With America's upfront ad-buying season fast approaching, early reports suggest marketers and agencies will not stomach big price rises this year.

The sell-off of autumn airtime on broadcast networks hit record levels in 2003, with advertisers committing $9.3 billion (€7.6bn; £5.1bn) during the upfront. But despite the hefty increase in ad prices, last year's fall TV season proved disappointing, as ratings -- especially among young men -- tumbled.

As a result, negotiations for this year's broadcast TV upfront -- due to start in May -- are expected to be tense, and marketers and agencies are already warning they could switch spend to other media.

"There are other ways to reach people, sometimes smarter ways to reach people, depending on what the needs are," observed Kathy Delaney, executive creative director at Interpublic Group agency Deutsch.

Her comments were echoed by Brad Simmons, vp-media services for Unilever's US business (which spent $259m on network television last year). "We are coming off of two years where the marketplace favored the seller and there was significant inflation in prices," he said. "We have begun the dialogue about looking for alternatives."

But Viacom president Mel Karmazin dismissed such remarks as posturing. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal he predicted a healthy upfront for his firm, which owns broadcast network CBS.

"More and more money continues to come to network television and will continue to come to network television," he declared, "because there is no better way to reach the largest number of people, particularly in a world that's becoming more fragmented."

Data sourced from: The Wall Street Journal Online; additional content by WARC staff