Hoopla lite NATPE ends at a crossroads


The 46th edition of the NATPE trade show will, if the TV business regains its footing, go down as a depressing blip on the radar — or be remembered as the straw that broke the camel's back and ends the market as we know it.

To be sure, a few deals got closed and clearances got racked up for first-run strips that likely will make it to the limited slots available on U.S. screens in early fringe or daytime in the fall.

A talk show with Marie Osmond likely will get launched, with her syndicator Program Partners announcing Wednesday that it had cleared the crucial markets of New York (WNBC) and Los Angeles (KTLA) and was at 70% of the country.

Ditto for Sony's "Dr. Oz," though that talk show, boasting the Oprah Winfrey imprimatur, was widely cleared before NATPE even began. Likewise, Debmar-Mercury came to town with its new talker with radio personality Wendy Williams already widely cleared.

On the off-net front, Twentieth said that "How I Met Your Mother," which airs on CBS, has been cleared in 75% of the country and will begin its rerun rollout in fall 2010.

But that was about all the action on the domestic syndication front, the part of the business that once was the heart of NATPE.

Even without the global recession, that is no longer true, and organizers of the confab have run themselves ragged to come up with reasons to attend the annual bazaar.

They need to, as traffic on the convention floor was decidedly thin this year.

"You can almost hear a pin drop: We could be at an undertakers' convention," is how more than one veteran attendee described the mood on the floor.

Some complained that they missed the hoopla of yore, but as soon as a gaggle of girls in bikinis showed up to promote some wannabe project, others complained to NATPE organizers that the cheesiness had to go. (A few damsels in revealing outfits did enliven one booth by handing out T-shirts on behalf of a company called Go Dog Go Prods., which is hawking the aptly named Unemployment Channel. A brochure says it's designed "to connect people looking for jobs with employers from across the country.")

No word on their clearance rate.

Things were a little better in the Mandalay Bay hotel suites, where most of the Hollywood majors were ensconced and were seen to be doing business, mostly with Latin buyers or cable executives.

"There was a certain level of clients here," Warner Bros. Domestic Syndication president Ken Werner said. "But," he added, "to the extent that station managers couldn't make it, we've sent our sales team out into the field."

Warners is pitching a court show with Jeanine Pirro, which airs on the CW, but the company did not announce any clearances during the show.

Similarly, other U.S. distribs in the suites were not dismayed by what was happening on the convention floor.

"I've seen most of the folks I needed to do business with," said Starz executive vp worldwide distribution Gene Georg, who is selling original TV productions made by his company and the new films produced by sibling Overture Films. In addition, Georg said key buyers from the U.K. and a few from Germany and France were on hand.

By most accounts, the most glaring no-shows were the U.S. TV station managers, once the backbone of the gathering.

"They've been hit by the biggest downturn in local advertising since 1971, when smoking ads were banned from TV," one exec said.

So it was left largely to the little guys to make what hay they could out of the proceedings.

Trifecta topper Hank Cohen said his team had chalked up a substantial number of meetings with clients on their newly announced weekly called "Nite Tales" with VH1 star Flavor Flav.

Porchlight vp Katherine Kaufman said her company, which sells movies like "The Last Dragon" and animated series like "Tut: Clash of the Pharaohs," did significant business with its Latin American clients.

Not surprisingly, the two dominant themes of the panels this go-round were how to contain costs and how to pitch a show or put together a sizzle reel.

The Wednesday morning keynoter, TiVo CEO Tom Rogers, told some 250 early risers that he too expected the economy to remain dicey for years.

In fact, he explained, the TV industry is facing "an advertising crisis more severe than the current financial crisis — unless we come up with innovative ways to reach consumers."

NATPE, in whatever form it comes back, will have its work cut out for it.