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"Nowhere to hide."

That's how one anxious buyer described overflowing ad budgets that marketers have to place on a dwindling supply of network TV ratings for the 1995-96 season.

For the first time ever in an adult TV marketplace, broadcast network sales managers are talking about rationing, or "capping," the amount of time any given advertiser can purchase.

The unusual practice, which has only been adopted in the airtight kids TV marketplace, would set a predetermined level-probably no more than an advertiser's previous year's budget-that's available for that advertiser in the upcoming season.

At press time, the entire TV syndication market had moved at close to $2 billion in upfront sales, and negotiations with national cable TV networks were in high gear for what will likely be nearly $1.5 billion in upfront ad deals.

The cable market is expected to break wide open this week, as will the Big 3's daytime TV upfront, just as the first of the broadcast networks-ABC, NBC and UPN-unveil their prime-time schedules for next fall.

By the middle of next week, after WB, Fox and CBS have shown their prime-time cards, negotiations in the network marketplace will be well under way, with some predicting the entire market will wrap up within only a few weeks.

"Instead of July 4 [the upfront season's traditional close], it may be June 4," said Jerry Dominus, exec VP-director of national broadcast at J. Walter Thompson USA, New York.

When all is done, a record of more than $10 billion in national broadcast and cable TV upfront ad deals will have been committed for the coming season, with price increases anticipated to average well into the double digits and as high as 20% over 1994-95 ad deals.

Some buyers think the rationing tactic may just be another sales ploy to rally an already nervous marketplace, but others think it may be a safety measure for networks.

"In a market like this, people tend to overspend with the understanding that they can always cancel some of their buys later if it turns out they don't need it," said Aaron Cohen, senior VP-director of broadcast at N.W. Ayer & Partners' Media Edge.

The networks are also expected to be tougher on other terms of 1995-96 upfront buys, including the amount that is cancelable. Normally, as much as a third of all upfront buys are cancelable.

Both buyers and sellers are concerned about the long-term implications for the economy, and even though current market conditions are strong, the networks would like the added insurance of firmer deals in the event that the economy takes a dip later in the year.

Most buyers don't see that coming at this point, because 1995-96 will be an Olympics and election season that will fuel incremental spending even further.

NBC has already sold close to its $600 million goal of 1996 Summer Olympics ratings, which will displace a huge chunk of valuable inventory that summer. And incremental spending from political advertisers will mean added competition for conventional advertisers in both the network and national spot TV marketplaces throughout the summer and into the fall of 1996.

"If we are going to see any softness in the marketplace, it won't be until the fourth-quarter 1996, because the political dollars will eat up the third quarter. But even that should take us into November, and then we'll be into the pre-Christmas surge, so I don't see how 1996 could be weak unless there was a devastating development in our economy. I see 1996 as extremely tight and extremely volatile," said Jim Dragoumis, VP-director of national broadcast at KSL Media.

Volatility has been a big factor in fueling demand, said Mr. Dragoumis. He noted that in the current spot TV marketplace, there are markets that are "raising rates in the double digits from one week to the next."

"All the national media have filled up so fully that we in spot anticipate a very good back six months," said Jack Oken, president of spot TV sales representative MMT Sales. "We had a very good first six months with business up in the high single digits and right now things are extraordinary. There are individual markets where you simply can't get on unless you make it worth a station's while. And that usually means pre-empting an existing advertiser for a much higher rate."

As a result, Mr. Oken predicted, "It's possible that we in the spot TV industry will have our third double-digit increase in a row in 1996."

The tightness of the spot TV marketplace adds further pressure to the national TV marketplace, because more borderline spot advertisers will be going into the network upfront this year and because traditional network advertisers will have nowhere to place spillover dollars in the spot TV marketplace.

Another factor driving upfront demand has been one of the most incredibly tight scatter markets in recent memory.

In the third quarter, ABC, CBS and Fox are said to be completely sold out, and NBC is said to be getting increases as high as 40% over what advertisers paid in the upfront marketplace for the units that the peacock network has available.

The third quarter tops off a scatter season that has tightened increasingly since last fall and that became so acute for CBS that some buyers said the network actually had to adopt the unprecedented practice of giving advertisers cash back for ratings underdelivery.

CBS executives deny that but say that could happen by the end of the season. What CBS executives concede, however, is that they asked some advertisers to relinquish part of their prime-time commitments to free up make-good units for other advertisers.

Based on all these indications, buyers and sellers predict the prime-time network upfront could easily rise more than 8% to top the $5 billion mark for the first time ever. Daytime will likely rise close to 10% to about $1.1 billion. Late night and news will likely total close to another $1 billion.

The $1 billion sports upfront also got going last week, as major incumbent NFL advertisers began negotiations for next season.

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