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The syndie sizzle

Adding pizzazz to confab, market reinvents itself

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 pepper the newly telescoped NATPE confab in Las Vegas. Organizers are hoping the added spice will help reinvigorate the event after several wobbly years.

Media consolidation and station duopolies in key markets have put a crimp in the firstrun syndie biz so that the annual event, now in its 41st year, has been forced to enlarge its purpose.

No longer strictly a sales bazaar for the 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 some promising projects vying for station clearances around the country.

Program buyers will be debating the merits of gabbers such as Tony Danza or Jane Pauley, reality projects like “Ambush Makeover” from Fox (who else?), and “Gal Pals” from NBC, or off-net sitcoms like “According to Jim.”

“I’m optimistic that business will get done in Vegas. The market is not done by any stretch of the imagination,” says Garnett Losak, head of programming for the Petry rep firm. She rattles off a number of projects that still have to rack up clearances in order to be “firm goes.”

The only “bummer,” in Losak’s view, is the fact that a previously scheduled National Assn. of Broadcasters board meeting in Florida will coincide with NATPE and keep a number of top station execs from attending. They include Cox’s Andy Fisher, Hearst-Argyle’s David Barrett, Belo’s Jack Sander and Post-Newsweek’s Allen Frank.

While unfortunate, their absence will not be, Losak and others contend, “devastating” to the dealmaking.

Moving back to Las Vegas and cutting the trade show to three days from four are the most obvious signs of a more pragmatic, streamlined approach to the confab, which organizers say should help those involved in the biz get more out of the event.

Since schmoozing doesn’t come as naturally to the more buttoned-down corporate types who now dominate the biz, NATPE is manufacturing times and places where folks can interface, exchange business cards or just unwind.

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.)

The NATPE agenda is chock-a-block with workshops, panel discussions, chat rooms 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.

The 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.

“Most folks have taken an interest in sharing their views, and I’m more optimistic than before,” Feldman says, emphasizing that the confab is still “in transition mode.”

He points out that the domestic TV station biz has picked up this last year, with rising ad revenues and the prospect of a healthy election and Olympics boost in 2004.

Among the concerns on execs’ minds were the cost of attendance, logistics and the shrinkage in the domestic syndication biz.

Program buyers have been offered cut-rate packages to attend, as little as $200 for NATPE membership and the chance to work the exhibition floor, while special prices ($150) and workshops are planned for out-of-work execs wishing to get back in the fray.

As for logistics, they should automatically improve as the major program sellers — meaning the Hollywood majors — are spread fairly evenly between the convention floor and the contiguous Venetian Hotel.

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

What hasn’t changed at NATPE is the fact that the firstrun fray is a fierce arena.

“There are fewer timeslots available. There are fewer gatekeepers and hence fewer opportunities to get through the gate,” says the Katz rep firm’s programming head Bill Carroll.

There are also some amazingly resilient syndie stalwarts — think “Wheel of Fortune,” “Jeopardy,” “Oprah” and “E.T.,” among others — whose longevity on the air increases the difficulties for newcomers. (In fact, there are no new court or gameshows, thanks largely to the hold current incumbents have on these genres.)

Among those trying to break into the syndie sweepstakes are “American Idol” host Ryan Seacrest, whose gabber takes to the air right as NATPE begins. That syndie strip will be able to take advantage of corporate synergy just as Fox premieres its latest season of “American Idol” in primetime on the Fox network.

Near-certain starters for next fall are NBC’s “Jane Pauley” and Paramount’s “E.T.” spinoff “Insider.”

The real action on the convention floor will center on other projects in various stages of readiness.

NBC Enterprises is toying with three possible makeover shows — “Gal Pals,” “Are You Ready?” and “Nobody’s Perfect” — while 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.

Universal, meanwhile, is banking on “Home Delivery,” a cross between “Trading Spaces” and “Dr. Phil,” and will almost certainly have its partner Tribune sign on the dotted line as the launch group for the show.

The Mouse House is fielding a gabber with Tony Danza, while Warner Bros. is busily working on upgrades of its syndie sophomore “The Ellen De Generes Show.”

King World domestic sales prexy Joe Di Salvo says it’s as tough as ever to launch a show, but then adds, “Look, it can be done: We did it with ‘Dr. Phil.’ It’s just not often.”

Fortunately, there may be potential holes in daytime to plug.

That’s because a few syndie vets are or may soon be calling it a day, including “Ricki Lake,” “John Walsh” and “Wayne Brady.” There are also question marks hanging over the return of King World’s “Hollywood Squares” and a possible retooling of that same company’s “Living It Up With Ali and Jack.”

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

“We’ll have exploratory talks with a number of interested stations in Vegas, but we don’t want to be accepting orders there,” he says. That’s because it’s still unclear if all the main competitors in any given market will be at NATPE. For a package of this quality, Askin points out, you really want to be able “to dialogue with all the interested parties.”

As for off-net action, there is a line 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 the show KW is putting all its weight behind, “Everybody Loves Raymond.”

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

One innovation this year is the fact that the floor will be open continuously throughout the three-day confab, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. to facilitate dealmaking and schmoozing. At the same time, panel sessions, workshops and keynotes will unspool throughout the day on and off the floor.

Among the high-profile events are several so-called “super sessions.” One is moderated by media maven Jack Myers called “Boom or Gloom or Doom” featuring top syndie and talent agent types on Jan 18; another on Jan. 19 is called “Loose Cannons” and 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 readying a channel targeting Arabs in the Mideast, one day and with “Everyone Loves Raymond” producer Phil Rosenthal the other.

NATPE organizers have retooled the popular but oft chaotic “Pitch Me’ sessions to be less “The Gong Show” and more “The Dr. Phil Show.” For a modest fee would-be creators will get a 10-minute one-on-one session with an agent from Paradign or UTA or an exec from production companies such as Hallmark, Granada America or Lifetime.

The international contingent, which is likely to be somewhat thinned given the late March dates for Mip in Cannes, is, however, not being forgotten. There are sessions scheduled on what foreign buyers are looking for, how to get the most out of the L.A. Screenings, and the prospects of German TV.

Carlton America prexy Stephen Davis says a respectable number of Europeans is expected, but that there will be fewer companies going all out and exhibiting on the floor.

“Economically things are getting better abroad but Europeans aren’t yet quite ready to make substantial commitments to events like NATPE,” he says.

Davis’ own company is merging with sister broadcaster Granada and the two foreign distrib arms will be exhibiting together for the first time.

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