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End of a TV era

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Have fun at this week's NATPE Conference & Exhibition. It may well be your last, at least as far as the group's traditional January syndication-fest. Slammed by the exodus of a string of major domestic TV syndicators, the National Association of Television Program Executives is pondering ways to retool its annual gathering. Possibilities include breaking up the annual confab into more targeted events or linking up with other groups.

What appears certain is that the days of Vanna White rubbing tanned elbows with station managers from Poughkeepsie during the post-Christmas doldrums are over.

As the curtain goes up at the convention, pre-show registration is down by 40%. A year ago, NATPE attracted more than 20,000 attendees, up 16% from 2000.

It's enough to make Wolfgang Puck cry in the gourmet pizza he's made over the years in at least one major syndicator's booth. But it would be a shock if Mr. Puck were to offer a domestic syndicator-sponsored culinary experience on the exhibit floor this year. Starting with AOL Time Warner's Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution last April, at least eight major syndicators have pulled themselves off the NATPE exhibition floor at the Las Vegas Convention Center.


The exodus . In late September, Columbia TriStar Television Distribution President Stephen Mosko was quoted in a NATPE news release as saying, "If we're going to be in Las Vegas, we are going to be on the selling floor." By early October, Mr. Mosko also had pulled his studio, a unit of Sony Corp., off the NATPE floor.

"It was basically that or release people," Bob Cook, president-chief operating officer of News Corp.'s Twentieth Television, says of how his company came to its decision to leave the floor.

So blame economics. The syndicators headed for The Venetian hotel, where they could rent a suite for considerably less than the $1 million-plus it can cost to erect a booth to impress attendees on the NATPE exhibition floor. (NATPE is offering shuttle service between its exhibition and The Venetian.) And if misery loves company, there's plenty of both for trade shows these days. Elsewhere in the TV industry, the cable-oriented Western Show in November showed a similar drop in attendance.

But also blame the timing. Industry executives complain about the traditional January scheduling of the NATPE convention, saying that by January, programming deals have already been set.

By mid-December of last year, NATPE had assembled a blue ribbon task force representing key constituencies, ranging from syndicators to ad agencies, to make the show more relevant.

NATPE has already conducted an online survey of its membership base, and plans to make public the preliminary results during this week's convention. The panel will make its final recommendation about the show's future to the board in April.

In fact, this week's NATPE show will serve as a fact-finding mission for how future shows should be run, says Steve Rosenberg, a member of the task force and president of USA Networks' Studios USA Domestic Television. That includes observing the effectiveness of the syndicators that present at The Venetian, Mr. Rosenberg says, adding, "We know that this NATPE is taking a different shape than it ever has before."

A certain consensus already is emerging that may give NATPE attendees some idea of when, where or if there will be a show for them next year.


Looking beyond this year's show, the industry can rest assured there will be a NATPE convention, complete with exhibit floor, and not just because NATPE President Bruce Johansen can't cleanly pull out of the New Orleans' January booking. Lost amid the headlines bemoaning the state of domestic syndication is the fact that NATPE remains the biggest show for international programming; at 261, international companies represent about half the exhibitors at NATPE. "What's interesting is all of those major companies leaving the floor have a sister [international] company that's on the floor," notes NATPE Chairman Jon Mandel. The ad community, a rising presence at NATPE, seems supportive of a smaller, advertiser-focused convention, potentially occurring in April, location unknown, though some agency executives would prefer a New York-based event. Mr. Mandel, who's also co-managing director of Grey Global Group's MediaCom, New York, seems alone among agency executives in his support of the January timing (see related story above).

"They should definitely make it closer to the sale [season in the spring]," says Dan Rank, managing partner of Omnicom Group's OMD USA. An exhibit floor doesn't seem a priority to agency executives. Mr. Rank says he's sending executives to this year's show, but "We're not even buying floor tickets."

Convincing some advertisers may be an uphill climb, since they, like TV stations, book much of their business before the NATPE floor opens. Says Rich Wilson, a consultant who left Procter & Gamble Co. last January as VP-media: "I can't think of a time when [P&G] went down [to NATPE] and did a deal that wasn't already in the works prior to that."

Future NATPE shows are likely to be joint ventures between NATPE and another organization. Mr. Johansen confirms potential partners include Promax and BDA, two organizations that often work together on the promotion, marketing and design of programming; and maybe a reinvigorated Syndicated Network Television Association.

But such unions seem more tied to the advertising needs of local stations than to domestic distribution. One supporter of a possible union with the SNTA, Tribune Entertainment President-CEO Dick Askin, describes the potential benefits this way: "We need to do a better job of marketing our product to the agencies and their clients."