TV event adjusts to "economic pain"

Not to sound unduly nostalgic, but like so much else, the programming convention known as NATPE is a far cry from its opulent heyday. Major syndicators once wooed TV station managers with lavish parties and flew in acts like Elton John and Smokey Robinson, fostering suspicions that impresarios like the late Roger King gargled with money.

Even the recently scaled-down version, though, has adopted a notably sober tone for its January 2009 edition, with organizers emailing potential attendees essentially telling them “We feel your economic pain,” while still urging their return to the Las Vegas showcase.

NATPE originally stood for the National Assn. of Television Program Executives, but as with cable nets such as ESPN, TLC and AMC, the letters no longer really mean anything. Indeed, TV station personnel — once the convention’s guests of honor — have dwindled to a pittance of the 7,000 or so attendees.

Management consolidation had already eliminated many Vegas boondoggles, with one buyer handling scheduling chores for vast station groups. A dismal advertising economy, with deep cutbacks by key categories like auto dealerships buffeting local broadcasters as well as newspapers, will exacerbate the trend.

So what once ranked among the most festive of show business events, the TV industry’s de facto annual prom, has been forced to evolve. Representatives from fields such as new media and technology have partially taken up the slack, but international buyers — another growth area — could find their own budgets strained, in part by fluctuations of the U.S. dollar.

Rick Feldman — NATPE’s president, and a former station GM at KCOP in Los Angeles — isn’t trying to sugarcoat the economic malaise. “I understand that people are saying, ‘Should I go or should I not go?’ ” he says, adding that in the confab’s emails and ads, “I’m just trying to hit it head on. To hide from it is ridiculous.”

That said, Feldman still sees a significant role for NATPE, and he’s hoping the convention’s reconfigured status as a forum to explore the shifting nature of video content will keep the discussion relevant — that a dwindling syndication business needn’t dictate that NATPE go swirling down the drain along with it.

“It’s a much more variable market now,” he says. “It’s not a market of local television stations buying programs from big syndicators.”

In the best of times, NATPE was always about more than that. Yes, programs got sold and commitments made, but the exercise possessed a collegial, we’re-all-in-this-together attitude — salesmen schmoozing station execs to establish good will, then going out and lying to their competitors later when they ran into each other carousing at bars or craps tables.

The free-wheeling atmosphere underscored an “anything’s possible” mentality. Syndication is a business where staggering fortunes were made — one that transformed Oprah Winfrey into a billionaire, and placed names like “Judge Judy” and “Dr. Phil” in the national lexicon.

The exhibition hall assumed a Barnum-and-Bailey quality, with towering booths, gourmet feasts and garish displays — so much so that organizers eventually sought to tamp that down when the consumer press became fascinated by this giant supermarket of TV, which Newsweek labeled “syndication Hell” in the mid-1990s. The little guys always worked harder (and still do) to get attention, which invariably meant the most scantily clad models and loudest displays.

One year, members of Lorimar sales force got busted at a Houston strip club, and a few spent the night in jail. Everybody felt compelled to visit the same establishment the next year — which helpfully rang up credit-card receipts as “Lotus Restaurant” — strictly as “research,” of course.

In 2009, expense accounts won’t be so accommodating — one reason Feldman is laboring to put an affordable restaurant on the convention floor, letting people conduct business without squandering time or money running out for expensive lunches. That’s pragmatic, if hardly in keeping with the old NATPE ethos.

“We’re really trying to stick to our knitting,” Feldman says. “Video content is not going away. … This is a down time, but that doesn’t mean there are not opportunities.” 

Indeed, and who knows? Somebody might still get lucky and hit a jackpot. What’s been lost is the fun in the way that the levers get pulled.

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