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War Worries Media Marketplace

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NEW YORKGrowing uncertainty about how long the war in Iraq will last has some TV media sellers and buyers retreating from the optimistic outlook they had following the initial days of the conflict. Hopes for a quick conclusion to the war began to fade last week, and concerns about the long-range impact on spending edged upward.

"Because the war is ongoing, the news interruptions will continue and most of the networks have said it is impossible right now to create a master makegood plan at this point," said John Rash, chief broadcast negotiator for Campbell Mithun.

In the first nine days of the war (through March 27), the Big Four broadcast networks lost about $90 million in advertising time that was pulled as a result of commercial-free war coverage, according to buyer estimates. ABC, which withdrew all of its prime-time entertainment programming on the first three nights of the war to air ad-free war coverage, had taken the biggest hit so far -- an estimated $40 million -- while NBC had displaced about $20 million in ads, and CBS and Fox had pre-empted about $15 million worth each.

If the war drags on, the networks could face a long-term problem with giving makegoods to war-displaced advertisers. With available inventory already tight through the spring, the networks are going to be hard-pressed to come up with suitable makegood time and may have to give cash back. That option actually might end up being preferable to the nets, because the dwindling number of available prime-time spots could probably be sold at higher rates to new scatter advertisers.

If the conflict extends well into the second quarter, it could also impact the nets' early talks on the upfront, which begins in May.

CBS, which moved some first-round NCAA men's basketball tournament games to ESPN because of war coverage, suffered sharp ratings declines for its early-round NCAA telecasts last week. The network got permission from the NCAA to add some commercial pods to its telecasts to make up for ratings deficiencies.

Because most of the networks have heavied up with war coverage during the daytime, syndicated programming has suffered significant pre-emptions on network-affiliated TV stations.

Universal Domestic Television and NBC Enterprises said last week they would temporarily forsake TV-station makegoods in national barter spots in their syndicated shows. Viacom's King World Productions said that it would not hold client stations responsible for most makegood barter inventory during the first two days of the war (March 21-22).

"In a national emergency like this, we felt a responsibility to our broadcasting partners," said Ed Wilson, NBC Enterprises president.

"In terms of makegoods, we are evaluating how to best serve our stations and advertisers," said Bob Cook, president/COO of Twentieth Television. "We are working to find the best possible solutions as war coverage continues."

Meanwhile, concern about the length of the war prompted radio rep firm Interep to report last week that demand for local radio advertising time appears to be slowing. If the war's duration is short, "we believe the remainder of the year will rebound quickly," Interep said.