NEW ORLEANS — And then it hit me. Wandering around the downsized floor of the 40th annual NATPE convention in New Orleans last week, I searched in vain for those lady mud wrestlers of yore, for the guys on stilts and the gals in skimpy outfits, for the Grudge Match contestants, for Pamela Lee, Geraldo, Sally Jessy, those costumed Bananas in Pajamas, the wild animals, the double-decker bus, assorted magicians, bodybuilders and fortune tellers, and those long lines of station managers queueing for jumbo shrimp or for a handshake with Oprah. But it is, after all, so not 1996 anymore.

Blame it on media consolidation, the overturn of the so-called fin-syn rules or even the recession. Whatever the causes, the wacky, tacky and occasionally weirdly creative syndie biz is no more.

The most visible symbol of that sea-change was the so-called Hollywood Plaza area of the convention floor: Ten major syndicators forked over $25,000 to the NATPE org — guilt money, some termed it — to have a rep on the floor to direct potential clients to the hotel suites scattered about town where those top syndicators held court. Warner Bros. didn’t even bother to have a live rep, plunking a huge stuffed Bugs Bunny on its designated stand with a sign pointing clients to the Wyndham Hotel.

The few firstrun strips (there used to be dozens) that were available to buyers this year — gabbers Ellen, Fergie and Sharon, a makeover show called “Starting Over” and an interactive project called eBay TV — are being handled by the half-dozen congloms that now dominate all areas of the media biz.

“What I miss is the energy, bumping into people on the floor. Ideas got exchanged, even if deals didn’t always materialize,” says Jacques De Suze, a longtime NATPE-goer and senior exec at Chum TV in Canada.

“It’s sad,” agrees Allan Grafman, another distribution vet who now works for Luminary Capital. He thought he’d arrived a day early when he saw how thin the traffic on the convention floor was.

A number of companies tried to make up for the desertion of the floor by the majors: Hearst, one of the few midsized producer-distribs left, commanded an advantageous position on the floor and actively pushed its weekly hour “Cosmo Girl,” billing it as an FCC-friendly (?) show. Along another aisle, two guys billing themselves as the “Clever Cleavers” busily sliced hot dogs in hopes of enticing station buyers. That was the extent of the gags, gimmicks and gizmos on display this NATPE.

Running through all the panel sessions and dinner-table talk during the four-day confab was a thread of hostility toward media consolidation, which rightly or wrongly is being blamed for putting so many folks out of work and making it harder for others to break into it.

A speaker on one panel estimates 70% of the networks’ schedules now are filled with inhouse programming — a trend, she says, that is not contributing to greater creativity on the small screen.

Two FCC commissioners, Michael Copps and Kevin Martin, did show up for a panel on family programming, and pledged there would be ample debate before any decision is made about further relaxation of media-ownership rules. (Best guess among seasoned NATPE-goers, however: The cap on station ownership will be raised from 35% to 45% this spring.)

Meanwhile, back in those hotel suites, the top 10 station group owners duly met with the top 10 syndicators, and inevitably clearances for the handful of new gabbers did get chalked up. Very little happened in New Orleans that wasn’t pre-programmed or pre-determined.

“Everyone is purposeful at NATPE, but there is nothing serendipitous left about the event,” says one longtime attendee.

It was perhaps fitting that Michael Jordan and the Washington Wizards were in town to play the New Orleans Hornets basketball team: Seeing Jordan play was like being a witness to the passing of an era.

Syndication, too, is becoming unrecognizable, no doubt one of the reasons its 10-year prexy Bruce Johansen announced he’s throwing in the towel. The transformation of NATPE from a vibrant sales bazaar into a bootcamp for media wannabes is likely to accelerate.

I only hope there’ll be a place for such people in the new media world we’re entering.

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