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The 1994-95 upfront mating season has moved from first to second base.

At least two major ad agencies, with combined network TV billings of more than $1 billion, have made offers to the Big 3 networks for prime-time season ad packages.

The offers are unusually early in that the networks haven't even announced next season's schedules yet. Typically, agencies wait until the schedules are set, so media buyers can estimate the share of audience new shows will attract.

But a media executive at one of those agencies said he hopes to close deals with at least two networks soon.

"We've submitted our prime-time plans, and the networks are not being that bullish," he said, noting CBS and NBC are seeking only low single-digit price increases.

Marvin Goldsmith, ABC president of sales and marketing, said he doesn't expect his network to be in double digits. That's despite the fact ABC has had the greatest growth in prime time and has the most strong new shows introduced this season.

"ABC is on the come," said an agency executive, noting that ratings for its top-rated "Home Improvement" are up 1% and that the network has introduced some of the hottest new shows of the 1993-94 season, including "NYPD Blue," "Grace Under Fire" and "These Friends of Mine."

While CBS is performing well overall in the ratings, its top shows are all down, including "60 Minutes," "Murphy Brown," "Northern Exposure" and "Rescue 911."

"Their top 5 shows are down an average of 6%," said one buyer.

Fox is expected to be relatively flat when it comes to pricing for the coming season.

Exactly how many agencies have submitted plans to the networks couldn't be determined, but Grey Advertising, New York, with about $660 million in annual network TV spending, was described as "real active" by one network executive.

Other big agencies, including D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, New York, and Leo Burnett USA, Chicago, customarily cut early deals. Because of the amount of ad time they need to buy, those agencies usually can't risk waiting and being shut out of the market.

While the Big 3 networks are being conservative in their initial prime-time pricing, they're confident the 1994-95 market will be bigger and stronger than the past three upfronts. They note that key categories such as automotive are doing well and are spending heavily again, that prices for the 1993-94 scatter markets have been higher than upfront prices and that advertisers have exercised relatively few of their second- and third-quarter cancellation options.

They also say that about $250 million of 1994 Winter Olympics ad spending should flow back into 1994-95 prime-time budgets.

As a result, Big 3 ad executives project prime-time upfront should top $4 billion this year, up from about $3.6 billion last season.

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