Networks and the advertising community let their positions be known in the forthcoming upfront ad market yesterday as a panel of network and advertising executives debated the merits of the current process. The discussion was moderated by Variety TV editor Max Robins and held at the Sheraton Hotel.

There was general agreement that it was still essentially a buyer’s market, but as might have been expected the networks — especially CBS and NBC — struck a far more optimistic pose about the health of the marketplace and the future of upfront, which is the buying of ad time before the TV season starts.

“The traditional advantage of upfront was the ability to get guaranteed pricing, program selection and to be member of a favored group,” said Arnie Semsky, BBDO Worldwide executive VP, media and program services, one of the six panelists.

But those factors are not as crucial today, according to Semsky. “With more scatter available, there is less urgency and less need for upfront,” he said. Equally important is the fact that “the flexibility needed in today’s environment outweighs the (upfront).”

“The playing field has tilted, and the bat is no longer in the hand of the networks,” said Russell Elliot, VP of advertising and marketing at Schering-Plough Healthcare. He said the “uncertainty” over the economy will lead to a “tentative” marketplace.

But Pier Mapes, president of NBC Television, says not to underestimate the value of the upfront. “It’s a pretty good process,” he said. “It delivers security and stability to advertisers.”

Mapes added that a shifting of promotion dollars to advertising dollars will result in “a healthy” upfront for the networks.

And Peter Lund, executive VP of the CBS Broadcast group, said the “upfront criteria is still valid.” He said the depressed marketplace of recent years was “an exception” and that this year will be an old-fashioned “two- or three-week feeding frenzy.”

But that rubs advertisers the wrong way. Bob Watson, director of advertising services at AT&T, said, “I hate the herd mentality. I just don’t like to feel like a lemming.”

In response to that attitude, all the networks talked about being more flexible and client-friendly, with ABC leading the way. “We are essentially reactive,” said Mark Mandala, president of ABC Television.

He pointed out that while a decade ago, the upfront would have been done already, the networks have shifted to a longer upfront, with “more well thought-out negotiations. We have no problem going to the third week of August.”

One sticking point in the concept of upfront is that the September start for the prime time season means that TV advertisers can’t do their buys according to a traditional fiscal (calendar) year.

“I would like to change the upfront schedule to a calendar-year basis,” said Elliot, who thinks that because the pendulum has shifted so much in favor of the buyers this change will happen in the next few years.

But Lund said that, while all the networks have begun introducing more shows throughout the year, the concept of Premiere Week still works in terms of attracting viewers. Starting the season with the calendar year would create major problems because viewing habits would be broken up by the low HUT levels that come with summertime.

Mapes added that “the American people are creatures of habit,” and they look to the end of summer/beginning of school year as the time for a new season.

“I think the people here are the creatures of habit,” countered Elliot, an idea echoed by the other men on his side of the panel.

One potential for compromise came from Mandala, who raised the idea that the networks could “leave the program schedules in place, but change the way (and time) that (upfront) buys are made.”

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