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NATPE floor shows signs of a rebound

Top syndicators return as attendees turn down flash

LAS VEGAS — Traffic on the convention floor was fairly brisk on the opening morning of the 41st NATPE confab — a welcome change after three wobbly years — and a sign that the organization may be finding its feet again.

Several of the top syndicators, including Sony, King World, NBC, MGM and Universal, have returned to the trading floor, albeit with somewhat more modest trappings, helping to anchor the proceedings and attract the high-end buyers.

“We’ve made major improvements, If we were all perfect, everything that was on the air this fall would still be there.” NATPE prexy-CEO Rick Feldman told the opening session Sunday morning.

Feldman spoke generally about the changing faces — financial and technological — of the business and how those issues would be addressed over the course of the three-day confab. “It is no longer possible to please most of the people most of the time,” he said. “Out of the unknown will come significant opportunities.”

He also stressed that first and foremost, the event remained a market, with over 350 companies exhibiting and representing thousands of hours of product.”

Feldman told Daily Variety he was “encouraged” by the convention’s uptick. “NAPTE is the common thread tying this fragmentation together. We’re here to buy, sell, network, share and learn.”

NATPE organizers are trying to make the annual confab more inclusive and to inject the schmooze factor back into the proceedings on the floor. Their efforts have not been helped by the fact that half the major sellers prefer doing business out of hotel suites and staying aloof from the hoi-polloi on the convention floor.

“It felt like a scene out of ‘Barton Fink,’ ” said one longtime NATPE-goer marveling at the empty corridors in those hotel suites. Meetings in the suites, in other words, was largely “by appointment only.”

“We write a tremendous amount of business here each year,” said David Spiegelman, senior VP of New Line TV, which was one of the outfits exhibiting from hotel suites. Along with “Twilight Zone” series, distrib is offering up a “Gold” movie package with 16 titles including “Austin Powers in Goldmember” and “About Schmidt.” “The early response is already through the roof,” Spiegelman said.

Across the floor in his own suite, Tony Danza was meeting and greeting advertisers and station reps to push his Buena Vista fall talker, A syndie veteran, Danza is no stranger to NATPE. Coincidentally, thesp has been performing all weekend at the Orleans Casino so visiting buyers “can come see a little bit of what they’re getting,” he explained. Show has cleared across 45% of the country.

A key panel Sunday afternoon called “Boom, Doom or Gloom” set the tone for the day, as panelists grappled with the thorny issue of how to bring the economics of the business in line with today’s tougher realities.

Back on the floor, most stands on the convention floor were functional but not extravagant, Universal’s being the only one designed differently, in its case as a movie set. Doughnuts and bagels have replaced the shrimp and booze that used to flow freely at the lavish stands of yesteryear.

There were the obligatory scantily clad young women sprinkled here and there, the Clever Cleaver cooking show chefs were on hand to flip burgers at their stand and some strange looking costumed animals cavorted here and there. But by and large cheesiness was in short supply.

Pat Croce, a would-be talk show host, was busily glad-handing with station buyers at the Sony booth at opening bell. He’ll have his work cut out for him, as several other would-be gabbers have already racked up substantial clearances.

NBC’s vehicle for Jane Pauley has cleared 80%, Paramount’s “The Insider” has clocked 85% and Disney’s Tony Danza is at 45%.

A half dozen first run strips will get launched next fall, down from the 10 or 12 of a decade ago when indie stations had slots to fill and major syndicators were not also the major station owners.

Action hours, which had been written off by both sellers and buyers as too expensive a proposition, resurfaced at the Lion where company execs are trying to renew “Stargate,” “She Spies” and “Outer Limits.”

Other announcements:

  • Tribune Entertainment has renewed weekly hours “Mutant X” and “Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda.” Both programs are cleared in more than 85% of the country, including Tribune stations WPIX in New York and KTLA in Los Angeles..

  • Starz Action has picked up thirteen Japanime titles from, Manga Entertainment, a division of Chris Blackwell’s Palm Pictures. Pics include “Blood: the Last Vampire” and “Perfect Blue.”

  • Horticultural series “P. Allen Smith Gardens” from Orlando-based Television Syndication Company has been renewed for a fifth season. Show is cleared in 77% of the country..

  • Oxygen will launch “My Best Friend is a Big Fat Slut,” a comic reality show from Carsey Werner Mandabach.

As for the level of participation, some veteran NATPE-goers wondered aloud who all the tiny distribbers were who have set up shop in the shadow of the big guys — and how they manage to sustain a business dominated by these goliaths.

One way they do it is by putting out sexier, edgier product. “Look around. a lot of what’s on offer by offbeat companies is tabloid or borderline soft-porn,” one veteran observer pointed out.

Katherine Oliver, Gotham’s commissioner of film, theater and broadcasting, and long time NATPE board member was in town as part of a whirlwind West Coast tour that would also include stops in Park City and Los Angeles.

“We’re really trying to reach out and spread the word that we’re making it as easy as possible for production,” she said about the purpose of her travel. Locally, TV production has increased 51%, with episodic TV creating the most jobs.

On the international front, attendance was spottier. Over at the MGM booth exec VP Simon Sutton said he was pleased with the turnout from Latins and from specific Asian countries like Japan and Indonesia. Europe was a mixed bag: Four out of the five top British buyers were on hand, as were France’s TF1 and M6. Execs from Germany were harder to find, while Italians and Spaniards were no-shows.

Still, MGM managed to close a deal with Latin cablers for the company’s hip sudser on Showtime called “The L Word.”

(John Dempsey, Eileen Tasca and Barbara Scherzer contributed to this report.)

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