The real show business
A new NATPE documentary celebrates syndication
P.J. Bernarski -- Broadcasting & Cable, 12/10/2000 7:00:00 PM
Once, when NATPE was being held in New Orleans, I snuck two women from the town into the show. They couldn't believe it. Back then (it was 1986, I think), NATPE was not just the syndication bazaar it still is. It was the syndication bizarre, really.
You could walk down an aisle, and behind you suddenly would be one of the chimps from the Mutual of Omaha booth walking with a beautiful handler. Around the corner would be Elvira-"a nice, normal woman," everyone said as they left with an autographed photo-and walking around everywhere would be models dressed like robots, cowboys, rock stars.
Seeing the show with 'civilians,' as they gasped (and ate shrimp), I realized as I do every so often: This is a very strange business.
This year, NATPE has produced From A to Ziv: The Legends of Syndication, an 80-minute documentary videotape available through its Web site. In ways that are mainly laudatory, it captures the whole, sometimes odorous, essence of the business that gave the world everything from Baywatch to Bishop Sheen. Here's the line NATPE can put in its press kit: Everybody in this business should see From A to Ziv to understand how syndication got to where it is. For good and bad.
Few folks walking around at NATPE today remember Sandy Frank, who has an appropriately large presence in A to Ziv. In his prime, he seemed to exist to give syndication a bad name. Fact is, that guy could sell, and as this tape points out, he succeeded by sheer drive: He wouldn't stop bothering a general manager until that guy bought one of Sandy's game shows. It was Success-by-Annoying.
At NATPE, he was so aggressive neighboring booths kept security guards around to stop Frank from stealing their customers. Once, legend has it, a Dallas station manager faked a heart attack to see if that would stop Sandy from going through his flip-card presentation. When Frank saw what was happening, he allegedly exclaimed to the program director, "Christ, now I have to start all over again!"
A to Ziv gets half its title in a reference to Fred Ziv, who was, let's just say, the first TV syndicator ever. He gave us shows like Sea Hunt and Highway Patrol and did good things such as insist that every station get a clean copy of the shows it was buying from him.
I never met Ziv, but I know his friend, Don Dahlman, the elfin former Multimedia executive who was the fellow who tapped Phil Donahue back in 1967 in Dayton, Ohio, and gets some justifiable face time in this tape. So do men like Greg Meidel and George Back and Martin Grieve and Joel Berman and Bob Muller and many others with good stories to tell.
These were guys (and we don't see many women here except Lucie Salhany) who invented and sold and loved what they were doing. There's a good piece in this documentary featuring Warner Bros. syndication chief Dick Robertson that makes me realize that for what a hard case Robertson can be, he is one of just a few syndication executives I know who is openly/blatantly excited about what his company produces for stations.
But sometimes, of course, he's just selling. On the tape, he recalls a sale earlier in his career in which the general manager, right after agreeing to overpay for a package of bad films, had a diabetic episode and seemingly nearly died. "But he bought the films! He bought the films! He shook my hand!" Robertson recalls screaming at the time.
I love that scene (the tape, written and produced by Shirley Neal, features a few re-creations of events), because it speaks to the fact that those syndication executives are always selling, and doing it so well that you sometimes forget it's a business for which they are paid extremely well.
The beauty of A to Ziv is that throughout, it's as much about what they sold as how they sold it. And for those of us mesmerized by the show and the business, this little videotape is just about perfect.
If you have a war story about a syndication deal you made, either as the seller or buyer, write us or e-mail it to firstname.lastname@example.org and include a daytime number so we can verify it. We'd love to run some of the better ones, but in some instances we can omit names. Bednarski can be reached at email@example.com or at 212-337-6965.
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