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TV Is All Sold Out

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There's gridlock in television. The broadcast prime-time marketplace is close to a complete sellout for the entire 2002-03 season. So close, in fact, that network sales execs in some instances are encouraging advertisers to take back some dollars committed in the upfront to free up a bit more inventory.

While the networks have said they sold between 82 and 85 percent of ad inventory for the season in the up front, a few have broken the 90 percent level, several media buyers said last week. That has left little inventory for make-goods in case of ratings shortfalls and only a small chunk of ad time to sell at even higher scatter prices if some shows take off.

The tightness has driven fourth-quarter scatter pricing up to 20 percent more than upfront rates and forced clients that did not participate in the upfront—or that want to buy more than was purchased last spring—to scramble for inventory in other dayparts such as early morning, eve ning news, late night and sports.

Media buyers said prime time is so tight for the fourth quarter—normally the least sold-out season—that in some cases, CBS and Fox are selling scatter spots only if advertisers buy a comparable number of ads in National Football League or Major League Base ball games. Fox's NFL inventory is nearly sold out, with only a few spots left in late December and the postseason. Fox has sold about 75 percent of its postseason baseball telecasts.

Media buyers noted that even NBC—which does not have the option of shifting advertisers into NFL, NBA or baseball inventory—is asking advertisers to commit dollars to sibling TV outlets MSNBC, CNBC and Telemundo, or even its arena-football inventory, if they want scatter time on any of its top-rated prime-time shows.

"We had a client who decided in late August that they wanted to run in prime time this season, and both CBS and Fox told us for every dollar we wanted to spend in prime time, we had to spend the same amount in football," one media buyer said.

Super Bowl XXXVII, which airs Jan. 26 on ABC, is close to 90 percent sold, far ahead of last year'slevel, and the most recent deals have seen prices as high as $2.4 million per 30-second spot.

Jon Nesvig, president of sales at Fox, would not comment on buyer claims that the network is driving aspiring prime-time advertisers into sports programming, but said the network sold twice the amount of inventory for its NFL telecasts in this year's upfront as it did last year. A tight prime time naturally drives advertisers to other dayparts, Nes vig said. "All dayparts are interdependent on one another," he said.

Mike Shaw, ABC sales president, said that unlike other networks, ABC still had 15 percent of its prime-time avails left going into the season. "The other networks may have had higher sellout levels, but we kept it at about 85-86 percent going into the season," he said.

"It's hard to understand how the economy is flat at best and advertisers in our little world of network TV are placing ad dollars down like gangbusters," concluded one sales exec. "There is no daypart that is really soft, with the exception of maybe daytime, and cancellation options are being exercised at rec ord low levels."