Merger announcement at last year's confab electrified the event

Last year’s great big NATPE hope turned out to be a great big syndication dud.

A demand for more syndicated fare in the wake of the WB-UPN shutdown never materialized, despite early hopes to the contrary.

But for one brief moment, it looked like the syndication biz had been handed a big windfall — and right in the middle of NATPE.

Warner Bros. and CBS’ shocker announcement that they would combine forces and launch a new net (killing the WB and UPN in the process) coincided with the first day of the annual convention last January.

In the process, it created the biggest stir inside NATPE booths since the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke during the confab in 1998.

The quiet NATPE floor electrified: BlackBerrys and cell phones buzzed as station execs and syndie toppers searched for news — any news — about the surprise move. All other business topics were put on hold as giddy convention attendees traded gossip and speculation about what might happen next.

Programmers milled about, wondering how they might fill their scheduling void. Syndicators licked their lips at the prospect of suddenly independent TV stations desperate to fill time.

For many old-timers, NATPE suddenly felt relevant again.

“It was pandemonium,” remembers Warner Bros. TV Distribution topper Ken Werner, who last year was still the WB network’s distribution chief. “It was announced at 8 a.m. New York time, and we made sure to start telling our clients a little bit beforehand. That gave us a little bit of time to call stations we had relationships with. Everybody was shocked and stunned and concerned.”

That was especially true of station execs who were told they wouldn’t be invited to become a part of the new CW net. Scorned stations didn’t waste any time scratching the WB or UPN logo from their names, not to mention their on-air identity.

Sacramento WB affil KQCA, which wasn’t given the CW affiliation, even put out a defiant press release within 24 hours of the merger announcement.

“The strength of KQCA is not solely dependent on the WB network programming for success,” the Hearst-Argyle station said at the time. “We will develop a new strategy for the station, which will include new programming, new content and a new station identity.”

Meanwhile, the station group hit hardest by the WB-UPN announcement — Fox’s band of nine UPN affils in top markets — kept mum.

Guesswork was rampant: Would the Fox stations go all-news? Focus on sports? Rely on firstrun syndie fare in primetime? Run movies?

“From the point of view of the syndicators, they were thrilled to death,” Werner says. “Not only was the convention electric with the news, but it energized them and made for an exciting and dynamic NATPE. Syndicators all saw that there would be an opportunity for primetime avails, that essentially the UPN imprint would become available to everyone. All these things were being bandied about.”

Sony, which doesn’t own its own station group (due to foreign ownership), saw an opportunity to make a home for its hefty library of features and series, as well as firstrun development. Topper Steve Mosko set up a meeting with Fox station brass to discuss potential programming deals.

Others had the same idea. Carsey-Werner distribution toyed with selling “That ’70s Show” off-net repeats as a primetime package. Movie distributors dusted off their packages.

But Fox ultimately had other plans. The station group decided to pull 20th Century Fox TV Distribution’s telenovela package off the firstrun market and instead use it as the centerpiece of a new ad-hoc weblet, MyNetworkTV.

That led to a distribution frenzy, as MyNet and CW raced to sign up former WB and UPN affils in markets in which neither had secured station deals. Ultimately, most stations orphaned by the WB-UPN shutdown wound up with network programming after all.

“In terms of time periods, the (WB-UPN shutdown) had no effect,” one syndie exec says. “What happened was essentially a switch. Nothing changed with time period availability.”

That’s not to say the switcheroo had no impact. Former WB stations that switched to MyNet suddenly found themselves with two afternoon hours to program. WB then (and the CW now) programmed fare from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. — the only network to do so. Those extra 10 hours may have helped offset the financial hit those stations took in losing the WB and moving to ratings-starved MyNet and opened up some new real estate.

On the flip side, ex-UPN stations now aligned with the CW suddenly lost those two afternoon hours — so the impact was still zero-sum for syndicators.

What’s more, ex-WB and UPN stations that became MyNet affils have so far seen their fortunes hit hard in primetime, which could have economic consequences (even though MyNet gave stations more local ad time).

“That could further constrain the amount of cash those TV stations are really willing to spend (on syndie fare),” one syndication topper says. “There’s also more pressure on them to monetize their other dayparts.”

So much for that premature NATPE exuberance.

“Within an hour, it was the most chaotic environment,” says an exec. “Within five months, everything was back to the status quo.”

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