NATPE mood is all business

With money tight, confab attendees are focused, determined

LAS VEGAS -- Nary an animal mascot, a scantily clad bimbo handing out promo leaflets or a buffet line could be espied on the trading floor of the 46th annual NATPE confab Tuesday as the global recession and a dwindling domestic syndication business took a bite out of the once raucous, crowded bazaar.

Given just how tight money is right now, the mood on the floor was decidedly businesslike and determined, with practically every booth functional rather than fanciful.

Delegates who did show up -- admittedly there were far fewer from struggling local TV stations -- didn't seem daunted. (Official stats were unavailable, but industry veterans reckon at most 4,000-5,000 attendees will have been in and out over the four-day stretch. Last year's tally was 7,500.)

For one thing, only a handful of new first-run strip contenders are vying for station clearances, led by Sony's "Dr. Oz" and Twentieth's "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?" First-run used to drive the business, though in the past few years the international contingent, led by Latin America, and digital aspirants have swelled the ranks.

Celebrities here to glad-hand with station program buyers could be counted on one hand: Marie Osmond, who is fronting a talk show being sold by indie distrib Program Partners; Wendy Williams, the radio personality who is fronting another talk show being licensed by Debmar-Mercury; and Flavor Flav, the rapper-turned-TV personality who Wednesday will tout an anthology series called "Nite Tales," which is being pitched to cable operators. In short, this is not the year an Oprah or a Vanna White would think to come to NATPE.

The only major distributors still holding court on the convention floor at the Mandalay Bay are CBS Paramount, NBC Universal and "American Idol" distributor FremantleMedia. A lot of the other Hollywood heavyweights now run their program sales operations -- slimmed down and by appointment only -- out of hotel suites.

Despite the downturn in attendance, NATPE organizers have gone out of their way to keep the confab afloat, opening a restaurant on the floor itself and sponsoring digital seminars off to one side and a martini bar (late afternoons only) on another.

NATPE president-CEO Rick Feldman hinted in opening remarks Tuesday that the convention floor would be reconfigured further for next year's event, with many more program sellers likely to be ensconced in suites.

Not that everything was downbeat.

A reasoned but rousing keynote from Lionsgate CEO Jon Feltheimer decried those who contend that things are bad for the content business, citing the richness, flexibility and durability of current and classic content -- everything from the unlikely success of a $8 million movie called "Slumdog Millionaire" to how "Dark Knight" has boosted Blu-ray disc sales to how his own "Dirty Dancing" keeps minting millions on many platforms 20 years later.

"We're going through good, old-fashioned change," the exec said. "Old models don't die, they simply transition."

Echoing Feltheimer's remarks, a number of panelists during the day also put the accent on the need for new business models and out-of-the-box partnerships.

NBC Universal's Ben Silverman, Disney's Anne Sweeney, writer-producer Chuck Lorre and entrepreneur- producer Tyler Perry -- all of whom received a Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Award on Monday night -- talked about how smart content would win out over the long term.

Perry's own new show for TBS, "Meet the Browns," has just received an 80-episode order from the cabler.