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Network Upfront Sales Fly Faster Than Expected

What a difference a year makes.

TV
TV

Advertising industry insiders tell me that Fox should wrap up its ad sales today and all the networks could complete their Upfront sales in a week.

That's weeks earlier than the July 4 date expected, and months earlier than last year.

The networks are riding on momentum from the Scatter market, when prices were as much as 30 percent higher than they were during the Upfront. That means buyers are more willing to commit more of their annual budgets now, even if that means paying higher prices than they did last year.

Plus, demand is rebounding: Automakers are back in the market in full force. And movie studios are eager to secure Thursday night spots to promote weekend debuts. After Memorial Day weekend's weak box office, studios may be more willing to pay up for those spots.

Bottom line — faster sales mean stronger sales: networks will sell a bigger percentage of their ad inventory than last year — north of 75 percent rather than the 65 percent sold last year. They'll also secure percentage price increases in the high single digits.

Fox is very close to completing its upfront ad sales — my sources tell me it could very well wrap up today. And it's securing 8 percent to 9 percent increases over last year — setting a high standard for the other networks.

News Corp's network is of course different because it has just two hours of primetime programming every night — an hour less than the other networks. It's also benefiting from high ratings, big shows, as well as sports programming.

CBS has sold more than half its inventory, bolstered by its high ratings and a stable schedule. It's also on track to secure the roughly 8 percent increases Fox nailed down.

CBS is trailed by ABC, and then NBC . Both of these channels have a number of big changes in the works — like ABC losing "Lost." NBC (NBC and CNBC are both owned by parent company General Electric) is investing big in high-cost, high-quality scripted programming, in part to fill the whole left by Leno's 10 pm show. That's appealing to advertisers, but it also requires a bet on untested content.

The economic downturn brought ad prices down fifteen percent or more. We're not seeing a full recovery, but these upfronts are certainly a significant rebound.

Cable upfront ad sales aren't as far along, and there's much greater variation between the cable channels like USA, TBS and TNT, which compete with the networks, and the smaller niche channels.

Industry insiders tell me that Turner's sales are being held up by high price demands for Conan's new late night show. A 30 second spot in January, Conan's last month, cost $29,100 — Turner is asking for much closer to that number, compared to the $5,815 it charged in March for George Lopez's late night show. That demands a major mental leap for advertisers, who rightfully associate cable late night with smaller viewer numbers.

Turner is promising advertisers that it will use its investment in Major League Baseball to promote Conan's show, but there's some skepticism on whether or not the show will work on the level that these prices merit. The network is still working through some of the bigger partnerships and sponsorships for Conan's show. Those will act as cornerstones to set a price level and get other advertisers on board.

As to other cable networks, ad industry experts tell me it's too soon to tell if budgets are shifting further from networks to cable channels.

Questions? Comments? MediaMoney@cnbc.com