Is it check-out time at NATPE?

Warner Bros.' Robertson crusades for a new confab; Johansen fights back
Author:
Publish date:

NATPE had hardly begun last week, when organizers found themselves fighting to keep some of their top draws even in the same city with them.

More than 50 syndicators set up shop at the Venetian hotel rather than at NATPE's official convention center site, so things were testy to begin with.

But, on Tuesday morning, one day after the show began, Warner Bros.' Dick Robertson, de facto leader of the renegade syndicators, forcefully told reporters that, in the future, his studio will host its own showcase events, separate from NATPE's, and it appears at least some other studios are ready to join him.

"We can do this in L.A. for a fraction of the cost in hotels like this," Robertson said from his posh suite at the Venetian. "I don't think it's really necessary that NATPE be involved."

Responded NATPE President Bruce Johansen: "Mr. Robertson has been vocal over the last couple of years about this conference, and I think he has been hypocritical. He has indicated to me personally that he is supportive of our education activities, that he is supportive of us as a non-profit organization, and I don't see that support. ... I am also a little surprised because, in a way, he is a self-appointed shepherd. I don't know who appointed him king, but I guess he feels he is king of syndication."

Jon Mandel, NATPE's outgoing chairman and co-managing director of media buyer MediaCom, took some shots at Robertson, too. "I'm just shocked that otherwise smart, sometimes very smart people do some very dumb things."

The fracture left some executives shaking their heads. "With everything that went down, the advertising agencies and the stations all came out of this saying this is why syndication is such a *&Q!# business," one top syndication executive said.

Twentieth Television President Bob Cook says the syndication industry needs to get its act together or it will continue to lose out on the advertising pie to cable and other competing forces. "I don't think we as an industry have been telling our story and supporting our industry like cable. As a result, they are eating our lunch."

Robertson argues that, with consolidation, there are only a few buyers—hardly enough to justify the estimated $2 million Warner Bros. has spent gearing up for NATPEs past.

Still, even those who agreed with the logic weren't perfectly comfortable with the timing of Robertson's comments.

"You should not assume that Dick Robertson represents the opinion of other distributors, which doesn't mean he might not have some legitimate points, but I really thought Dick was just rude to get into it when he did," said a top distributor.

"He's got a track record of doing things like this," said another syndication executive. "It was just in poor taste, and it was poor timing and really quite unprofessional."

While the NATPE conference floor was as quiet as it has been in 20 years—mainly filled with international and smaller exhibitors—the Venetian hotel was jammed, although attendees complained about slow-moving elevators and the hassle of finding distributors scattered on different floors. "This setup was ridiculous. The suites didn't work," said NBC Enterprises President Ed Wilson from his Venetian space. "We will be back on the floor next year."

King World's Roger King told the crowd at the distributor's private party for upcoming show Dr. Phil
that he wants to see NATPE back next year. "There is no better place for networking," he said.

But a number of syndicators said they saved more than $1 million by setting up shop at the Venetian. Insiders said Paramount knocked off about $2 million and Fox's Twentieth about $1.5 million from the year before when they were in large booths on the NATPE floor.

"What we were able to accomplish and what we spent to accomplish it was very acceptable and valuable. I would do it again." says Cook.

Both NATPE and the domestic distributors through their trade organization, the Syndicated Network Television Association, are working to find alternatives. SNTA is being reorganized by the studios, and members are being asked to cough up $300,000 each to make it more powerful. That suggests it could become the organizing body for a syndication show featuring the majors, leaving NATPE to fend for itself.

Clearly, Robertson enjoyed the controversy. At NATPE, the headline for the daily edition of BROADCASTING & CABLE read, "Warner Bros. to NATPE: Drop Dead!" a play on a New York Daily News
headline when President Ford refused a fiscal bailout for Gotham. But Robertson, talking to reporters later, suggested what he thought would have been a better headline, taken from the Warner Bros. cartoon library: "That's All Folks!"

Through last Monday, NATPE had just 9,600 registered attendees, down from 13,913 on the first day the previous year. Altogether, NATPE said, it ended the week down 31%, but it wouldn't announce a final number.

The organization has a panel of high-profile experts working on how the conference can meet the industry's changing ways. It is supposed to issue suggestions this spring.

Robertson and a number of studio executives say SNTA will likely organize spring-time upfront presentations for advertisers in New York on an annual basis—something their network and cable competitors already do. But any presentations for the ad community this spring appear to be a long shot at this point, a number of studio heads said late last week.

Sometime in November, as it appears now, the syndicators will gather in Los Angeles hotel suites to present their new programs to buyers. If that happens, those events could greatly damage NATPE's domestic business. Johansen reiterated last week that NATPE is still headed to New Orleans for the next two years; he hopes the domestic distributors will come as well.

Although some station group heads were at NATPE, most weren't. "I honestly don't know whether I will come back or not," said DIC Entertainment President Andy Heyward, one of few domestic studios exhibiting on the conference floor. "Honestly, I didn't see a person here from a major station group or network.

"If you were launching a show in syndication, there is no way to do it, because there was no one here."

Related