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More than just syndication

Every year, the whispers get louder and louder and louder. Last week, the whispers turned into serious conversations and even a few loud roars at the 38th annual NATPE conference in Las Vegas.

Top executives at some of the major Hollywood syndication studios voiced their disapproval of the current setup of the conference and the expenses they incur each year at TV's largest swap meet. Executives at Warner Bros., Paramount, Studios USA and elsewhere openly griped about coming to NATPE at a cost of up to $3 million.

Led by Warner Bros. Domestic Television President Dick Robertson and followed closely by Carsey-Werner Distribution head Bob Raleigh, the syndicators took their shots at NATPE. They threatened to pull out of the conference or reduce their presence significantly.

"This is clearly a line in the budget that has long outlived its usefulness," Robertson said. "This convention is largely financed by the major companies that take up these big spaces and put on big shows. It's not about selling programs anymore. It used to be..It's now a big $2 million or $3 million schmooze fest."

Warner Bros. is considering "pulling out, because the stations are pulling out," Robertson said. Two-thirds of the stations the company deals with had no representation at NATPE, he said. And of the third that did, most already had programming in place.

There's nothing that NATPE can do to revive the domestic buying and selling of shows on the convention floor, Robertson said. "It's not NATPE's fault; the market is changing."

Said Carsey-Werner's Raleigh: "There is a good chance that we won't be back as an exhibitor next year." And Paramount Domestic TV's John Nogawski added, "The $3 million dollar question is what form this convention will be in five years from now."

The answer may be that the domestic syndicators, with their fancy booths and lavish food buffets, are not as important to NATPE's future as they think. There are other people in town now.

"Syndication doesn't own this thing anymore," said Ken Solomon, the president of datacasting company iBlast and the former head of Universal Television. "Remember when international came in and everyone went crazy saying this is about U.S. television only. Now international television is a very important component and you wouldn't even think of taking that position. Well, that's the way it is now with technology-based companies. For companies like iBlast, which really have their roots in broadcasting, we have to be here; we wouldn't think of being anywhere else."

What's more, although domestic syndicators may be finding fewer broadcasters on the floor, they are finding more advertisers. They were busy last week, looking over new programs and preparing for the coming upfront ad-buying season. NATPE set an all-time attendance record in 2001, with 19,834 registered guests, including a record 1,070 advertisers and media buyers.

The importance of the advertising sector at NATPE was manifest in the naming of Jon Mandel, MediaCom's co-managing director, as the new conference chairman. Mandel, a highly visible Madison Ave. executive, said he is concerned with the major syndication studios' threats, but that they need to look at the whole picture of what NATPE offers.

"I'm concerned that they are looking at it with a very narrow focus. It's 'did I clear Des Moines and yes they are clearing Des Moines.' And I can understand what they are seeing on that level, but when I look at some of these booths, there is a lot more than just domestic syndication sales taking place.

"I had some of my people in doing business with some of their sister network people, some were in seeing the syndication company, some were seeing cable guys, some were seeing the international guys. So I'm not sure if it's a problem with NATPE per se. It may be a problem with their internal cost allocations."

Mandel added, "You can call it a schmooze fest or whatever you want, but you are not going to make as many sales and you are going to commoditize yourself if you are just doing it as numbers. It's about getting to know people. We have the most glamorous business in the world. Use it to your advantage."

NATPE President Bruce Johansen said NATPE has changed with the times over the past 40 years and is aiming to be a marketplace for the entire industry, not just domestic syndication. "This is the ultimate convergence opportunity."

In terms of the major syndicators pulling out, Johansen said he's heard it all before and that he encourages them to reduce their space on the conference floor and to look for more efficient methods of doing business. "I love the figures I see thrown around, $2 [million] and $3 million," he said. "We are the cheapest trade show in the industry, period, bar none. That's not where the money is going. It's going to limousines, to parties and shrimp in the booths."

Not every syndicator was unhappy with its NATPE presence. In fact, most were satisfied with the level of deal-making. Bob Cook, Twentieth Television's new president, said his company wrote more than 200 individual sales for first-run and off-network programs during the three-day conference. "Our expectations were quite modest coming in because of all of the talk about no station executives going," Cook noted. "But on Tuesday and Wednesday we were packed and we were pleasantly surprised with the results."

So will Cook be back next year? "I think more than likely we will come back, but every year you run the economic model to see if it was worth it. We'll measure what we spent on coming versus the amount of business we did on the floor and I would say with the results I think we posted, we'll absolutely be back."