Looking for silver linings at confab

The gloomy economic outlook for 2009 is hanging over the NATPE confab heavier than the cigarette smoke in the Mandalay Bay Resort’s casinos.

Talk at the gathering on the tradeshow floor’s opening day was centered not on shows, deals or budding talent but on cost-cutting and layoffs throughout showbiz; the big question was how TV stations will weather the prolonged slump in local ad sales.

“We’ve gone through slumps before, but nothing like this,” said Dennis Swanson, prexy of station operations for Fox Television Stations and a 40-year biz vet.

“I think it’s going to be a very ugly year,” he said, noting that the hardest-hit sectors of the national economy — automakers, car dealerships, financial services and real estate-related services — are high on the list of TV’s top advertisers.

Swanson said he does not see any uptick on the horizon for this year, but he’s banking on political ad spending in 2010 to help boost station coffers in some markets.

But for now, the downturn is putting a big crimp in syndie sales efforts. Stations are pushing hard for all-barter deals that involve the station giving up only a certain amount of ad time.

“Nobody wants to commit to spending cash right now for a show,” lamented a studio syndie division topper.

The hard times for stations have translated into a much downscaled confab, both in terms of attendance and participation by major biz players. There’s room enough for a game of touch football on NATPE’s tradeshow floor, once home to palatial booths and attention-grabbing talent showcases and stunts.

This year, the only major players on the floor are NBC Universal, CBS’ international sales arm and FremantleMedia. Other distribs are holding meetings here in private suites in the hotel adjacent to the conference center, but even those ranks are depleted or scaled down. The most high-profile of the slim crop of new shows set to bow in the fall, “Dr. Oz,” from Sony Pictures TV and Harpo Prods., is not represented here at all, as Sony Pictures TV has taken a pass entirely on NATPE.

NATPE prexy Rick Feldman confirmed that the confab will be back at the Mandalay Bay in 2010, but it will likely have to make significant changes. There may not be an exhibition floor at all, or it may be radically reconfigured. NATPE’s problem is that it needs commitments from exhibitors sooner rather than later to reserve the exhibition space for 2010, but none of the majors are in a mood to commit significant coin this far out.

On the positive side, Feldman said, the hotel has offered to make more space available for the private suites, which have been limited in the past. Feldman said NATPE may also try to find a way to have smaller and less expensive exhibition opportunities in the Mandalay’s many ballrooms, rather than on its traditional expo floor that spans the length of several football fields.

“We know that changes are in store for us next year,” Feldman said. “We’re trying to find a way to keep the gestalt of NATPE going but in a less expensive way. First and foremost, we’re a nonprofit, membership organization. All we want to do is make our members happy.”

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