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As the buyers and sellers of syndicated TV shows gather for their annual NATPE convention this week in New Orleans, their attention is focused as much on advertising as it is on the usual distribution deals.

Syndication has had its ups and downs as an advertising vehicle, but national barter has clearly matured as a reliable option for media buyers seeking extra reach and niche audiences at a good price.

As our Special Report on NATPE, which follows Page 22 in this issue, makes clear, big changes have rocked the business of producing first-run shows directly for syndication. The end of the federal Prime Time Access Rule brought new competition for first-run shows while the growth of the WB and UPN networks has stolen time slots on independent stations. And the simultaneous consolidation of station ownership means more distribution deals are done in one swoop on the convention floor, at the group level and not station by station.

Add it all up and you have a NATPE convention focused not only on selling new TV shows (of which there are far fewer this year in any case) but one also concerned with building ad revenue on existing successful programs.

Some syndicators are actively seeking other opportunities. Witness Sony's new "Vibe" launch for late-night, which includes efforts to work out specialized merchandising deals to supplement barter advertising. Or the new Warner Bros. national Internet network for local TV stations, which offers a "P.M. Magazine"-style Web format to affiliates in return for local barter spots.

In short, we see a lot of creative thinking taking place to help bring advertisers and TV syndicators together. NATPE is no longer only about selling TV programing: It's about selling advertising and concepts as well.

When the holidays ended, and retailers tallied the numbers, it was clear this was a Christmas some store marketers need to learn from.

Why were the final results so lackluster when so many circumstances pointed up at the outset? The economy was strong, consumer spending had been decent and the '95 holiday season had been so dismal that good year-to-year sales gains

should have been within grasp. Yes, there were fewer shopping days, but that doesn't totally explain the January reality that the holiday sales gain over 1995 might be a mediocre 4% to 5%.

Some problems are product specific: Consumer electronics and home computers, for example, had no big sellers, with the possible exception of the cellular phone. The music business has been soft for months. And retailers in those categories suffered accordingly.

Store marketers need to pay heed to the chorus that's coming from the retail analyst community: More attention needs to be paid to a store's brand image and what it says to consumers. Brand personality is generated from merchandise strategy, the in-store shopping experience and the advertising consumers see.

Consider Sears, Roebuck & Co., once written off as a stodgy and stale marketer and now back with its image revamped, stores reworked and a holiday season ad campaign that drove record business to its stores.

The retailer that wants a better Christmas next December will want to start

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