NATPE conference: wasting time on shoddy merchandise

By Published on .

Long, boring day? Need a lift?"

The sun had barely risen over the roof of the Las Vegas Convention Center, but the commercial on the jumbo video screen outside accurately foreshadowed the experience of wandering the floor of the NATPE conference. The solution offered--a visit to a local sex shop selling "adult" books and films--was a precise forecast of the quality of the content being pitched inside the convention hall.

NATPE bills itself, with a straight face, as an "alliance of media content professionals." But it has been-and remains-little more than a syndicated TV supermarket featuring copycat products of limited creativity.

Oddly, the convention's most vocal critics also are its biggest financial backers, and they continue to spend millions of dollars on the show every year even as they openly question the return on that investment. It doesn't seem to be the smartest way to do business, especially in a tough economy, but then, nobody asked me.

With the exception of small syndicators and international distributors, no one attends NATPE to do deals. "If you come here with a pencil and pad looking to write business, shame on you," a respected media veteran said to me over breakfast one morning.

The studios cut most of their distribution deals before they get to NATPE, and they seal most of their advertising pacts long after the show ends. Which means the big studios spend $2 million to $3 million "to do little more than schmooze with pals," as the trade magazine Extra Extra wrote in an edition of its show daily distributed during the conference.

At the same time, the chiefs of those studios' syndication operations loudly gripe about the expense and about how outdated NATPE has become. Dick Rob-ertson of Warner Bros. said syndicators should dismantle the absurdly extravagant exhibition booths they build on the cavernous show floor and meet instead in hotel suites. The head of Carsey-Warner, Robert Raleigh, hinted his company might pull out of the show altogether.

The threat is empty. Our sibling news-weekly Electronic Media says the studios have complained about NATPE for years without taking action. It's time, EM wrote in an editorial after the show, for syndicators to "put up or shut up."

NATPE's business value is one issue. The second, and more outrageous, is the quality of the content pitched at the show. The TV programs offered up to the American public mostly fall into one of four categories: 1) insulting 2) shameless 3) vulgar or 4) insultingly shameless and vulgar.

On the heels of the disgrace of "Temp-tation Island," syndicators are rushing to the marketplace shows designed to tear apart relationships for the delight of the viewing audience. The tamest sends two couples on a date and then throws a fifth person into the mix, such as an ex-mate of one of the participants, to screw things up. An executive peddling the show called it "a human lab experiment." I call it crap. The worst of these shows lets the audience decide if a troubled couple should patch things up or call it quits. I can't figure out who is more pathetic-someone who would watch the show or someone who would appear on it. Let's call it a tie.

Among other highlights is a show featuring Andrew Dice Clay as a Roman gladiator, and a highly touted cartoon titled-get this-"Butt Ugly Martians." Call me priggish, but when did it become acceptable to put "butt" in the title of a TV show aimed at 4-year-olds? As the father of three kids, all in the single digits, I'm increasingly disgusted by the content of the cartoons they watch and the lameness of the excuse offered for them: that kids today are more media-savvy.

Funny that the same people who wander the floor at NATPE scratch their heads over the decline in first-run syndication. The answer is as plain as (a long, boring) day.

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