A NATPE stripped of glitz



LAS VEGAS -- The air has gone out of the balloon.

Whether blame is laid at the door of the writers strike, a dwindling first-run syndie business or the downbeat economy, the 7,000 attendees at the 46th annual NATPE sales bazaar found themselves in a shrunken shell of a confab.

Not that deals weren't unveiled and clearances duly chalked up, but the tone and the talk this week has been business-like and in some cases sobering. Panels and workshops, now a mainstay of the event, were suitably wide-ranging and reasonably well-attended.

And forget the glitz of yore: the most visible syndie star on hand was Howie Mandel, who indefatigably gave fist-bumps to all and sundry but no handshakes as he is germ-phobic. He was on hand to tubthumb the NBC quizzer "Deal or No Deal," which is about to be reversioned as a half-hour strip. In a surprise lightning visit, Marie Osmond alighted to unveil her talk show project for 2009, courtesy of indie player Program Partners.

After a few years of no first-run launches, Disney took the wraps off a weekly scripted series "Wizard's First Rule," exec produced by Sam Raimi, while Twentieth TV focused its efforts in Vegas on its off-net series, including talking up "Bones" and "How I Met Your Mother," both of which are revving up clearances on local stations.

Key contenders for next fall -- Warners' talk show with Bonnie Hunt, a "Dr. Phil" spinoff from CBS called "The Doctors," Debmar-Mercury's "Trivial Pursuit" and Sony's "Judge Karen" -- were widely cleared before NATPE, another trend that helps explain the lack of drama on the floor here.

The tone of the proceedings was set early on when keynoter and NBC Universal president and CEO Jeff Zucker told delegates that network TV needs to be "reimagined," then proceeded to rattle off the number of cost-savings initiatives that his studio is undertaking.

Cost-consciousness was definitely a underlying theme of this year's NATPE, with even the Hollywood majors watching who might be drinking the coffee and munching the sandwiches at their stands.

And what a change in those stands. Gone were the elaborate structures of old, and in were more sedate, understated spaces. Warner Bros.' domestic division doubled up with its international division, returning to the floor after several years of doing business in the adjacent hotel suites of the Mandalay.

Twentieth and Disney continued to work out of adjacent hotel suites, while Sony met with clients off-site and without paying the registration fees, irritating rivals and the market organizers.

CBS' domestic division did not bother to take an exhibition space but did field its execs on various panels.

On that front, several deals were concluded on site, including the sale of CBS' "The Doctors" to Canada's Global Television.

BBC America devoted most of its time to deals with Latin American buyers, a contingent that continues to prefer NATPE to the European-based Mip and Mipcom markets.

Other foreign sellers were philosophical about the event.

India's Zee TV CEO Pradeep Guha told THR that after a four-year absence, he could see that "Americans are feeling their own depression about the TV business," and that helped explain the low-key atmosphere. Nonetheless, he added, "It's useful to reconnect with colleagues and to get a sense of new technological frontiers."

What's on tap for next year is unclear. Two execs who attending the NATPE board meeting Tuesday night said they were "nonplussed" that the organization had already agreed to return next year under the same auspices and with the same space requirements.

Meanwhile, NATPE president and CEO Rick Feldman said he will meet with the majors in hopes of determining what might work to get all of them officially back into the fold.

Overall, he said he was pleased with this year's confab.

"Considering the writers strike and the economy, I'm happy," Feldman said. "I've got a lot of good input. You can't please everybody, but if most of the attendees find their time and money well-spent, I'm a happy guy."