NATPE roasts syndication vet Robertson

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LAS VEGAS -- Everything from Dick Robertson's sales methods and first name to his golf game, bad jokes and hair line were poked fun at Wednesday night as a crowd of more than 300 came out to roast the syndication veteran.

Robertson, who for 17 years served as president of Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution, stepped down in August to take on a new role as senior adviser to the Warner Bros. Television Group. NATPE president and CEO Rick Feldman helped get the evening started by addressing a hot topic of conversation this week at his organization's confab at the Mandalay Bay Resort -- namely Robertson's efforts to encourage major distributors to eschew the NATPE convention floor for private meetings in hotels adjacent to the conference.

"There was a row between Dick and NATPE five years ago. But what motivated Dick to launch the battle that caused good friends to call him a hypocrite and parasite was this...," Feldman joked, before projecting an image showing old NATPE materials misidentifying him as Roger King, now CEO of CBS Television Distribution

Feldman was referring to remarks made by Robertson in 2002 denouncing the usefulness of NATPE's confab and threatening not to attend the following year after having led several distributors off the convention floor into suites.

"Dick tried to kill NATPE by moving it off the floor," Barry Baker, veteran station operator and managing director of Boston Ventures investment fund. "This is like the Jewish Federation giving a dinner for Hitler."

Throughout the four-hour affair, hosted by comedian Bob Saget, the jokes and barbs aimed at Robertson ranged from fairly tame to exceedingly vulgar, as several of Robertson's friends in the industry and current and former colleagues took the stage.

Saget, who starred in the Warner Bros.' -produced ABC sitcom "Full House," addressed Robertson's new role as senior adviser.

"Now you're consulting or whatever it is they call it when they medicate you and put you in a bungalow," Saget said.

Warner Bros. Entertainment chairman and CEO Barry Meyer recounted his second trip to NATPE, in 1990, the first for Warners after it acquired the powerhouse independent Lorimar Telepictures, which brought and Robertson became part of the Warners family. After arriving in Houston for the confab, Meyer learned that most of the sales staff had gotten arrested and thrown into jail after an incident at a strip club.

"I was aghast -- they were supposed to be with our clients," Meyer said. "But Dick told me (the clients) actually had been with them -- all night in the holding cell." Asking what Meyer should tell the higher-ups when they inquired about the incident, Robertson replied, 'Tell them we cleared 'Alf.'"

Marc Schacher, senior vp programming and development at Tribune Broadcasting, brought up Robertson's "syndicator indicator," a sales mechanism designed to show what series would work in syndication "before the age of computers."

"Without that, I never would have had the insight to buy 'Alf,' 'Perfect Strangers?' or 'Hogan Family,'" he joked, adding that Robertson also convinced Schacher to take more risks in the first-run arena. "His urging gave me the courage to stand up and greenlight (short-lived talker) 'The Sharon Osbourne Show.'"

Kevin O'Brien, president of Global Broadcast Group, reminded the crowed of Robertson's "deal bell," which he would ring in the suite at NATPE after closing a sale.

"Instead of an angel getting his wings, when this bell rung, it meant somebody got fucked," he joked.

Scott Carlin, president of domestic programming distribution at HBO who worked with Robertson for 19 years, gave examples of what were billed during the event as "Dick-isms," including "Do you have a brain tumor?" and "Tryin' ain't doin'."

"Dick's office sometimes made Abu Ghraib look like a day spa," he joked.

Jim Paratore, founder of ParaMedia Inc. and former president of Telepictures Prods. and executive vp at WBDTD, joked that NATPE should be renamed NAFRHBS -- an acronym for the National Assn. for Roasting Has-Been Syndicators. He also said that former and current Warners show hosts Rosie O'Donnell and Ellen DeGeneres were straight before having to deal with Robertson, after which they decided "they don't want to see another 'Dick' as long as they live."

Despite Saget's pleas for brevity, roasters clearly enjoyed giving Robertson a hard time and sharing favorite anecdote. But Dennis Swanson, president of station operations at the Fox Television Stations Group, kept his remarks short, forgoing several anecdotes to say that "My joke is, Oprah's with King World."

Throughout the night, several Warner Bros. talent paid tribute to Robertson in video clips, while "Mama's Family" star Vicki Lawrence showed up in character to let the crowd know that Robertson has no need for Viagra.

"All you gotta do is show him a general manager with an hour of prime access, and he's hotter than Charlie Sheen at cheerleader tryouts," she said. "He's such a smooth talker, he could sell a Michael Richards show to BET."

Robertson himself took the stage at the end of the night, turning the tables on those who roasted him before getting serious.

"If you haven't been criticized, jeered or booed, maybe its because you don't count, so thanks for making feel like I count," Robertson said.

Attendees desiring a memento of the evening and of Robertson himself could part with a gift of a bobblehead doll featuring Robertson's likeness. The $200-a-plate event benefited the NATPE Educational Foundation and Virginia Commonwealth University's School of Mass Communication, where Robertson is chairman of the advisory board.
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