratings for the broadcast networks. Last year's upfront performance represented a less than 4% gain from 1996. The last time upfront sales were flat was the '93-'94 season.

Even prime-time powerhouse NBC may not repeat its performance from last year, when its upfront sales topped $2 billion, though network insiders insist it will hit that number.

SOFTNESS IN DAYTIME SALES

In another surprising development, the daytime market was also softer than expected, attributed by buyers and sellers to a major shift of money from the daypart by Procter & Gamble Co., the nation's largest national advertiser.

"They pulled 25% to 50% of their money out of daytime," said one dismayed network executive.

One executive familiar with P&G said the cutback could have amounted to about $50 million.

P&G's TV buying agency, TeleVest, New York, declined comment.

"When P&G consolidated at TeleVest, part of their mandate was to break through the artificial barriers of dayparts," said another network executive. "And with optimizers and such, I think they might have decided they had too much frequency against that audience, so they redistributed that money."

Back in prime time, ABC insiders said that network will hit at least $1.6 billion in sales, a number about which some media buyers are skeptical. That would be about the same as last year. CBS also is expected to be flat at about $1.2 billion.

FOX TO HIT $1.1 BIL

Fox Broadcasting Co., with programming drawing viewers with appealing demographics, should also hit last year's mark at $1.1 billion.

WB insiders said that network will likely end up north of $300 million; others peg it closer to $250 million. In either case, it's more than double what the network took in last year.

"Most of my clients love the network and the buzz it's got among young people," said one buyer. "One of our clients is a studio and the WB is looking for [steep cost-per-thousand] increases of 23% to 25% for them."

While WB got average CPM increases in the high teens, Fox averaged gains of 7% to 9%,; NBC, 5% to 7%; CBS, 2% to 4%; and ABC, 1% to 2%. Averages could vary based on advertisers' program mix.

FORD, FOX HUDDLING

One ongoing negotiation at press time underscored the complexity of the current environment. Executives familiar with the talks said Ford Motor Co. and Fox were trying to work out a major media deal that would include time on Fox's National Football League broadcasts and on a number of the Fox cable properties, which include FX, Fox Family Channel, Fox Sports Net and Fox Cable News.

Neither Fox nor Ford Motor Media Co. would comment.

Buyers are now turning their attention back to cable.

In a significant shift, MCI Communications Corp. is said to be planning to double its cable spending this year. In 1997, MCI spent $53 million in cable, says Competitive Media Reporting. MCI buyer SFM Media wouldn't comment.

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