Seinfelds, Steinfelds and other shows of muscle

For years, people coming back to L.A. from the NATPE convention have been telling us,”You should go; it’s real … different.” Brushing aside for the moment the issue of why they would think of us when saying “different” with that tone of voice, we always asked the second most logical question: “Different how?” Inevitably, the answer was the same: “It’s hard to describe.”

But how strange could it be? This is, after all, an annual meeting of syndicators and TV station execs, so indies can fill up their schedules from the offerings, and so network-affiliated stations can program the hours not devoted to web fare. You know, everything from “Oprah” to repeats of “Roseanne” to new hopefuls like “Mysteries of the Ordinary” and “Fishing the West.” We’re talking business here. Big business. Serious business.

Well, not too serious. Don’t forget, this is show business.

So when veterans of the National Assn. of Television Program Executives conference described everyone setting up a booth on a convention center floor, naturally it conjured up images of school carnivals or career-planning day. You know, smiling hostesses in ball gowns and high heels pointing to the Warner Bros. beanbag toss.

But after experiencing the annual NATPE meet here, one has to concede it is a little different from that.

LYLE WAGGONER AND HIS WIFE shake hands with visitors under a big, pink, sequined heart for a show called “Here Comes the Bride.” Visitors to infomercial company USA Direct can watch Jake Steinfeld demonstrate a Firmflex machine or receive a half-million-volt shock from an electrostatic generator that illustrates the firm’s slogan, Feel the Power. Ivana Trump autographs her book at the Home Shopping Network booth, while visitors to the Buena Vista TV area can be photographed with Aladdin & the Genie, Siskel & Ebert, or Bonkers.

Also greeting the public were Hulk Hogan, Jerry Seinfeld, the Laker Girls, Wink Martindale, Regis & Kathie Lee, Burt Reynolds, Ed McMahon, Susan Powter, Xuxa, the Pink Panther, World Wrestling Federation’s Doink the Clown and Samantha Martin (from “Zany Animal Stunts”).

The Miami Beach High School marching band parades through the Miami Convention Center. A double-decker English bus sits at the London Weekend Television setup. The Select Media Communications booth consists of two enormous curved ramps, at which 10 Rollerbladers “thrill you with their daredevil feats,” as the sign announces.

Paramount’s booth is fronted by an enormous, multicolored replica of the studio gate, as a bank of 60 TV monitors flash images from its shows. Inside the “booth,” guests are offered an open bar and choice of buffets. Nearly every booth serves food; majors often serve meals. (One man in short-sleeved white nylon shirt and striped tie stopped his twin in a hallway and asked, “MCA’s serving ham, what’s Fox got?”)

A convention center employee who was setting up food looked horrified when asked to bring another table. “I’m a food person,” she said. “Look for a blond woman in white. She’s the supervisor of tables.”

At NATPE — even some veterans still pronounce it “NAP-TE,” which is the syndie equivalent of “pasghetti”– 11,000 people converge (this year, at Miami’s 292,000-square-foot convention center) and visit among the hundreds of “booths,” which range from 200 square feet to 11,000, or roughly the size of 10 tract houses.

MOST DIFFICULT TASK: Due to the crowds, getting from one end of the convention center to the other.

Easiest task: Getting business cards.

Most popular personal accouterment: A cellular phone.

Most frequently heard line: “How did you people out there do with that earthquake?”

General mood: Tense jollity.

And there’s good reason for that. Everyone attending realizes that of the approximately 65 new shows touted here, maybe 20% will get on the air. And of the returning shows, many stations may be looking for something else. And the future of these shows is dependent on enough stations here signing up.

So the promotion doesn’t start at the convention center. At your NATPE-approved hotel, the traditional doorknob-hanging sign is replaced by “Do Not Disturb, I’m Baywatching” and though your TV set appears bullet-shattered, it’s really a peel-off plastic sheet that contains the words “Elvis slept here (apparently there wasnothing from New Line Television on that night.)” Every morning you’re awakened by copies of publications slipped under the door (including the Variety NATPE daily, which most attendees concluded was the single most important element of the whole conference).

As the shuttle bus to the convention center turns onto Arthur Godfrey Road, the piped-in salsa music is interrupted by an announcer plugging Genesis TV shows (posters from Genesis shows like “Biker Mice From Mars” decorate the back of each bus seat.)

As you enter the hall, giant posters with 10-foot faces of Ricki Lake or the “Seinfeld” cast loom above you, in front of you and behind you. Even the escalators are covered with ads.

BUT NATPE IS MORE THAN just promotions. We attended a session where eight panelists sat in a hotel ballroom, at two tables, with their hands clasped in front of them, earnestly using terms like “regulatory,””fin-syn,””retransmission consent” and “the effects of TV violence on our children.” When we awoke, fellow attendees were concluding this had been a particularly good discussion.

All in all, kind of … different. But not really; this is strictly business. However, you should see the American Film Market. Now that’s different.

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