WB syndication biggie honored by peers

The three-day NATPE confab essentially climaxed Wednesday night with a sometimes racy, sometimes rollicking roast of former Warner Bros. syndie topper Dick Robertson.

The longtime salesman, who ankled last summer, spent 40 years in the trenches, licensing shows like “People’s Court,” “Ellen” and “Friends” to local stations across the country.

The event was very male, very laid-back, and very unbuttoned.

As one guest opined, it definitely harked back to the fin-syn days of fiercely competitive indie distribs, dozens of strips, and hundreds of program-hungry indie stations.

Longtime Robertson colleague Jim Paratore described the change at NATPE: “Gone are the midgets, the wrestlers, women in bikinis and station buyers who actually buy shows.” Paratore himself ankled the studio at the same time as Robertson, and like his former boss has set up shop on the lot as a producer.

Given the pressures on the biz, this the just wrapped 44th NATPE will likely go down in history as one of the more frustrating firstrun development years: Too few slots, too few strips, too little creativity.

In some respects, the roast was a reaction to some of that pent-up frustration, even if most of the protagonists at the affair are no longer active participants in the biz.

Like other syndicators of his generation and his undoubted skills, Robertson also managed to twist a lot of arms or otherwise persuade station general managers to buy a bunch of duds (the failure rate in syndication being a whopping 85%).

That indeed was one of the underlying themes harped on by the various, mostly old-time customers, clients, colleagues and comics who took to the stage to regal some 300 guests. (Robertson kep smiling throughout.)

Comedian Bob Saget, who had his own relationship with Robertson through the “Full House” rerun years, set the vulgar tone early on, with a no holds-barred schtick about the syndicator – his tactics, his goof-off golfing escapades, his multiple wives. Another comic, Jeffrey Ross, followed Saget’s lead.

“Dick screwed half the people in the room (referring to the station honchos in the room), but they still paid $200 to come out tonight,” Ross quipped.

The irony was lost on no one that Robertson himself had been for years one of the naysayers of NATPE, claiming it was too expensive and that the big guys essentially found themselves stuck there to subsidize the little guys who really couldn’t have afforded it otherwise.

“It’s like the Jewish Federation having a dinner for Hitler,” as one invitee put it.

(Even so, NATPE organizers split the bill with Warner Bros. and the proceeds were equally earmarked for NATPE charities and Robertson’s alma mater in Virginia.)

The evening was also a reminder of just how much the business has changed, and just how corporate and careful everyone in it has become. Except apparently for roasts.

Former station titans like Kevin O’Brien, Al Devaney and Billie Frank as well as colleagues like Paratore, Scott Carlin and even Warner Bros TV chairman Barry Meyer let their hair down.

Among the printable gems: Meyer recalled the infamous NATPE of 1990 in Houston, on the heels of the deal he instigated buying out Lorimar/Telepictures and the services of Robertson. Meyer arrived in Houston only to hear from his new employee Robertson that his entire sales team was in jail. They’d gotten too close to some Texan lapdancers the night before and were hauled off to the caboose.

Scott Carlin, a longtime lieutenant of Robertson’s, delivered an x-rated rant about his former boss: “His office made Abu Graib look like a day spa,” one of the few printable lines.

Ross reminded the guests that Robertson was responsible for “more repeats than a Mexican buffet” and that he singlehandedly managed to slip “a lesbian in every time slot and every weight division.”

In a more evocative key, former Warner Bros. Intl prexy Michael J. Solomon recalled the swashbuckling years at Telepictures alongside Robertson. “We made a few bucks on the side – but that was secondary: It was magical doing what we did.”

Robertson appeared to enjoy the jostling, and gave back in good-natured kind before the evening was done.

Though a respectable phalanx of participants filed onto the convention floor Thursday morning for last-day meetings, the queue for taxis to the airport was longer than that for coffee on the floor.

NATPE prexy-CEO Rick Feldman said final attendance should top out slightly above last year’s 8,000. The trade show returns to Vegas next January.

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