‘Art’-ists reveal a spirit of NATPE past

As reporters assembled in Hollywood last week to hear MTV talk about its ditsy newlywed stars Nick and Jessica, several men well beyond that channel’s target demo — guys who virtually created the TV syndication business — huddled around a table at Musso & Frank’s.

With the annual NATPE convention to kick off Sunday in Las Vegas, the group’s banter underscored just how much their industry has changed. It’s a sense also conveyed in the new book “Fridays With Art,” a look at TV’s early days as assembled by more than two dozen of those who participated in shaping the medium.

Drawing its title from a weekly lunch organized three decades ago by the late Art Greenfield, the memories at the core of “Fridays With Art” highlight the shift that has taken place since the days when NATPE was a free-wheeling sales convention. In recent years, this has given way to a more staid affair, where dealmaking takes a back seat as multinational conglomerates place home-grown shows on their TV station groups — because they’re the best shows, they insist unpersuasively, without regard to who owns them.

“Art’s” spirits of NATPE past — names like Sandy Frank, Dick Block, Alan Silverbach and Dick Colbert — have watched the business consolidate, leeching much of the vitality from such events.

“Attitudinally, it’s a very different business,” said Norman Horowitz, another of the contributing authors, who ran Polygram and MGM’s TV arms. Distribution execs, he added, were left alone to sell and forge relationships with buyers by bosses who “had no idea what the hell we did. … The MBAs who run studios today don’t understand that process.”

Clearly, the vertical integration of companies that produce, distribute and exhibit shows has excised much of the give-and-take and old-fashioned salesmanship from TV syndication. In fact, some of those involved with “Art” have been enlisted to serve as expert witnesses in cases brought against the studios, helping plaintiffs try to determine fair-market value when a single entity sits on both sides of the bargaining table.

NATPE (whose acronym originally stood for National Assn. of Television Program Executives) has undergone various changes over the years. Initiated in the early 1960s by program directors at local TV stations, the studios soon realized it was a terrific sales opportunity, with exhibitors graduating from hotel suites to gaudy, sprawling convention-floor booths.

This year’s scaled-down three-day affair will invariably be less about cementing sales or schmoozing buyers than it was even a decade ago. That’s in part because far fewer station managers attend, with programming choices being made at a corporate level by a shrinking number of owners.

Competition for programs has also diminished as “duopolies” — where one company owns two stations in the same city — become more prevalent, further centralizing decision-making.

“When NATPE started, the rule was you couldn’t own more than seven stations,” recalled Lew Klein, who, as a program director in Philadelphia, helped found the event. “Now, you may have one or two executives buying for 25 stations.”

Such a dynamic gives less meaning to jokes that salesmen shared in the old days — among them that prostitutes stopped coming to NATPE because, as former Television Bureau of Advertising chief Ave Butensky tells it, “Programmers can’t make a decision.”

Nor will there be many colorful characters to rival the doggedness of the legendary Frank, who, in the book, denies an oft-repeated story that he once feigned a heart attack to force an airplane to land in order to make a sale.

Among other anecdotes, “Art” contributor Jim Stern recalls a Norfolk, Va., station manager who, when presented with Liberace’s TV show, rejecting it by drawling, “This guy shits cream puffs!” Granted, the color in that case was a red neck, but the tale reflects the localism that once informed program buying, for good and ill, as well as how much independence has been stripped from the business.

“We used to have a lot more independent operators,” conceded NATPE prexy-CEO Rick Feldman, who previously oversaw KCOP in Los Angeles, now part of a Fox duopoly that manages both that station and KTTV. “Through consolidation, it’s gotten more institutionalized.”

Of that consolidation, Klein said, “It has sapped something from the industry, and it has sapped something from the American public.”

Certainly, the media business moves faster than ever before, spurring wrenching changes that regularly update its cast of characters. Take the Caucus for Television Producers, Writers & Directors, which holds its annual awards gala tonight. Members of that group pretty much ran the TV biz into the 1980s, yet with rare exceptions, those same folks don’t get calls returned right away by today’s power brokers — a reality that inevitably awaits said power brokers themselves in the years ahead.

Feldman is quick to note that any comparisons between NATPE then and now should be kept in context. “Relative to a lot of other things we could be doing for a living, this is still a lot of fun,” he said.

True enough, but given how grim and serious the business frequently seems to be, it’s hard not to wonder: When the current crop of execs pause to reminisce years from now, what sort of stories will they have to tell?

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