OPINION: Stuart Elliott in America

As the big broadcast television networks get ready to sell billions of dollars worth of commercial time ahead of the 2002 to 2003 primetime season, there's a show that the country can't stop talking about.

Too bad for the networks that none of them will have it.

The show is The Osbournes, an offbeat blend of reality series and family sitcom that has captivated America since it began appearing in late March on Viacom's MTV cable network. The series, which ended its initial ten-episode run earlier this month, drew the best ratings for any cable entertainment show during the 2001 to 2002 season and became the most-watched original series in MTV's history.

Before The Osbournes became such a huge popular - and critical - success, advertisers willing to gamble on the unconventional, untested show, centred on the home life of the rock star Ozzy Osbourne and his clan, paid an estimated $10,000 to $15,000 for each 30-second spot.

Now, as MTV plans to bring the series back for one or two more seasons, that rate could skyrocket to as much as $100,000, Advertising Age reports - the highest price tag ever affixed to a regularly scheduled show on a cable channel not presenting a jock trying to hit, kick or catch a ball.

There would be a long line of marketers willing to pay that eye-popping rate, even during this vicious advertising recession, to bask in the glow of the wacky Osbournes. The precious hype and buzz that the show has generated is unprecedented, resulting in pop-culture events that money can't buy, which multiply the value of the commercial time.

For instance, People magazine added Osbourne's manager-wife, Sharon, to its annual roster of the "50 Most Beautiful People", and the media had a field day covering the couple's visit to the annual White House correspondents' dinner. President Bush welcomed Osbourne, who tried to bum Percocet off Glenn Close, nursing an injured arm. (Osbourne's riposte, according to the New York Daily News: "After seeing the President, I think he needs them more than me.")

It was not that long ago that most media buying agencies would have gladly taken an overdose of Percocet rather than recommend to clients to run commercials during a show such as The Osbournes. Though the series is hilarious and sweet, an updated Father Knows Best by way of The Real World, there are myriad curse words, recognisable despite being bleeped. And every stumble or mumble by Osbourne makes viewers wonder how many brain cells one can retain after the proverbial career of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.

Now, though, such concerns are oh-so-20th-century to marketers more interested in wooing hard-to-reach consumers aged between 12 and 34 than worried about alienating that powerful demographic's parents or grandparents.

The final episode of The Osbournes included such blue-chip advertisers as AT&T, Dodge, Levi's and Panasonic. Dodge even ran a spot in which a father watches his daughter's boyfriend arrive to pick her up in a minivan, flashes back to what he did in his van in the 60s - and sends the couple off in his expensive sports car.

Sounds like a plot line for season two of The Osbournes.