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Would that the Olympics were once a year.

TV networks wish they were because advertising in the medium in first-quarter 1995 cooled to depressed levels compared with the steamy spending backing the Winter Games in Lillehammer during the comparable quarter of 1994.

Network TV dropped 2.3% in advertising among all brands from the year-earlier period, and would have suffered a really precipitous fall had not the nation's Top 200 brands rallied to post a 4.3% gain in the medium.

In fact, these big spenders pushed their weight around the entire media chain to influence an 8.3% gain to $13.3 billion in all media. The 200's share was $5.5 billion, up 14.1%, according to the Advertising Age Top 200 megabrands report.

AT&T continued its long reign atop the chart at $189.6 million, although its 6.8% growth was one of its smallest quarterly gains in several years, according to spending totals from 11 media compiled by Competitive Media Reporting for this report.

The telecommunications giant shifted its media muscle from network TV, dropping the medium from 45% to 36% of its media mix. Its big media gainers were network and spot radio, from a combined 2% of budget to 8%; syndicated TV from 5% to 8%, and magazines from 2% to 7%. AT&T's network TV total dropped 14.7% from the prior-year period, a sign of the Olympics' sponge effect on network TV.

Network TV aside, this year's first quarter had its own laudable spending levels. Spot TV for the 200 rose 11.6%, newspapers 19.7%, magazines 32.6% and cable 22.1%, proof that the ad market remains robust and that Olympics advertising is primarily a network TV mainliner.

In 1994's first quarter, for example, the 200's network TV rose 31.7%, spot TV 25.1% and local newspapers 13.6%, this against a depressed first quarter of 1993. Media growth for 1993 was only 4.7% for all advertising.

Spot TV and magazines can credit the Top 200's auto category with driving up their ad totals in first quarter '95. Indeed, autos are the locomotive that drive the media market as a whole.

The category claims one-fourth of the spending of the Top 200, a group that represents nearly 42% of the media pie for all brands nationally. Also, this Top 200 category hasn't slipped beneath double-digit growth since mid-1993, when car sales were depressed.

Growth in first-quarter auto ad spending advanced 24.1%, with 15 U.S. brands accounting for 61% of category spending and 11 Asian makes, 34%.

The auto category infused $310.5 million into magazines, up 36.7% from '94 first-quarter levels. That represented 14% of all magazine spending.

Spot TV drew auto expenditures of $354.7 million from the 200, up 29.3% from the prior year. But spot got only maintenance support from one of its strongest categories, food. This 32-member category from the 200 spent $142 million in the medium, down 1.7%.

Auto's 6% growth in network TV to $470.7 million provided enough bulk to check the medium's fall. This auto total more than doubled network TV's ad take from any other category. Restaurants boosted their network spending nearly 20%, as the hamburger chains within the category boosted their spending 34%.

On the other hand, outlays on network TV by such strong Olympic spenders as the credit-card, beer, telephone and entertainment categories slid 27.9%, 9%, 7.8%, and 3.9%, respectively. Among these four network heavies, beer was the only category to close '94 at spending levels below '93 in both network and total media.

A sure boon to the networks is the shift in the frequency of the Olympic Games. The Winter and Summer Games are now scheduled two years apart rather than the traditional back-to-back staging every four years.

CBS-TV drew $385 million in advertising for the Winter Games in Norway; NBC has sold a record $600 million in advertising for the '96 Summer Games in Atlanta, and space remains available.

A network's exclusive rights to Olympics coverage increasingly resembles a Hellenic city's right to strike coins. It's one of many reasons sportsminded Ted Turner, Atlanta's media mogul, is salivating over NBC now that ABC and CBS have been sold.

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