It’s a feisty female fray

Strips are fewer, but competish for slots is hot

Dates: Jan. 25-27
Venue: Mandalay Bay Hotel
City: Las Vegas
Exhibitors: 343
Panel sessions: 44
Variety Vision interview: NATPE prexy Rick Feldman on the state of the org. Watch at www.variety.com/feldman

Can Martha Stewart be successfully restyled by Mark Burnett? Can Robin Quivers be uninhibited yet still keep the FCC off her back? Can “The Sopranos” translate its HBO sizzle into mainstream moolah, and can anyone ferret out the next big reality format?

These are just some of the queries that station programmers and cablers will be mulling as they place their bets on syndie strips and assorted other content during the 42nd National Assn. of Television Program Executives confab, which will unspool for the third consecutive year in Las Vegas on Jan. 25-27.

Revenues for winners in the syndie sweepstakes have never been higher — the barter biz alone was worth $3.5 billion in 2004 — but the price of failure is daunting.

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A field of just six firstrun strips will be pitched during the three-day sales bazaar, a reflection of the highly consolidated biz on the production/distribution side and the client station side.

That’s after a number of names were toyed with but eventually rejected this development season, including singer Vanessa Williams, designer Vera Wang and “ET” correspondent Stephen Cojocaru.

With the syndie biz so slimmed down, a lot of the action at this year’s trade show will focus on cable offerings and on foreign formats.

“We’re trying to make the trade show deliver something for everyone. All aspects of the TV biz are represented and we’re trying to expand what the definition of a TV programmer encompasses,” says NATPE prexy-CEO Rick Feldman.

The newly retooled NATPE is likely to attract 8,000 professionals, split among station general managers and program distributors, foreign buyers and broadcasters, producers, advertisers, bankers, consultants, agents, high-tech practitioners, consultants and various other media types.

Adds Katz rep firm programming maven and NATPE veteran Bill Carroll: “The usual suspects will be on hand at this NATPE, but there’s more uncertainty than usual as to what shows will go forward.”

Petry Media Corp VP Garnett Losak thinks NATPE could be “a horse race” on the first-run front. Even though the field is narrow, the fight to land time periods is fierce. At least five shows currently on air are likely to go away and the jockeying by top syndicators to secure those empty slots is frenetic on the eve of the confab.

Meanwhile, a number of celebs are scheduled to make the hop from Hollywood to glad-hand, including all the talkshow hopefuls and stars of offnet offerings like Charlie Sheen and Kiefer Sutherland.

Timing of the event has met with favor since it’s far enough away from the year-end holidays and from AFM in November and Mip TV in March to attract all the appropriate constituencies.

On the day before NATPE proper gets under way, organizers have partnered with iHollywood to sponsor several sessions devoted to the nascent world of mobile devices.

Returning to its roots as a confab, NATPE organizers have put together an impressive roster of panels and keynotes, Internet chat rooms and coffee klatches with folks from all parts of the global biz during the three-day jamboree.

Opening day keynoter is Ted Turner, whose theme likely will be whatever strikes him as noteworthy that day but who is, regardless of topic, still an entertaining draw. The contentious relationship between D.C. and Hollywood is largely absent from the official agenda, so Turner might very well warm to that theme.

Several panel discussions are devoted to challenges facing cable, including how to stay hip once you’ve reached 20. Others will focus on new tools for identifying the next primetime hit, where ad agencies are likely to put their money, and what directions reality formats are headed.

There are also several sessions billed as producers boot camp, which could provide useful tips for fledgling media types: “Will It Play in Peoria?” will look at on ideas for mainstream auds. “Champagne Production Values on a Beer Budget” might serve up tips on how to make a film without breaking the bank.

NATPE co-chairmen John Weiser (Sony) and Stephen Davis (Granada America) say that sheer numbers of attendees won’t be as indicative of the trade show’s success as the high-ranking level of delegates. Nascent, growing markets such as Eastern Europe and parts of Asia are sending their top guns.

“It’s more important to build the event around the right people — from all aspects of the biz — than to be fixated on the sheer number of attendees,” Davis says.

Feldman, who has been in the saddle for 18 months, inherited a dispirited and, in some cases, disgruntled membership. He has worked hard to reinvigorate the event and keep costs in check.

Several Hollywood majors are returning to the convention floor, while others, including Warners, Fox and Disney, will be exhibiting from suites in the adjoining hotel.