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Belt-tightening hits NATPE

King World, a company you can typically count on to make a splash at NATPE, says it's leaning towards setting up a smaller booth on the 2002 Las Vegas exhibition floor.

While the syndicator, a part of the Viacom family, hasn't made a final determination, King World chief Roger King has also talked about gathering all the major domestic distribution units for a separate NATPE-style conference.

King World's attitude adjustment comes after last week's announcement that Warner Bros.' domestic distribution unit is moving out of its historical convention home in 2002, relocating its digs to a suite at the Venetian Hotel. Warner Bros. Domestic Distribution Chief Dick Robertson, at an industry panel, warned last January that he was leaning heavily toward leaving Las Vegas. Over the years, so have other syndicators, but their claims were often dismissed as bargaining ploys.

Now it's probable that Carsey-Werner's domestic syndication unit will scale back its presence. Also, sources say Paramount Domestic Television, another big market player and a part of Viacom, is currently pondering whether to change its role there.

"Now that Warner Bros. took the first step, there will be others," says King. "I'd hate to see NATPE collapse, but I tell you I think it is on the cusp of collapsing. We're in a tougher economy, and the NATPE people should sit back and think how to cut back on our expenses."

A large exodus from the annual January show would certainly hurt. NATPE has annual revenue of just over $12 million; last year $9.5 million came from NATPE exhibitors. After expenses, the nonprofit organization netted just over $4 million from the Las Vegas January extravaganza.

King is aware of NATPE's need to broaden its approach to international exhibitors and new media: Station and studio consolidation have taken chunks of business away from the convention. "But the main distributors are the reason people go. It's not about international," he insists. Still, "it costs millions of dollars for us to go, and we're not doing this for the sake of shaking hands."

King says he "would certainly think" of trying to set up a separate, earlier convention in November or early December because it "would be a better time for the networking of smaller markets, producers and advertisers."

NATPE CEO Bruce Johansen says that, although he has heard this suggestion several times before, he hasn't heard any serious proposals.

"It might make sense," says one syndication executive. In the 1980s, "there used to be November screenings, where some of the station groups like Chris-Craft would get together and take a look at some of the new stuff."

Carsey-Werner syndication head Bob Raleigh described Warner Bros.' exit from the floor as "validating our stance that there are all different sorts of ways" to match customers with programmers, but he doesn't have a firm exit strategy in mind.

NATPE's Johansen claims the organization has done loads in helping the syndicators cut costs. "We ate a lot of the additional costs when we moved to Las Vegas, and we did not pass them onto the exhibitors."

Other major syndicators think the show is on the right track. "NATPE will absolutely evolve and change," says Steve Mosko, of Columbia Tri-Star Television Distribution. "Bruce [Johansen] has done it with international, he's done it with new media, and he's done it with advertising. I think people need to work with him, rather than try to cut him off at the knees."

Dick Askin, of Tribune Entertainment, says it may make sense for syndicators to cut back on expenses, but it makes no sense to abandon the exhibit floor. NATPE is more than clearing shows for the fall, he says. It is the one place the industry can gather to trade ideas and discuss common problems. "Without it, the industry would be in a much more difficult position."