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A glut in Vegas buffet

Confab attendees have too much on their plate

LAS VEGAS — Martha Stewart will be giving souffle advice on your cell phone as you shop for groceries. Pull down the ingredients onscreen and send her a text message while you wheel your cart toward the baking soda.

That is just one vision of the near future unveiled during the 42nd annual NATPE confab (Jan. 25-27), as 8,500 delegates tried to come to grips with the evolving media landscape, which many panelists and execs say is headed toward total video-on-demand and portability.

An entire day was devoted to the issue of video streaming and downloading from these newfangled personal portable gadgets, with the emphasis not so much on the technological breakthroughs — they’re already here — as on just how and who would make money from them.

While the younger crowd seemed particularly captivated by the possibility of new outlets for their creativity, the established buyers and sellers got down to the business of, well, buying and selling those traditional mainstays — firstrun strips and offnet reruns.

A narrow field of strips vied for major market station clearances, with Warner Bros. gabber Tyra Banks taking an early lead, having cleared most of the Fox O&Os.

The heat was then on Sony to land a launch station group for its project with Howard Stern sidekick Robin Quivers, and on Twentieth TV to find a springboard for its financial advice show with Suze Orman.

By week’s end, the buzz was that Orman would bypass the Fox-owned stations and end up with some of the vacated “Larry Elder Show” time periods on CBS O&Os as well as some ABC and NBC outlets.

As for Quivers, she personally wined and dined execs from both Tribune stations and Fox stations, but apparently she has not yet shaken off the Howard Stern stigma. (She has been “the voice of reason” on Stern’s show for 23 years.)

As for the aforementioned Stewart, syndicator NBC U was signing up a number of stations on the convention floor for morning slots, which meant the license fees were less steep than those for “The Jane Pauley Show,” which airs mostly in early fringe but is hanging on by a thread.

Twentieth TV’s other strip hopefuls, “A Current Affair” and “Judge Alex,” were declared firm go’s, thanks initially to vertical integration. The former begins airing on Fox stations in March, while the gaveler begins on those same stations in September.

Ironically, for a trade show set up chiefly for over-the-air TV stations to fill their empty program slots, the most talked-about negotiations were for HBO’s “The Sopranos,” which attracted three final cable bidders — TNT, Spike and A&E.

Word was the price had escalated beyond $1.8 million an episode, which pushes it toward the all-time record of $1.9 million per seg for “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” which USA and Bravo bought jointly late last year.

As for off-net sitcoms, Warner’s “Two and a Half Men” came to Vegas as the most highly touted new laffer to come down the pike. However, rather than officially begin to market the show, syndie brass will wait until the end of 2005, after the show premieres next season on the Eye network as the official replacement in the coveted 9 p.m. timeslot previously held by “Everybody Loves Raymond.”

The tone of the trade show, which unspooled at the Mandalay Bay both in hotel suites and on the convention floor, was fairly upbeat.

“People were meeting and greeting, and in some cases even doing deals,” said Bill Carroll, top programming maven for the Katz rep firm. “Is this the NATPE of old? The answer is no. But is this a revitalized convention? The answer is yes.”

The 55 panel sessions, which ran concurrently with the exhibition hours, were by and large well-received and well-attended, though some questioned the wisdom of Ted Turner as the opening keynoter.

Turner, who has been out of the business for five years, used the occasion to blast media concentration — a development he once championed, but that eventually caused him to lose $8 billion. The maverick mogul also couldn’t resist taking another potshot at CNN’s archrival, Fox News Channel, comparing its alleged bias toward the Bush administration to Hitler’s Nazi propaganda machine. His advice to would-be producers? Given media concentration, get into the restaurant business!

The benign spirit that hovered over NATPE was that of the late Brandon Tartikoff. His gut instinct for good programming and his commitment to shows he believed in were lauded by the three recipients of the Legacy award, co-sponsored by Variety, bestowed in his honor.

At a ceremony Jan. 25, Lifetime CEO Carole Black and uber-producers Dick Wolf and James Burrows spoke about Tartikoff’s contributions to the biz. “He was the last true programmer that worked solely on his gut,” Wolf recalled.

Now that NATPE prexy-CEO Rick Feldman has gotten the trade show back on track, speculation about its future has dissipated. In fact, NATPE will once again be housed at the Mandalay Hotel in 2006, with dates set for Jan. 24-26.

(Denise Martin, Pamela McClintock and Barbara Scherzer contributed to this report.)