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As the new TV season kicks off, there are signs some of the most popular series on prime-time TV are not as healthy as their Nielsen rankings might indicate. Top-rated "ER" is in need of a checkup, while "Frasier" could use some time on the analyst's couch.

As for perennial Fox favorite "The X-Files," there would be no surprise if an investigation is already under way.

The reason for the concern is not simply the erosion of ratings for prime-time broadcast programs. Rather, there's a profound shift in demand for commercial time on the top-ranked series.


According to Advertising Age's annual prime-time pricing survey, the average cost of a 30-second spot on "ER" dipped 4% to $545,000 this fall, down from last year's record $565,000. Prices for another NBC Thursday night mainstay, "Frasier," dropped 2% to $466,000, while unit costs for Fox's "The X-Files" are down 9% to $300,000.

Several other high-rated net-work shows also have seen an inexplicable decline in price, including ABC's "Drew Carey," down 1% to $370,000, and "Spin City," down 21% to $220,000.

The declines are noteworthy. Although some of the shows have started to wane in terms of prime-time audience delivery, they still are seen as among the strongest series on network TV.

The price decline is also surprising given the record upfront sales the broadcast networks raked in last spring, when they sold the bulk of their commercial inventory for the new season. The networks took in more than $7 billion and secured cost-per-thousand increases of 15% to 20%.

But media buyers say the combination of soaring CPMs and sinking ratings is behind the drop in unit prices for some top shows.


"Lower ratings may mean higher CPMs, but it doesn't necessarily mean big rate increases, if any," said Ron Fredrick, executive director of national broadcast at J. Walter Thompson USA, New York.

As for the increased prime-time sales, Mr. Fredrick said it is more likely the result of a move by networks to add more commercial time to shows for the new season. "It's something we are all up in arms about and that we will continue to track," he said.

Prices for some shows are up substantially, a reflection of the emergence of a new class of prime-time favorites, including: NBC's "Friends" (up 20% to $510,000), ABC's "Dharma & Greg" (up 26% to $315,000), Fox's "Ally McBeal" (up 13% to $300,000) and CBS' "Everybody Loves Raymond" (up 69% to $312,000).

None of CBS' top shows experienced price erosion; most, in fact, registered significant gains due to optimistic expectations about the network's ratings performance. CBS still has a few shows that approach the million-dollar-a-minute level, but its average pricing is more stable across the schedule than the other networks. And it experienced the greatest overall pricing increases year-to-year.

"A year ago, 'Everybody Loves Raymond' was still finding itself. Now it's a viable hit. It was the same exact thing that happened to 'Seinfeld' when it first came on NBC," said Frank Campisi, senior VP-media research at SFM Media, New York.

Mr. Campisi said the prime-time pricing shifts are logical when analyzed on a show-by-show basis. For example, he noted "ER" has been hit by the loss of former star George Clooney and a decline in share.

Similarly, he said that a year ago there was "a great deal of heat surrounding 'Frasier' " as it took over the coveted NBC Thursday night time slot formerly held by "Seinfeld." But "Frasier" failed to deliver at "Seinfeld" levels, and audience shares and ad prices have been adjusted accordingly.


The opposite is true for emerging hits such as ABC's "Dharma & Greg" and NBC's "Just Shoot Me" and "Will & Grace."

This year, for the first time, the Ad Age survey of network TV buyers and sellers included the WB and UPN networks. While there are no trend data with which to compare their current performance, the WB is closer in prime-time price value to the Big Four than it is to UPN. While UPN has one viable marketplace hit ("Star Trek: Voyager"), WB has several, including "Dawson's Creek," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "7th Heaven." Two WB newcomers, "Roswell" and "Angel," also showed up close to the top of WB's price chart.

As for freshmen series on the other networks, the initial readings are mixed. ABC's "Once & Again" is generating strong rates ($210,000), but the network's new David Kelley project, "Snoops," has underwhelmed ad buyers ($105,000).

CBS' "Ladies Man" scored a high price primarily because it is sandwiched between hits "Raymond" and "King of Queens." NBC's "Stark Raving Mad" is in a similar position, with a time slot between "Frasier" and "ER."


While Fox has had some of the most talked about new shows coming into the season, the network has yet to win favor with the ad community. "Action," at $121,000, drew only an average rate for Fox. And the new half-hour version of "Ally McBeal," perhaps appropriately has been valued at precisely half the rate of the hourlong original series.

NBC remains the most expensive network, with an average unit rate of $171,114. But that represents a drop of 9% from last year. CBS showed the greatest gains of the big networks, jumping 27% to an average unit rate of $163,773. ABC was just above

that at $165,068. Rounding out the pack were Fox (average: $150,310), WB ($52,769) and UPN ($28,550).

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