Can't It Be Fun, Too?

At the opening session of SNTA's first annual advertising conference in New York last week, Paramount's Marc Hirsch scanned the Sheraton Hotel's vast ballroom and declared that attendance had far exceeded expectations, even though a quarter of the seats were empty and plenty of scrambled eggs undoubtedly went to waste.

But I'll forgive Marc. Great TV salespeople cannot afford to acknowledge small audiences of any kind, especially when they are in the middle of a pitch. Must be positive.

And feeding a country breakfast to every media buyer in town was not the point. The point of the two-day affair was the scores of smaller meetings between syndicators and advertisers, which were scheduled like high school, as if you were leaving Geometry I for your King World class. Everybody had to move to a new meeting every hour so that every syndicator had time with every buyer. For those meetings, the syndicators seemed to have the critical mass they needed. No complaints were heard about the quantity or quality of the advertising types.

So was it a success? We will know that in late May or early June after the media buyers have finished doing their upfront business with the broadcast networks and turn to syndication. If you read our interview with five top syndication salespeople in the Feb. 17 issue, you know they have high hopes that they will significantly increase their upfront take this year and leave the cable networks picking up the scraps as spring turns to summer.

But something was missing at SNTA, and Bob Cook of Twentieth Television may have put his finger right on it. He told BROADCASTING & CABLE 's Steve McClellan that SNTA might look for a way to make the conference "a little bit more fun," maybe bring in some stars.

The broadcast networks know how to do it. Their upfront presentations in May are full-blown productions in big halls that look like they cost a lot of money to produce and do. The glamour and energy come mostly from the network stars, who drop by to say a few words or dance to scripted routines. As people file out, you can hear them praising or criticizing the acts just as they would those of a Broadway musical.

During NATPE's heyday, the syndicators would fly in their stars; hell, Marlin Perkins would haul in a few camels for the sake Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom. It cost a small fortune, but it was likely effective in helping to close sales with resistant advertisers and broadcasters. Long lines would form to get next to Pamela Anderson (understandable) and Jerry Springer (not so understandable). Oh, the power of celebrity.

Now, the SNTA folks aren't going to go completely Hollywood, but, as Cook suggested, they need a bit of it. At the very least, SNTA could open with a little banter from some of the folks who collect big paychecks from syndication and have a stake in the business: Jerry Seinfeld, Ray Romano, Pat Sajak, Courtney Cox, Oprah Winfrey. (Never mind about Oprah. With a net worth of $1 billion and counting, she probably couldn't be bothered.)

They were all in SNTA President Gene DeWitt's videotape, and they are an impressive lot. Get them on stage next year.

Sony Pictures Television opted not to be part of the SNTA event, figuring it could schmooze the advertisers just as well on its own. The evening before SNTA, it hosted a sit-down dinner and party for the advertising big shots at Sony's swanky midtown headquarters. And just for fun, it brought in David Spade, Ricki Lake and Judge Glenda Hackett to mingle with the guests. Madison Avenue felt like Wilshire Boulevard.

(To be fair, SNTA had its own party Tuesday night, and, while it was fun, its stars were Jack Daniel and endless sushi.)

There is another reason to bring some of the talent to New York: It happens to be the media capital of the world. If Ellen DeGeneris gets up and pokes fun at some of some of the wackier acts in syndication, reporters may write some stories in some big newspapers. TV might even show up with a crew or two. You not only have to sell ads in these shows, you know; you also have to get people to watch.

Syndication used to have its own talent showcase, Synditel, during the summer TV critics tour in Los Angeles, but the critics association whacked it after its run in 2000. And after 2001, the celebrity count at NATPE plummeted. No reason for a TV critic to go there anymore.

So let's put "a little bit more fun" into SNTA for 2004. Spend some bucks. Bring in the stars. If organizers bump the date to March after the sweeps, they would have the entire TV media stage to themselves. It just might mean more time sold in June and more viewers counted in September.

Jessell may be reached at