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What if the networks threw a party and nobody came?

The annual network bazaar known as upfront — when advertisers traditionally purchase the bulk of their commercial time for the coming season — has begun, but hardly anyone is buying.

That’s bad news for the networks, because the longer it takes advertisers to come to the table, the dimmer the chance webs will see any significant growth in revenue.

It also spells bad news for the U.S. economy, since upfront sales reflect advertisers’ expectations of consumer spending in the coming year. By this time last year, some major advertisers had cut early deals to get the market rolling, but this year there’s been scant early action.

“Nobody is in any hurry to do any business,” said Western Media national broadcast prexy Bill Croasdale. “As far as the upfront goes, nothing is going on. I mean zero, zilch, nada.”

Doubts about the economy are part of the problem. But even more ominous are basic changes in the way big advertisers such as car manufacturers are doing business.

And an unprecedented number of new shows — 38, compared with 32 last year, on the Big Three and Fox Broadcasting Co. — hasn’t helped the process, with ad agency media departments scrambling to screen new product and churn out ratings estimates.

“Where were the pre-upfront deals this year?” said Paul Schulman, prez of the Paul Schulman Co., a media-buying service. “There haven’t been any of the big multiyear deals, like NBC and GM, this time around.”

Some media savants predict little or no growth in the $ 3.6 billion in prime time advertising sold in last year’s upfront.

Even network ad sales honchos, normally putting forth their best game faces this time of year, are talking about a modest uptick at best. ABC’s sales department has estimated a scant 3% to 6% growth in the upfront overall.

The networks looking for the biggest increases will be CBS and ABC, probably 4% to 8%. Fox will aim slightly lower and NBC will look for little or no increases, according to agency media mavens who’ve been sounding out their network counterparts.

Advertisers are in no hurry to spend their money in the upfront, which in years past was a frenzied couple of weeks when the webs’ inventory was gobbled up.

This year both network and advertising honchos are saying the upfront will drag into August. Media buyers are saying advertisers are wary of the economy and what effect the Clinton budget now making its way through Congress will have on their businesses.

“There’s no doubt that uncertainty about what effect proposed new taxes will have on the economy has caused some glitches in the process,” NBC sales chief Larry Hoffner said.

Advertisers are coming off two consecutive years in which the so-called scatter market, the commercial time left over from the upfront, has often sold at below upfront prices and sometimes even with performance guarantees taking away two of the main advantages of buying in the upfront.

“My sense is that the upfront this year is a non-event,” said Gene DeWitt, president of DeWitt Media. “We are dealing in a business environment where 90 days is a long view. Manufacturers are operating with less inventory. We’re moving into a last-minute world.”

In addition, pressure has abated on advertisers to jump into the upfront because the prime time playing field is leveling. Megahit shows that advertisers regard as “must-buys,” like “Roseanne” and “60 Minutes,” are scarce. And Fox’s decision to broaden its demographics this season has increased advertisers’ options.

“The vast majority of shows fall into that 15-share-to-22-share category,” said Steve Auerbach, DeWitt Media exec VP of national broadcast. “Especially with Fox offering more traditional programming, we’re quickly approaching parity between the four networks.”