NEW YORK – Paul Schulman has been trying to predict the next big thing on TV for the past 40 years. He’s still batting below .300.

Last spring, during network upfront presentations to advertisers, the veteran ad exec fingered CBS’ “The Fugitive” as the first hit of the fall season and designated the Eye net’s “Yes, Dear” as the season’s first casualty. He was wrong on both counts. “Fugitive” is a huge disappointment and “Yes, Dear” is a surprise hit.

The strange thing is that Schulman’s off-base calls are hardly unique.

Schulman — the president of Schulman/Advanswers NY, a media buying and planning org — belongs to a coterie of about 30 media buying execs who work for the top Madison Ave. ad agencies. They put their credibility on the line each spring, predicting which new TV shows will be hits and which will be duds. Their names might not be recognizable to the general public, but they pull a lot of weight with the press.

Since hype tends to beget more hype and media reporters tend to latch onto and endlessly recycle convenient sound bites, these media buyers have become accidental experts: The more they are quoted in the trade and consumer press, the more famous they get — regardless of whether they’re right or wrong.

Often, and this season is no exception, they’re wrong.

Not that it seems to matter. The recycled opinions create early buzz and help advertisers decide in which shows to place their spots. As unreliable as they are, these early predictions funnel ad money into shows which more often than not don’t deliver.

“I’ve been in the industry for 10 years; for eight of those years, I was never quoted,” says one ad buyer.

“But the minute one person quoted me, others began calling. Yesterday, I didn’t have anything important to say, and now they’re calling for my opinion constantly.”

These media buyers tend to be a rarefied lot. They live in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles and skew young, well-educated and female. Their tastes are often more sophisticated than the average viewer’s. They tend to favor an edgy show like “Action” over a wholesome, religious-tinged drama such as “Touched by an Angel.”

With more publications than ever trying to predict the hits and misses before the TV season begins, these TV pundits are in high demand.

“It gives us clout with our clients and helps to attract new ones. Plus, it gives us added visibility and a little extra care from the networks,” says one ad buyer.

Although he has a relatively small media budget and buys exclusively network TV time, Schulman is one of the most frequently quoted ad pundits.

Other high-profile seers include Jon Mandel (MediaCom Worldwide); Steve Sternberg, Stacy Lynn Koerner and John Lazarus (TN Media); Steve Grubbs and Gene DeWitt (Optimedia Intl.); Tim Spengler and Bill Croasdale (Initiative Media), Bob Igiel (Media Edge) and Bill Cella (Universal McCann).

When the season’s new shows were unveiled with much ballyhoo at presentations for advertisers in Gotham last spring, ad agency pundits largely agreed on a few things: “The Fugitive,” “The Geena Davis Show” and “Gideon’s Crossing” would be hits, while “Yes, Dear” would likely be the first show canceled.

Time has proven them wrong on all counts.

Not that this is the first time the elite club of Madison Avenue prognosticators have been misguided in their picks.

The group has no reliable way to assess a show’s chances of survival — especially since scheduling and promotional dollars are now such crucial factors for almost all new shows.

And since ad buyers usually see only the pilot episode, there’s also no way to assess the execution of later episodes.

“We’re making a judgment call based on 22 minutes, the cast, the writing and the pedigree of the producers,” says Tim Spengler, exec VP, director of national broadcast at L.A.-based Initiative Media.

Of course, it’s not just ad agency types who get these things wrong. Even network execs often fail to see likely hits or misses.

In past years, for instance, few predicted that “Seinfeld,” “Friends,” “ER,” “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” or “Survivor” would become mega-hits. And, no one opined that “Touched by an Angel” would still be going strong in its seventh season.

The only unanimously correct call this season was “The Michael Richards Show,” which everybody rightly predicted would flop.

But, unlike the opinions of TV critics, media buyers’ opinions affect the bottom line. Hundreds of millions of ad dollars are earmarked for spots in shows based on the opinions of a select few ad agency researchers and buyers.

“They play a critical role since they have tremendous influence over where money is placed,” says Brad Turell, exec VP of network communications at the WB. “Without the advertisers, we don’t have a business.”

During last spring’s upfront, which wrapped in early June, broadcast nets brought in more than $8 billion. By buying early, rather than waiting to see how shows fare once they’re on the air, advertisers often reap significant discounts. But, they need some educated guidance to help decide where to advertise.

