No one ever went broke underestimating the American public, but it's apparent, based on last week's NATPE, that some syndicators continue to try. Plenty didn't happen in Las Vegas. All those unsold new first-run projects may have been victims of an uncertain economy, or the complexities of industry consolidation, or a lack of available time slots.
Or could it be that syndicators came to NATPE with nothing worth looking at? There have been NATPEs without much buzz, but I've never seen one where the mute button seemed to be welded in the "on" position. There was no floor talk. Maybe that's to be expected in a business where a 2 rating is now The Impossible Dream, but, as seen at other television conventions recently, it appears that the combatants-buyers and sellers-are paralyzed by the uncertainties of the medium. It's hard to get a "firm go" in a business that has suddenly shifted itself into neutral.
For example, on the eve of NATPE, the FCC indicated that it's not going to force cable operators to give transitional space for a broadcaster's analog and
digital signals. The roadblock of must-carry for digital can't be surprising for broadcasters, who, if the situation were reversed somehow, would be going crazy trying to stop the imposition of a new requirement that would seem to be in the public interest.
It is possible that must-carry is the first time broadcasters have argued in favor of anyone must-doing anything. You may recall, broadcasters are required to run three hours of children's educational programming a week, a must-carry requirement that struck them and others as unconstitutional just five years ago.
This DTV battle is far from over, but, right now, it means that stations have arrived at the future without a ticket to get in. How do you plan for that?
Even the XFL cheerleaders didn't seem so excited to be at NATPE, which was understandable, but the men who lined up to be photographed with them didn't seem very sparked either, which was perplexing. If the NATPE crowd rejects market-based objectification of women, then we've arrived at a new day indeed. Must we question everything? I mean, Who Wants to Date a Hooters Girl?
apparently left Las Vegas unsold. Baffling. This still is America, isn't it? Stuff like that doesn't happen here.
Doing any deep thinking about NATPE, at NATPE, or around NATPE seems to be a crime against deep thinking. And yet you can't listen to the major syndicators whine that NATPE has lost its value without wondering whether some of these guys are blaming the location of the store when their problem is the merchandise on the shelf. Not every year can produce an Oprah, a Rosie, a Xena or even an Alex (Trebek); every year does
have its Hooters Girl. Therein lies the problem.
One could have hoped for some offerings that were a little more novel than Crossing Over With John Edward, which seems to be a show designed to aggregate all those 1-800-PSYCHIC commercials into one place. At least it's different. Not much else is.
A rep firm that keeps tabs of what's happening more or less concluded that, as a strategy, a broadcaster could replace a badly performing talk show with a new one, which would probably do just about as badly but might do marginally better.
That's not a rave assessment of what's out there.
Maybe some syndicators should try harder.
It probably isn't efficient for major studios and syndicators to schlep to Las Vegas or New Orleans to peddle shows, as a handful of the big studios argued once again last week. Warner Bros.' syndication chief Dick Robertson is right when he points out, as he has in the past, that at NATPE the studio's selling power is reversed. A buyer isn't held captive; the place is literally stocked with competitors. Why make a marketplace when one-on-one salesmanship would serve syndicators better?
Why should they come? Because they're in show business, not just business business, and I think that part of what a station is buying is the promise and grandeur and power of a major syndicator or studio.
And they should come for the reason that people always do things that don't make perfectly logical sense: They come because everybody else does. And they complain because everybody else does, too. NATPE is an organizational monument to doing what everybody else does, which is how there got to be 47 judge shows on television-and 20 more being planned.