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After several years of caution, the networks are again spending like drunken sailors on primetime development – and Madison Avenue is bellying up to the bar.

Media buyers returning from the annual development Spring Break in Los Angeles last week say they were bowled over by the network dog-and-pony shows. That’s in part because all the networks have responded directly to advertisers’ relentless pursuit of the 18-49 demographic.

But what really wowed the Mad Ave. crowd was the increased willingness by all the webs to shell out major cash in their quest for hits, both in terms of quantity and quality. Virtually absent from development slates are cheap reality shows and newsmagazines. Splashy star-driven sitcoms and dramas abound.

No concrete figures on network spending are available, but ad mavens report development budgets could be as much as 10%-15% higher this year.

“Nothing on the development slates looks cheap this time around,” says Betsy Frank, executive VP of Zenith Media. “It appears everybody is spending more money for talent in front of and behind the camera.”

Each year, the networks work hard to seduce the advertising community with the wonders of their development slate for the coming season. And usually those Madison Avenue mavens return to Gotham from LA. underwhelmed. Not this time.

The networks have been emboldened by the success of such expensive dramas as “NYPD Blue” and “ER” at bringing in an upscale audience in droves. Moreover, the webs are coming off a robust year in terms of ad revenues, and the projection is for continued growth – which means they have more money to spend. For their part, advertisers have made it clear they will place a premium on quality shows, with those A-list dramas and sophisticated comedies like “Seinfeld” getting astronomic rates for spots.

More pilots on parade

The state of the current marketplace has not been lost on ABC. The Alphabet web, which is in first place in the primetime sweepstakes season to date, has increased its development slate from 22 pilots at this point last year to a current tally of 35. “The direction ABC development is taking is quite telling,” says Paul Schulman, president of the Paul Schulman Co., who buys media for such national advertisers as Ralston Purina and ITT. “This year they have 17 sitcoms, up from nine a year ago. Last year, two-thirds of ABC’s comedies had kids as their focus; this year not one does. The network had no new hits this year and they know they need to develop a couple of comedies to stay on top.”

Development fever hasn’t hit just ABC. The networks are all anticipating that ad spending will surge this year, perhaps with the flow of dollars increasing as much as 10%-12%, and those involved in the equation want to cash in.

That’s bad news for newsmagazine shows. Ad buyers came away from the development meetings sensing ABC may jettison the newsmag “Day One” and that CBS was likely to do the same with “Eye to Eye With Connie Chung.” Opinion was split on whether NBC would return with two nights instead of the current three of “Dateline NBC.”

“Everybody is spending a lot more money than they did a year ago, in part because they believe we will have more money to spend,” says the media chief of a major ad agency.

“ABC is No.1, but they see NBC breathing down their neck, so (ABC Entertainment prexy) Ted Harbert is playing it like the network actually has to come up from behind. Naturally, NBC smells blood, so they’re spending in a big way too. Meanwhile, CBS is developing more because it’s in such tough shape it has to.”

Fox antes up

“You look at what Fox has in development, and you can see those guys are willing to spend some major bucks to broaden their audience,” says Schulman. “You see that (Fox Entertainment Group prexy) John Matoian has a sophisticated show like ‘Pastor’s Wife,’ which comes from the people who’ve made shows like ‘Northern Exposure’ and ‘Picket Fences,’ or that he has a film actor like D.B. Sweeney to do the pilot for ‘Strange Luck,’ and it sends a loud message about what he’s up to.”

The Madison Avenue savants came out of their meetings with the networks believing all the webs were poised to make brash moves. Some were reminded of NBC’s successful gambit last season of moving freshman hit “Frasier” from its Thursday perch to go up against ABC’s monster hit “Home Improvement.”

NBC Entertainment prexy Warren Littlefield “gave us the impression he might move ‘Friends’ from Thursday to start another night,” says Bill Croasdale, president of national broadcast, Western Intl. Media. “I got the feeling that virtually nothing is sacred.”

Programming brass at the other webs are bandying about making other bold moves. ABC already is playing with its quartet of sitcom hits – “Home Improvement,” “Roseanne,” “Grace Under Fire” and “Ellen” – to bolster its lineup.

CBS’ campaign

CBS, which beat all the networks to the punch with a garish presentation in New York two weeks ago, has been working hard to convince advertisers it’s trading in Geritol for Generation X. That will mean some real scheduling and promotional gymnastics, because the Eye web has a paucity of young-skewing shows to use as promotional platforms.

Meanwhile, Fox’s Matoian talks about running comedies after such dramatic fare as “The X-Files.”

“Everything is open for discussion,” says Matoian. “We’re not going to discount doing something like running a comedy block out of a drama, just because the conventional wisdom says that it can’t be done.”

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