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The future of the largest annual gathering of the nation's top TV programming executives is once again open to debate.

Several major syndicators complained that many TV station executives didn't attend last week's National Association of Television Programming Executives conference in New Orleans, and questioned the value of the 35-year-old convention.

NATPE began as a showcase for programming, to let stations from around the country sign up for syndicated shows. But in recent years, with the consolidation of TV stations, most acquisitions are done before the meeting convenes.


The complaints prompted NATPE President-CEO Bruce Johansen to propose offering "financial incentives" to lure station executives back to the convention.

But Dick Robertson, president of Warner Bros. Domestic Television and a longtime critic of NATPE, dismissed Mr. Johansen's idea.

"You don't need to financially incent stations to come here. The point is that almost all the deals are done before we come here. NATPE should be in November, and in Los Angeles."

Warner Bros. is based in the Los Angeles suburb of Burbank, and all the other major studios are located in the L.A. area.

Twentieth Television, another longtime critic of NATPE, was equally unhappy with this year's show, according to executives close to the studio. Twentieth Television managers declined comment.


Mike Shaw, exec VP-advertising sales for Walt Disney's Buena Vista Television, said NATPE "is still a very valuable conference for advertisers and agencies." He proposed a scaling-down, or a plan to break it into two conventions-one in late fall for TV station executives and one in February for advertisers to get an early look at upcoming programming.

Warner Bros.' Mr. Robertson said while the idea is worth consideration, "I don't really want to do two NATPEs. We have a big sales force already in New York. The agencies are in New York. I pay my sales force to call on the agencies to sell our product."

Allison Bodenmann, president of the Syndicated Network Television Association and a member of NATPE's executive committee, said another idea is to transform the convention into more of an educational forum for agencies and advertisers.

"You don't want NATPE to go away because this is the one time of the year the syndicators get the full attention of Madison Avenue. But we could scale it down, keeping the syndicator presentations to advertisers, and add educational elements," she said.

Many ad agencies are in favor of preserving NATPE in some form.

"We call the syndicators in to give us presentations back in [our offices in] Chicago, but actually being here is still valuable for us," said John Muszynski, executive director-national TV buying group at Starcom Media Services.


Zenith Media Services, New York, had a reduced presence at NATPE this year, but that was due to "significant client needs" at its home office, said Rich Hamilton, Zenith's president-CEO. "There's still a real need for NATPE," he said. "It comes at a good time of year to network with important people in the business. "

Other syndicators, such as Sony Corp.'s Columbia TriStar Television Distribution, are said to be far less dissatisfied with NATPE. Indeed, the convention registered more than 17,000 people this year.

But with Susan Grant, president of CNN Newsource Sales, set to take over as NATPE chairman from Cox Broadcasting President Nick Trigony, the syndicators who oppose the NATPE convention in its current form are expected to take the gloves off.

"When Nick was chairman, no one really wanted to rain on his parade since he's a major client," said one executive at a major syndicator. "There are no such

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