NATPE spices up syndie bazaar

It's not your father's confab, but it's serious biz

This article was updated at 7:08 p.m.

Will reruns of reality phenom “Fear Factor” really fly? Can Tony Danza dance his way into the hearts of housewives? And will buyers go bananas over the first-ever DreamWorks movie package?

These are just a few of the bets station buyers may place this weekend when they hit Las Vegas for the 41st annual NATPE confab.

Along with station programmers, a potpourri of TV celebs, studio execs, program creators and seers of various sorts — from Jerry Seinfeld and Larry King to Bert von Munster, Ken Ziffren and Ellen Sandler — will be on hand for the three-day syndie bazaar.

Organizers are hoping the added spice will help reinvigorate the event, running Sunday through Tuesday, after several wobbly years.

Media consolidation and station duopolies in key markets have put a crimp in the firstrun syndie biz, so the annual event has been forced to enlarge its purpose.

No longer strictly a sales bazaar for the domestic syndie biz, NATPE has reached out to other constituencies — advertisers, techies, foreign execs, cablers, regulators, talent agents, indie producers and academic communities — for input and participation.

Still, in the end, it is about the shows: Though not as numerous, nor, it would seem, as outrageous as a few of them once were, there are promising projects vying for station clearances around the country.

Way out ahead of the game, “American Idol” host Ryan Seacrest, fronting a gabber that began Monday.

All of the major sellers and most of the key station groups will be present at NATPE, so the possibilities for dealmaking are in place.

Participation is expected to top out at 10,000 attendees, up 10% from last year’s nadir in New Orleans, but down from the heyday of the late ’90s. (Attendance hit an all-time record of 20,000 in 2001.)

What hasn’t changed at NATPE is the ferocity of the fray in the firstrun arena. “There are fewer timeslots available. There are fewer gatekeepers and hence fewer opportunities to get through the gate,” the Katz rep firm’s programming head Bill Carroll told Daily Variety.

Already three yakkers have received their walking papers: “The John Walsh Show,” “Crossing Over With John Edward” and “The Wayne Brady Show.”

“Hollywood Squares” will not return next season and it’s likely the King World will retool “Living It Up With Ali and Jack” for its upcoming second season.

Meanwhile, reigning triumvirate “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “Dr. Phil” and “Live With Regis and Kelly” have been the only gabbers to post any ratings upswing in households, season to date.

The three consistently offer upbeat perspectives. “In this day and age, there’s a lot of depressing news, and people are looking to feel good. They know they’ll find that with us,” “Live” exec producer Michael Gelman said.

Queen of daytime “Oprah” sits in the cushiest of daytime slots, but even longtime syndie watchers are impressed with the new vigor that strip has shown.

Harpo prexy Tim Bennett attributes this season’s success to the continuing support of affiliate stations, a new exec producer — Harpo vet Ellen Rakieten — and some primetime-worthy gets, including Elizabeth Smart, Madonna, and the pre-gubernatorial Schwarzeneggers.

Stalwarts aside, the real action on the convention floor usually centers on newish projects in various stages of readiness.

In addition to pitching its primetime hit “Fear Factor,” NBC Enterprises is toying with possible makeover shows “Gal Pals,” “Are You Ready?” and “Nobody’s Perfect.” Sony is trotting out “Life and Style,” a younger-skewing version of “The View,” and a family issues format featuring former NBA basketball owner Pat Croce trying to mediate household disputes. Paramount is pitching a spinoff of its venerable “E.T.” called “The Insider.”

Universal is banking on “Home Delivery,” a cross between “Trading Spaces” and “Dr. Phil,” now that syndie partner Tribune has signed on as the show’s launch group.

Warner Bros. is busily working on upgrades of its syndie sophomore “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.”

On another programming front, Tribune topper Dick Askin is bullish about the 34-title DreamWorks movie package his team will be touting. Package includes “Shrek,” “American Beauty” and “Saving Private Ryan.”

As for off-net action, there’s a slew of sitcoms waiting to strut their stuff in repeat mode, including “Malcolm in the Middle” for 2004 and “According to Jim” in 2005.

Or stations can play it safe and renew the third cycle of “Seinfeld” or the second cycle of “Friends” or “Everybody Loves Raymond.”

Weekend firstrun entries into syndication have pretty much gone the way of the dodo bird.

Event unspools under the new leadership of Rick Feldman, a veteran station and syndication salesman who replaced the 10-year incumbent Bruce Johansen last April. He is variously described by folks in the biz as “a tiger” and “a can-do kind of guy” whose energy in grappling with NATPE issues has been infectious.

Feldman says his first mandate was “to listen to all of NATPE’s contingents” to try and put together a show that addressed as many key concerns as possible.

He points out that the domestic TV station biz has recently picked up, with rising ad revs and the prospect of a healthy election and Olympics boost.

Among the most salient concerns on execs’ minds are the cost of attendance, logistics and the shrinking domestic syndication biz.

Feldman and his team have also boosted security measures in keeping with the heightened alerts that have dogged the country this last month.

The NATPE agenda is chock-a-block with workshops, panel discussions, chat room and pitch-me sessions. There are also a number of initiatives designed to help professionals out of work or just breaking into the biz move ahead with their careers.

Among the more high-profile gabfests are several so-called super sessions.

“Boom or Gloom or Doom,” moderated by media maven Jack Myers, features op syndie and talent agent types on Jan. 18; “Loose Cannons” on Jan. 19 will be a freewheeling conversation with Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, Roger King, Jerry Springer and Jesse Ventura.

Early morning coffee klatches will feature AMC’s “Shoot Out” co-hosts, Variety editor Peter Bart and producer Peter Guber. They’ll chat with Norm Pattiz, who’s setting up an Arab-targeted channel in the Mideast, on one day and with “Everyone Loves Raymond” producer Phil Rosenthal the other.

As for the foreign contingent, the turnout is expected to be respectable but not overwhelming.

Granada America prexy Stephen Davis, who’s just been named co-chair of NATPE, says a reasonable number of Europeans is expected, but there will be fewer companies going all out and exhibiting on the floor. Several Euros said they didn’t want the added hastle of going through American security, while others said they were holding fire until the American Film Market in Snata Monica at the end of February.

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