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Cable TV spells ratings increase O-J.

Although cable networks have offered some noteworthy original programming in the past year, such as series like Comedy Central's "Absolutely Fabulous" and specials like TBS' documentary "Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream," the ongoing trial of O.J. Simpson has given cable a viewer boost-particularly for CNN, Court TV and E! Entertainment Television.

For the 35 weeks of the 1994-95 TV season in prime time, basic cable networks earned an aggregate 15.4 rating/25 share among all TV households, according to Nielsen Media Research figures compiled by Cabletelevision Bureau of Advertising.

The rating is up 12.4% from the 1993-94 TV season with the share up 8.7%. During the same time period, CAB says the four major broadcast networks' prime-time rating was 41.9, down 6.3%, with a 69 share, down 5.5%.

These results, coupled with a tight advertising marketplace, are creating a banner upfront selling season.

Industry sources estimate ad-supported basic cable networks will reap between $1.25 billion and $1.3 billion in upfront sales, up 20% from last year.

Steven Heyer, president of Turner Broadcasting Sales, which handles CNN and other Turner properties, says the difference this year is that the cable networks are competing in the overall TV marketplace instead of a cable-only universe.

"The complexity of cable is going away," says Mr. Heyer. "Our back office is now as good as anybody's. The advertising agency distinctions in cost to service, audience size premiums and quality programming are being washed away."

"[The cable market] is as healthy as I've ever seen it," echoes John Silvestri, exec VP-advertising sales for USA Networks. "There's more money in the market and more advertisers are using cable in their plans, because cable is more mainstream now."

USA Network has done well, despite not having any coverage of Mr. Simpson's trial. Its top performing shows include the original series "Silk Stalkings," its "USA Pictures Originals" movies and its coverage of World Wrestling Federation events.

Some buyers see the medium as having a two-tier market, with certain networks able to command higher prices than others. Still, Gene DeWitt, president of DeWitt Media, a New York-based media-buying service, says the cable networks in the lower tier are still getting 6%-to-10% increases in costs per thousand viewers in the upfront market.

The networks in the upper echelon, he says, are pulling increases of up to 20%.

"Some are adopting pricing to market. Others are doing it according to their plans. But all are having a good year, a better one than the buyers," Mr. DeWitt says.

Mr. Silvestri says for the first time in several years cable networks could have a slight advantage over buyers in the tight marketplace. Still, he says, networks aren't out to maximize short-term revenues at the cost of long-term advertiser relationships.

"If you jam it home this year, you better retire in a year and a half," Mr. Heyer says.

Mr. Heyer says prices for CNN don't assume its audience will retain all the viewers gained from its coverage of Mr. Simpson's trial.

But prices do reflect audience increases as CNN hopes to retain some of the post-trial viewers. Mr. Heyer says CNN has used its trial coverage to promote other CNN programs.

"Where the impressions are going to go post-O.J.-our hope is that many will see themselves as better citizens by virtue of watching CNN than a soap opera," he says.

Whether advertisers will buy into that logic is questionable, but those buying cable say the trial has helped the medium get better ratings, and those ratings translate into higher prices.

"Growth is growth," says Doug Seay, senior VP-director of national broadcast at Hal Riney & Partners, New York.

"What they are selling are a lot of alternatives, and cable does a particularly good job at marketing themselves," the executive says.

"It doesn't need a crutch or formula to buy it because there are some really good things on from the NBA on Turner, the NFL on TNT and ESPN, Discovery's documentaries and the different original movies."

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