More business, less show in store for NATPE confab

Many first-run titles already sold

NATPE's annual Conference & Exhibition, which kicks off Tuesday at the Mandalay Bay Resort in Las Vegas, looks to be a businesslike but low-key affair.

A plethora of first-run shows are being touted for a fall 2008 launch in syndication, but at least five already have been widely cleared.

Two major domestic distributors — CBS Television Distribution and Sony Pictures Television — won't have official presences at the show.

Also missed will be syndication veteran Roger King, who died last month, as well as his annual dinner and party — a long-running conference highlight. And talent on the ground is likely to be thin.

Howie Mandel, however, will be on hand to promote NBC Universal's upcoming syndicated version of "Deal or No Deal." Like NBC's primetime version, the syndie strip will be hosted by Mandel, who isn't worried about viewers — or himself — getting burned out on the show, which has been cleared on a majority of the NBC O&Os as well as other station groups.

"It's the most exciting, thrilling, creatively fulfilling job I've had to date," Mandel said. "Even though it requires no skills and there's no trivia and stunts, every game unfolds in a new way, with a different contestant. It's the only show on TV that I can think of that goes from excitement to devastation in a couple of minutes."

Mandel is just one of the well-known names associated with upcoming first-run product — a marked departure from last year's relatively star-free slate. Also among the talent is Bonnie Hunt, who is hosting a daytime talk show, which is produced by Telepictures Prods. and distributed by Warner Bros.

"It's heartening to see that, in terms of the projects going forward, there are higher-profile shows with higher production values than we've seen in the last couple of seasons," Telepictures president Hilary Estey McLoughlin said.

"Bonnie" already has been sold in 95% of the country, including several NBC-owned stations, and Estey McLoughlin said that's a testament to the fact that station groups are now willing to buy from companies that aren't corporate siblings as well as to the appeal of Hunt.

"The show feels fresh but familiar, and she has a commanding presence and the ability to pull it off — that doesn't happen a lot," Estey McLoughlin said. "It's hard to find a person who can actually carry these kinds of shows."

Also a hot seller for fall 2008 was CBS' talk show "The Doctors," also cleared in 95% of the U.S. In fact, those swift clearances are the reason cited by CBS for choosing to sit out this year's confab.

"This one sold quicker than most," CTD president of sales Joe DiSalvo said. "We have a great combination of entertainment and information in an area in which a lot of people are interested — health issues — and the stations saw a great opportunity."

It also doesn't hurt that the show is a spinoff of "Dr. Phil" — the doctor hosts are appearing on that talk show this season — and is being executive produced by Phil McGraw's son, Jay McGraw.

"One of the things we really want to accomplish with this show is to make medicine approachable and easy to understand," Jay McGraw said. "We have five doctors in five specialties, so we've really covered most areas of medicine."

In addition, McGraw said his father will "absolutely" make appearances on the show from time to time.

In the court show arena, SPT is offering "Judge Karen," which has been cleared in 72% of the U.S., and Program Partners is bringing "Family Court With Judge Penny."

SPT president of distribution John Weiser said that court shows are less of a gamble than most other genres.

"Court shows have the highest stick rate" of making it to a second season, he said.

"Judge Karen" is one of the first-run programs recently given the thumbs-up by Katz. The others are "Doctors," "Deal," "Bonnie" and "Trivial Pursuit: America Plays."

For those stations stocked up on first-run fare, the outlook in off-net syndication looks good, said Bob Cook, president and COO of Twentieth Television. His company will be at NATPE talking up such off-net shows as "How I Met Your Mother" and "Prison Break" from their suites at the Mandalay Bay.

"In the off-net arena, the marketplace is looking healthy," Cook said. "Sitcoms are back, and dramas now have a renewed interest from television stations, not only for the weekend but now as a daytime strip."

Still, despite the enthusiasm of sellers and the eventual liveliness of the fall season, the confab is likely to be fairly subdued.

"I think it's going to be a very businesslike meeting; it's been moving in that direction over the past few years," said Bill Carroll, vp and director of programming at station rep firm Katz Television Group. "There's not going to be the glitz and glamour of the past. At the NATPE convention, there used to be a lot more show in the business; the way our business has evolved, there's now a lot more business in the show."

Carroll predicted that some stations will be acquiring programming at the trade show. But he believes that most of them will be exploring new opportunities in the online arena as well as looking down the road to the national analog-to-digital transition in February 2009.

"Local Web sites have matured to the point where they need to be monetized; as such, they need to have content that attracts their viewers," Carroll said. "And with the digital transition a year away, the need to program the additional digital channels is here. Stations are going to have to be looking at those issues and not just what program they buy to run on Saturday afternoon."

NATPE's confab, which is preceded today by the organization's annual Mobile++ event, runs through Thursday.
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