As the upfront sales season grows closer, broadcast and cable sales execs are cautiously hopeful. .

After all, nothing could be as bad as last year’s $6.9 billion broadcast marketplace, which saw a dramatic 14% dive from the webs’ 2000 intake. (Cablers experienced an even tougher 20% hit.)

But as they begin their annual courtship rituals, most buyers and sellers believe that the marketplace has stabilized.

“It’s better than it was a year ago, but it won’t get back to 2000 levels next year, that’s for sure,” says Bill Morningstar, senior VP of media sales at the WB.

Buoyed by a strong scatter marketplace so far this year, along with continued economic growth among major advertiser categories, network sales execs believe this upfront’s intake could be up by as much as 5% (increasing the total broadcast/cable tally to around $11.4 billion, from last year’s $10.9 billion).

And net execs contend that the scatter boom came from more dollars flooding the marketplace in recent months, and not from the lack of shelfspace at ABC and Fox (which had to contend with a flurry of makegoods due to their ratings woes).

“There is a consensus forming that spending will be up,” says Jon Nesvig, Fox Broadcasting’s president of sales. “There’s more real money out there.”

Nesvig points to strong growth among automobile, movie, beverage and retail sectors as reason to feel bullish.

Of course, if there’s any lesson to be learned from last year, it’s that nothing’s for certain anymore.

“Anybody who says they know is crazy at this point,” Nesvig says. “You’ve got to balance that marketplace confidence with the fact that we’re living in a time of political and economic uncertainty.”

After all, if advertisers aren’t confident enough that the economy will stay the course over the next year, they may opt not to make early commitments and instead try their hand at the scatter marketplace.

Net execs are also well aware that CPM bumps can no longer be taken for granted. For the better part of a decade, the networks booked healthy increases, even as network erosion cut viewing levels.

The marketplace reached its bloated fullness in 2000, as the combination of a bullish economy and a dot-com frenzy led to $12.8 billion in broadcast/cable upfront sales. Then came last year’s bust.

Media buying expert Jack Myers, who follows the marketplace via a daily newsletter, believes the overall market volume will only see increases of around 3% from last year’s depressed market, although net execs are betting on increases of around 6%.

As a result, Myers believes the networks — anticipating greater demand this season –will ask for cost-per-thousand (CPM) bumps of between 6% and 12%.

Last year, once it became apparent that the market was at a standstill, NBC cut its prices — forcing everyone else to scramble and follow suit.

Depending on how much advertising comes to market, the nets (particularly CBS, which is poised to see the biggest gains of any net) may opt to play a waiting game this year and hold the line on its CPM increases.

“The broadcast networks are very committed to seeking significantly higher CPMs this year than last year,” Myers says. “They almost have to get those increases in order to make up for their ratings shortfalls, especially at Fox and ABC.”

But advertisers so far are hinting that they may only offer a 2% to 4% bump. Should the nets hold their ground (or hold back on inventory), Myers believes that cable and syndication (which offer cheaper buys) could benefit.

The cable industry has long said it expects to take a large chunk out of the network pie, although so far that hasn’t really come to fruition. That may change this year, as most analysts expect cable to continue to grow its upfront revenue at a faster rate than the broadcast webs.

“Depending on how bullish the networks are, you may see a lot of money go to cable,” admits one net sales exec.

Meanwhile, observers are waiting to see what sort of impact issues like a rash of so-called “megapacts” (such as OMD’s $1 billion cross-platform deals) might have on the upfront.

Also, with ABC and Fox coming off lousy seasons, media buyers will be closely examining those nets’ programming strategies; combined, the nets may lose between $300 million to $500 million in upfront sales.

“There’s certainly a likelihood we and ABC will write somewhat less than last year,” Nesvig says. “It depends on how well our schedules are received.”

And of course, it’s anybody’s guess when the marketplace will break — and what if anything — will trigger this year’s sales frenzy.

“If a lot of money comes forward in upfront, it will force prices up and the networks will respond,” Nesvig says. “If there isn’t a lot of money down, the networks will wait and bet more on the short-term marketplace.”