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Broad biz branches out

Not just about strips anymore, confab melds tech and syndie worlds

What do foodie Rachael Ray, sitcom star Megan Mullally and Hispanic legal eagle Maria Lopez all have in common?

They’re all fronting potential firstrun strips for U.S. station carriage in 2006, and all three personalities will be glad-handing with attendees at the 43rd annual NATPE confab in Las Vegas.

The three-day extravaganza (Jan. 24-26) has morphed into a variegated event in which high-tech demos and high-minded gab have largely replaced the hijinx of the old-style domestic syndication biz.

“NATPE is definitely changing as the TV biz begins to embrace new platforms and new forms of programming. We’re seeing this year the involvement of Intel, Nokia, AOL, Yahoo! and other players in our gathering,” NATPE president-CEO Rick Feldman says.

Still, he points out, not everything has been swept away.

“This NATPE,” he adds, “will provide a glimpse of what the world will look like in 10 years. But it’s still consumers and advertisers who are going to decide which platforms will be significant and what programs work on them.”

Given all the different constituencies that now make up the TV biz — program buyers and sellers, broadcasters, cablers, producers, advertisers, brand and marketing specialists, techies, talent agents, packagers, formatters and financiers — the event, Feldman says, has to be broad in scope but manage not to dilute the message.

“We’re here to facilitate the conversation so that content providers can figure out new ways to generate revenue from their product. Our goal is to encourage connections between the various parts of this changing biz,” he adds.

While the crucial jumpstart deals in syndication now tend to be made with station groups before NATPE takes place, program distribs still say they find the event useful.

“It’s become a holistic industry conference, in which we can connect with station execs, advertisers, cablers and the international buyers. I think it’s still viable,” says Ritch Colbert, an indie veteran of the biz, who recently set up a new distribution company and will exhibit at the show.

Adds Garnett Losak, VP and head of programming for the Petry Media rep firm: “This time around we have some programming to look at, a larger slate than recent years, and all the projects have merit. My stations are calling to ask which show they should buy — not to complain that they all stink.”

Losak advises local TV stations on what product to pick up. “Overall, I’d say, there’s better quality, if less quantity, than 10 years ago,” she concludes.

Almost three-quarters of the expected 350 exhibitors will hold court on the main convention floor of the Mandalay Bay, though several of the top domestic players — Warners, Disney, Twentieth — will continue to receive clients (mostly by appointment only) at suites in the Mandalay Bay Hotel itself.

FremantleMedia, Byron Allen, Litton Syndication and Chum TV are the most recent program suppliers to forgo the hotel suite strategy and return to the main floor.

Exhibs from abroad number 115 from 19 countries but don’t include Miami-based Latin American companies that are officially registered as U.S. firms.

Beth Braen, N ATPE’s senior VP for marketing, adds that attendance overall is trending ahead of last year, though it’s hard to hazard a final tally because so many attendees register directly at the confab itself. Last year’s total hit 7,500 and Braen is hoping to break the 8,000 mark this go-round. (The confab in Vegas in 2001 holds the all-time record for attendance, topping out at 12,000.)

This year’s firstrun strip contenders have each been cleared on at least one major station group and hence all are certain to declare firm “go’s” for September. NATPE itself will be more a mopping-up event for these domestic suppliers.

(Last year three shows were hoisted — “Martha Stewart,” “Tyra Banks,” “Judge Alex” — while Sony’s “Robin Givens” and Twentieth’s “Suze Orman” were passed over, or as syndicators put it, “postponed.” Twentieth’s “Current Affair” debuted in the spring but was canceled in the fall.)

Still, the half-dozen new contenders vying to compete against juggernauts “Oprah,” “ET” and “Judge Judy” are, by and large, refreshingly distinctive and could help stations get away from double and triple runs of old sitcoms.

King World’s “Rachael Ray” will even get the “Oprah” imprimatur this spring, and seller King World is confident the Food Network fave will follow a trajectory similar to that of its “Dr. Phil,” who also got his original blessing from the Queen of Talk.

Other syndicators are no less confident of their own projects.

Though talkshows and courtshows dominate the firstrun arena, Twentieth is also coming to market with an unusual offering: a trio of reformatted telenovelas (already cleared on the Fox O&Os) that would be, if successful, the first time Latin-style sudsers are repurposed for English-lingo auds. And Tribune is pitching reruns of FremantleMedia’s “American Idol,” aiming them for weekend exposure.

The TV station biz is, however, no longer reckoned to be in growth mode, though this being an Olympics and election year should help boost local advertising revenues. That, by extension, should make station general managers loosen their hold on their purse strings.

Only Fox, however, is planning a full-fledged affiliates meeting at NATPE, so it’s possible a number of station G.M.s from other networks will give the tradeshow a miss.

But NATPE is no longer just about domestic syndication.

Cablers, which now share windows with local stations on most off-network product, are expected to be out in force in Vegas, while program producers are flocking back in order to get a handle on the genres and formats most likely to work on new mobile and wireless devices.

A sizable contingent from abroad is also set to hit the Strip, including execs from Russia, India, China and other parts of Asia, while program buyers from Italy, Germany and Spain apparently will wait for Mip TV in March.

Says Granada Intl.’s top exec Nadine Nohr: “Our business is now trans-Atlantic and flows in both directions. At NATPE, our sales team will license British-originated shows like ‘Eleventh Hour’ and American-originated shows like ‘Nanny 911’ and ‘Ballroom Boot Camp.’ They’ll focus mainly on Latin America and Oz-Kiwi buyers.”

With their economies improving, Latin Americans will once again be out in force, and this year European sellers from France, Britain, Belgium and Spain have targeted them as potential buyers of their product. They’ll host a special European Day on Monday in the hopes of doing some deals.

The international divisions of the Hollywood majors will also all be on hand, typically using NATPE to introduce midseason product to their foreign clients.

Fox Intl. TV exec VP Marion Edwards says her unit has an abundance of new product to unveil, including “The Unit” for CBS, “Windfall” for NBC and “Pepper Dennis” for the WB. She also expects foreign clients to want to know more about her company’s strategy vis-a-vis the new media.

“Our clients are excited about the new technology but worried about its impact on their deals with us. Will they, for example, be able to do an iPod deal for one of our shows in their local market? Things like that. We’ll be having a lot of discussion about these issues during NATPE.”

On the panel front, NATPE organizers have put together a chockablock schedule — 50 sessions involving 250 movers-and-shakers with an emphasis on portable platforms, newfangled windows and emerging foreign markets.

Events will include workshops, intimate chatrooms, case studies and a boot camp for beginners.

Among the highlights: BBC chairman Michael Grade will deliver a keynote Tuesday analyzing the risks and opportunities for program makers in the multiplatform world. Another session will focus on the coverage of the Katrina disaster and how it changed the media.

Other panels take on reality rip-offs, the sitcom drought and the digital revolution.

The confab itself is preceded by an entire day on Monday, entitled NATPE Mobile and co-produced with the iHollywood Forum, which will focus on the opportunities for producers that wireless and mobile are bringing into the market.

Says Feldman: “It’s the richest conference agenda we’ve ever assembled, and it’s a great bargain for learning about the biz in such a short period.”

There are also some innovations designed to make the NATPE experience less logistically challenging.

The registration banks have been moved directly onto the convention floor proper, and off to one side of the entrance is a food court, which will be where happy hour takes place each afternoon as conventioneers wind down their day.

NATPE organizers are working out final details for the trade show to return to the Mandalay Bay in January for the next three years.

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