“Their opinions translate into real dollars,” Turell continues.

How it all works

If a show is poorly received by ad buyers, the network will stamp it with a bargain-basement price. Likewise, if the buying community is clamoring to buy time in a few coveted shows, it can drive prices sky-high.

Apart from event programming like “Survivor,” however, advertisers usually don’t buy time in a specific show. Rather, they buy a package of shows for which they are guaranteed an audience delivery. So if “The Fugitive” underperforms and “C.S.I.” exceeds expectations, the advertiser is, in theory at least, satisfied.

Ad buyers estimated during the upfront that “Fugitive” would be a runaway hit –garnering at least a 13 share and attracting the coveted young male demo — and prices were set accordingly.

For the week ending Dec. 10, “Fugitive” ranked No. 54 in ratings among primetime shows and posted an 11 share. According to a recent TN Media report, the median age of the show’s audience is nearly 54, older than the viewers of Saturday night stalwart “Walker, Texas Ranger.”

But, here’s where it gets tricky.

While nets will give make-goods to advertisers when a show underperforms, they’ll often offer spots on shows that may be as highly rated, but without the optimum “environment,” as they say in industry parlance.

Nielsen studies have shown that viewers pay more attention to ads that air during quality shows than on others that may have the right demos but don’t attract a loyal fan base. So while an advertiser might reach the same number of men 18-49, for instance, they may not get their attention as easily or make as lasting an impression.

Movie ads pushing an action movie, for instance, would rather reach men watching “Fugitive” than male “Bette” fans.

“It’s not just about numbers. Some viewers are more valuable than others. It all depends on the environment where your ad airs,” says one ad exec. “You want your ad to run in a quality show that is geared to your target audience.”

Trickier than usual

But, this season has been a difficult one to call.

“I thought ‘Yes, Dear’ would be the first show canceled,” confesses Spengler.

And when Spengler canvassed his 50-person department for reactions to new shows, he says they all liked “The Street.” The Wall Street-set Fox drama was one of the season’s earliest casualties.

“We thought ‘Titans’ would be better than it turned out to be,” says Optimedia Intl.’s Bob Flood. The Aaron Spelling sudser was recently yanked from NBC’s sked.

“Last year, we all loved ‘Action,’ but it didn’t play in Peoria,” says Stacy Lynn Koerner of TN Media.

This season — delayed by the Olympics, post-season baseball and an election that dragged on for five weeks — threw a wrench into the nets’ skeds and made it harder for viewers to find new shows.

Of the few shows this season that are considered to be successful, Fox’s “Boston Public” and “Dark Angel”; NBC’s “Ed,” and CBS’ “The District” and “C.S.I.,” none of them is a breakout hit. All of them fell onto media buyers’ “maybe” lists last spring.

“We get paid to have opinions,” says Optimedia Intl.’s Gene DeWitt. “We don’t get paid to waffle or sit on the fence. Everyone knows you’re not always right, but you have to be right more often than not.”

Behind closed doors, network sales execs criticize media buyers’ predictions, saying they’re part of the price negotiation game between advertisers and nets.

While the ad agency pundits are often not the same people who negotiate rates on behalf of clients, they do work for agencies which are trying to get lower ad rates.

And if media buyers downtalk shows, they could, theoretically, negotiate successfully for lower ad rates.

“They are ethically compromised,” says one network exec. “They all work for agencies who benefit when ad rates are low.”

But, according to that line of reasoning, the agency pundits would never give a show a rave. Plus, by downtalking a show that could turn out to be a hit, they’re putting their reputations on the line.

“I’ve never seen any evidence of advertisers saying that a promising new show looks like an underperformer just to influence pricing,” says Ed Martin, editor of the Myers Programming Report, who, himself predicted that “Bette” and “Fugitive” would be hits.

More important even than their role at setting prices during upfront, the ad agency mavens create early buzz that can at least encourage sampling.

“I think it’s the goal of every network to get a show on the ad agencies’ radar list from the get-go at upfronts,” says Turell.

Sometimes, however, the early buzz can create a backlash when the show doesn’t meet overblown expectations.

Had “The Fugitive” not been dubbed a sure-fire hit early on, its tepid ratings just might have sufficed.