Recession takes toll on NATPE confab

Muffled atmosphere, lack of glitz on convention floor

LAS VEGAS -- Muffled rather than manic, business-like if not actually busy --- those descriptions best capture the first full day of activity at the 47th annual NATPE confab, which unspooled Monday.

While a few syndicators duly obliged by announcing clearances for various off-net or off-cable shows during the past couple of days, the recession has clearly taken its toll on what used to be the center of the syndie biz -- the bustling, glad-handing NATPE convention floor.

No longer.

"There's more carpet laid down here than there are people," is how one longtime attendee put it, noting how all the booths had been downsized and all signs of ostentation removed. The Mandalay Bay floor itself is mercifully smaller than in the past few sessions, making at least for more efficient foot traffic. There is, however, no glitz and no new first-run hopefuls for national exposure other than CBS TV Distribution's "Swift Justice" with Nancy Grace, which is already cleared for takeoff this fall and just named veteran court showrunner John Terenzio as exec producer.

Some unlikely names have taken up the slack from what used to be gigantic open spaces rented by the Hollywood majors: Now, rather than Sony, Paramount and Warners, outfits like Healing Waters & Baths of Europe and Texas Roadhouse Live have set up shop. The latter is even bringing Kinky Friedman to town to help hype its concert series. Yet another booth is hawking an hour doc called "Overlooked Suspect: What if O.J. Didn't Do It," and its marketing rep said there is "initial interest" from prospective buyers.

Despite its reduced circumstances and circumference, a few players were spotted along the four or five aisles that now make up the floor, including Sinclair's Bill Butler, a major station group buyer, and a contingent from Hearst Argyle, a similarly key station group.

The major syndicators that are officially exhibiting are mostly holed up in suites in the adjacent Mandalay Bay hotel, and the elevators were fairly busy hoisting folks to and from meetings with those players. Even the majors' contingents, though, were cut to the bone, with domestic and international syndication generally sharing space and coffee urns.

The most unchanged contingent was arguably the Latinos, who come to town to do business with Hollywood (buying shows) and with Europe and one another (selling their telenovelas and other programming).

"What the recession hasn't done to keep people away from Vegas, the Internet and changing business models have done" -- that's how one agent put it, pointing out that few of the top agencies had sent delegations to Vegas.

"My shop plans to take advantage of the lack of competitors," he went on to say.

Several other attendees also made a point of accentuating the positive.

"People are looking for alternative ways of doing business. They're looking for efficiencies but also something to turbo-charge their business efforts," said Mara Sternthal, who runs her own company GMX but has worked for ABC and HBO, among others. "There's nothing quite like the face-to-face contact that these trade shows allow."

Another producer, Richard Green, said he was attending his first NATPE in hopes of interesting a buyer in his latest project, "The History of Cool," and had lined up several meetings during the day.

Perhaps the most upbeat note was struck by a keynoter among the many high-level panelists arrayed by NATPE organizers throughout the three-day market.

Former Hollywood studio chieftain and reinvented Internet producer Michael Eisner told attendees that we're about to see an explosion of advertising on the Internet and that more and more talent would flock to making programs online.

"It can't not happen," he said. While a death knell keeps sounding for traditional media (though he admitted they keep popping back up like La Traviata), there is a more efficient way to distribute content.

His advice to the delegates on hand: Come up with a workable idea and make your show in a fiscally responsible way (deficits are out), and someone will be along to distribute them.

Eisner's own online production company, Vuguru, is pitching "The Booth" to potential other platforms: Its 150 minutes were made for, get this, $250,000. Maybe NBC will end up picking up the series in third repeat and airing it at 10 p.m., he quipped.
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