Net is first among Big Four to finish sales for upcoming season

That was quick.

Fox on Thursday wrapped its upfront advertising sales for the coming season after barely a week of wrangling, providing more evidence that it’s a seller’s market this year.

Fox was said to have finished with just under $2 billion in advance commitments for the 2011-12 season, with CPM hikes averaging about 11%-12% over last year’s rates. The No. 1 network in the 18-49 demo jump-started its sales late last week, forgoing the traditional post-Memorial Day start of dealmaking to take advantage of the strong demand for blurb time.

other hand, is in its usual “staredown” in negotiations with buyers as it seeks a whopping 18% price hike over last year’s CPMs. Media buyers characterized that pricetag as highly aggressive, but it’s an indication that the Eye believes the market will bear something near that asking price if the net’s sales force digs in. CBS is touting its longtime status as the nation’s most-watched network in total viewers, and the relative stability of its primetime sked compared to the competish.

Fox’s decision to move quickly has spurred some carping by rivals that the ne has lowered the potential CPM gains for all in a hot market. Howerver, buyers have scoffed at the recent suggestion from showbiz CEOs that strong demand would fuel CPM gains as high as 15%-20%.

Nevertheless, all signs indicate that the nets will enjoy strong revenue growth this year, building on last year’s rebound after the dramatic drop in 2009 when global economic tremors spurred marketers to slash upfront spending.

“With the strength and stability of our schedule and the exciting addition of ‘The X Factor’ and our other new series, Fox has concluded its primetime upfront sales, achieving significant growth in both volume and pricing, consistent with our position as the No. 1 network,” the network said in a statement issued Thursday afternoon.

Industry observers said Fox sold about 80% of its available inventory, on par with last year. In bullish upfront markets, networks sometimes sell as much as 85% of available time to take advantage of the gold rush. But in the past two years the scatter market, where nets sell available spots that were not booked during the upfront, has been consistently higher than upfront pricing, giving nets incentive to hold back some inventory in the hopes of even higher prices down the road.

Among the broadcasters, the CW was also close to finishing up its upfront dealmaking on Thursday, in part because it has far less inventory to sell than the Big Four. CW is generating 11% CPM gains on average, which should yield a take of at least $375 million-$400 million. CW is buoyed by the success of its “convergence” sales strategy of bundling its traditional blurbs with spots in online telecasts of its younger-skewing series.

ABC was said to be knee-deep in writing business at low double-digit increases. NBC, which is disadvantaged by its fourth-place status and dearth of returning hits, is said to be in negotiations, but Peacock’s new regime has not moved as early to cut deals for NBC and its cable siblings as in recent upfronts.

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