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New approach to syndie sales?

Facing millions of dollars in lost barter revenue and tougher competition from cable, top syndication executives at Warner Bros., Tribune, Paramount and other top Hollywood studios are looking to create their own upfront presentation events.

To do that, first they have to revitalize the Syndicated Network TV Association, the trade group that touts the $2 billion barter advertising business to Madison Avenue.

Sources say many top syndicators are working on a plan to develop New York-based upfront presentations like those of their brethren in network and cable TV.

Those syndication upfronts could take place as early as next March but will probably first be held in the spring of 2003.

Likewise, NATPE would apparently welcome the opportunity to stage Los Angeles screenings of syndicated product for the station community and, perhaps, refocus the larger NATPE convention toward international buyers and sellers.

The SNTA concept sounds a lot like the idea that Jon Mandel, NATPE chairman and co-managing director of MediaCom, has been touting privately as a way to refashion NATPE itself. He had argued that, while NATPE may have cooled as a place where stations procure syndicated programming, it has evolved into a major event for ad buyers like himself.

Syndicators might be reaching the same conclusion. The syndication executives behind SNTA have hired an executive-search firm to find a replacement for former SNTA President Allison Bodenmann, whose contract was not renewed.

"All of the distributors with maybe one exception have committed to reinvigorate SNTA. We all have agreed to increase our dues," says one syndicator. "We are all lock-step united on what SNTA needs to do to highlight the media advantages of the barter syndication marketplace." Last week, NATPE called off a meeting with syndicators to discuss future directions.

NATPE's Las Vegas confab in January has been cut to pieces by major studios' exits. NATPE is scheduled for New Orleans in 2003 and 2004. Syndicators have complained about that location, but there is no indication that NATPE chief Bruce Johansen intends to leave.

NATPE executives are said to be talking over a number of scenarios with top studios, including a scaled-back Los Angeles conference for 2003 that could involve various studio lots that would apparently augment the main show.

A spokesman for the New Orleans convention center said that "contracts have been issued, but they have not been executed" for both years. The organization would face stiff financial penalties if it pulled out.

Johansen and his staff have been trying to stay involved with top syndication studios that have planned their own, simultaneous mini-convention at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas. But those syndicators seem content to keep the Do Not Disturb sign on their doors until later.

Apparently, after this January's show, syndicators will be ready to act for the future. "We are all saying NATPE really needs to go back and reinvent itself," says one top syndication executive. "We have told them that it all comes down to their ability to bring out the stations and the advertisers."

NATPE executives had no comment.

A number of major syndication heads say that they are considering pulling out of the Venetian at this point, too, or limiting the scope of their presence there. "We are holding on to several rooms there, but I'm fully expecting to just pull out at the last minute," an influential syndication executive said. "I think, if we go at all, we'll have moderate exposure, play some golf and do some dinners."