Coming off a surprisingly strong fourth quarter,

Coming off a surprisingly strong fourth quarter, broadcast network sales executives are predicting that 2006 will be a solid, if not spectacular, year for growing ad revenue. Advertisers and media agencies are rumbling that they will begin to demand more tangible proof that their ad spending is resulting in a solid ROI. If not, they threaten, they may begin to move dollars elsewhere. But broadcast executives believe the average $24 cost-per-thousand for a 30-second prime-time spot is still an economical way for most advertisers to get the immediate mass reach, or even targeted reach, they need to remain competitive. And they wonder how many advertisers can afford to risk cutting back too much on TV, unless all their competitors do the same.

For example, can Target risk trimming its TV ad budget significantly when Wal-Mart is advertising like gangbusters? Ditto for other categories like telecommunications, automotive, fast food and soft drinks. Merrill Lynch says there will be a heavy new model launch in the auto category schedule in 2006 in the category overall. And that, said Lee Westerfield, senior media analyst at Harris Nesbitt, will result in continued strong ad dollars for the broadcast networks.

Merrill Lynch is also predicting that heavy TV advertisers like computer software companies Microsoft and Oracle and telecom companies including AT&T (following its merger with SBC) will spend more on advertising in 2006. And even packaged-goods companies will increase spending in the category by as much as 5 percent in 2006, according to Merrill forecasts.

That said, net sales execs realize they can’t continue to count solely on spots to bring in all of their revenue. They also realize that product placement may be reaching a saturation point.

As far as on-air ad revenue goes, Dave Poltrack, evp, research and planning for CBS, predicts a 7 percent gain for the Big Four; 5 percent for CBS, ABC and Fox, factoring out NBC because of the Winter Olympics. Poltrack noted that each network sold less in the upfront, leaving more inventory to sell in the scatter market. Bob Coen, svp and director of forecasting for Universal McCann, projects a 6.5 percent ad revenue hike for the Big Four in 2006 to $17.9 billion.

ABC and Fox will be the nets with the most “buzz” shows. ABC has Lost, Desperate Housewives, Grey’s Anatomy and freshman hit Commander in Chief, and Fox has House, American Idol and 24, along with freshman hit Prison Break. CBS will continue to have the most stable schedule, with its solid CSI trio and new hit Criminal Minds. NBC will need to have viewers embrace its revamped Thursday night, where it moved My Name Is Earl and The Office, to stop viewer erosion.