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Newly bullish ad spending predictions are jibing with the strength of the upfront ad marketplace for the Big 4 networks' 1994-95 season.

Network executives expect the prime-time market to close out this week at nearly $4.4 billion, up about 22% from last year.

That rise makes for the biggest prime-time upfront ever, surpassing the 1990-91 record of $4.3 billion.

Those increases echo the revised media spending outlook of Robert Coen, senior VP at McCann-Erickson Worldwide, New York.

Mr. Coen now predicts U.S. ad expenditures will hit $148 billion this year, a 7.3% jump from '93 and a full point above what he forecast for the year last December.

"It's a good year for media," he said. "We were optimistic about 1994, and given what we know, now we can be a little more optimistic."

Indeed, Mr. Coen predicts ad revenue for the Big 4 will rise 7.8% this year.

Overall in the U.S. during the first quarter, network TV experienced the greatest media ad gain, a 24.8% increase over the first quarter of last year. Spot radio followed with a 14% gain and then spot TV, up 13.4%.

The Winter Olympics and an overall economic uptick contributed to what the typically optimistic Mr. Coen said was the "strongest magnitude" of ad spending growth in a decade.

For 1995, Mr. Coen forecasts a 6.6% increase to $157.7 billion.

Ad growth overseas is lagging behind the U.S., especially in Europe. Mr. Coen said a full recovery in overseas advertising, with expected growth of between 4% and 5% in '94, won't occur until late this year or early '95.

Total worldwide ad spending is projected at $318.3 billion this year, a 5.7% gain over '93. Mr. Coen revised his forecast from the 5.5% increase he predicted for the year last December.

Mr. Coen said early '94 growth will slow somewhat later into the year, but there has been no sign of a slowdown in network upfront.

The market has reached a virtual sellout position in the span of only a few weeks, compared with the past several seasons when upfront sales trickled in over the course of months.

ABC is expected to emerge as the overall volume leader with about a $1.35 billion share of prime time. CBS and NBC are expected to take in a little more than $1.2 billion and $1.1 billion, respectively, and Fox is expected to close in on $700 million.

The Fox gain is significant. Fox has 50% fewer hours of prime-time programming and less than half the prime-time rating points of the Big 3 average. But Fox benefited big this year from the recent deals Rupert Murdoch made to carry the NFL and to pick up distribution on New World Entertainment Group's network-affiliated stations.

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