OPINION: Stuart Elliott in America

Can you hear the shouting, the singing, the carousing, all the way across the Atlantic? Can you make out the lyrics to Happy Days Are Here Again as they're sung from one end of Madison Avenue to another? If not, you must be deaf, or dead, or perhaps both.

The reason for the clamourous celebration is the outcome of the "upfront" market, the sale of commercial time on the major television networks ahead of the start of the 2003-04 season. The results so far for the broadcast and cable networks are stellar, spectacular, superb, special ... just about every "S" word in the thesaurus.

The six largest broadcast networks hauled in a record amount of commitments to buy time ahead of the season, totalling $9.2 billion to $9.3 billion. That far surpasses the previous record, set only last spring, of $8.1 billion. Their dozens of cable counterparts, worried that the incredible demand for spots during broadcast shows would suppress subsequent sales, had little to obsess about, it turned out, as the cablecasters scored a record take of their own, estimated at $5.5 billion to $5.6 billion.

Not too shabby for a struggling, unsettled, uncertain - get out that thesaurus again - advertising market.

So what's the story?

Part of the reason for the strength of the upfront market is, surprisingly enough, the same bumpy economic climate that makes the health of the overall ad market so hard to predict or determine.

Call it a flight to quality, a flight to the tried and true, a shocking lack of imagination or even guts among the planners and buyers at the media agencies that now dominate the upfront market - whatever it is, it's clear that the medium of TV, dependable and reliable as it's perceived to be in terms of delivering results, is capitalising on the murky circumstances.

Never mind all that hue and cry about the impending "death of the 30-second commercial" and all those paeans to personal video recorders such as TiVo.

For two years in a row, the medium allegedly on its last legs has drawn dollars in copious amounts unseen even in its supposed heyday.

Another funny development (as in funny odd, not funny ha-ha, but maybe it's both, come to think of it) is that the agencies agreeing to shell out the record amounts of cash on behalf of their clients seem almost as thrilled about the outcome of the upfront as the TV moguls booking the orders. One would think the adversarial relationship between the two sides across the bargaining table each spring would mean that if the networks are smiling, the agencies would be frowning and vice versa.

But in the past two or three years, the analysts on Wall Street who follow the advertising agency stocks have interpreted a strong upfront as auguring a strong overall ad market. They think the agencies will prosper as demand intensifies from clients for commercial time, ad space, billboards, banner ads, direct mail, ads on matchbook covers, you name it, even if rates are higher than they were the year before.

Winning by losing ... it is about as logical as selling a light beer with ex-jocks arguing over whether it's "less filling" or "tastes great".

Or as the Winston cigarette jingle once so eloquently put it: "It's what's upfront that counts."