It takes a lot of energy and shoe leather to cover a big industry confab, so there's always a bit of groan-factor when NATPE rolls around. But once you actually get to there, it's always fun to see friends and biz contacts that you don't regularly get to hang with, and you're in a setting that is somewhat detached from real-life for a finite period. Lots of parties, dinners and revelry.
Nearly every conversation begins with "When did you get here? And how long are you staying?"
That hey-howya-doin'? element was definitely there this week at the Mandalay Bay Resort in Vegas (for the record I arrived Monday evening and left Wednesday late afternoon) but the somber mood and sparse attendance was unlike anything I'd ever experienced at this confab.
Of course, the station biz is suffering through a plunge in sales unlike anything that broadcasting vets can ever remember. So said Dennis Swanson, prexy of station operations for Fox Television Stations, and he knows whereof he speaks. (Among his many accomplishments, Swanson's the one who saw the promise in an "A.M. Chicago" co-host named Oprah Winfrey when he was running ABC's Chicago O&O in the mid-1980s.)
Between the downturn in ad sales and the relentless drumbeat of layoff news in showbiz and other industries, it's no wonder NATPE this year was a subdued affair. The convention can't drive syndie business, as one exec noted, it can only reflect the state of the biz at any given time.
The configuration of the confab since 2003 has been less than ideal for networking, with some companies taking space on the exhibition floor and others (most) setting up shop in private hotel suites at The Hotel adjacent to the Mandalay convention center space. But "adjacent" makes it sound around the corner -- which it isn't. The long haul from the exhibition floor and conference area -- down an escalator, past the Mandalay's restaurant cluster, through the smoke-filled casino area and down another long corridor to the hotel elevators -- takes about 8-10 minutes to walk if you're really hustling.
It was sad to see the floor look so peaked this year, with only NBC Universal, CBS' international arm and FremantleMedia as the sizable players throwing up their tents. It was a visual representation of how much of a retrenchment the biz is enduring. The contrast was especially vivid for those of us who remember the throngs (as pictured above from a past NATPE) who would gather to shake hands and snap photos with Judge Judy, or Jerry Springer, or Jerry Seinfeld, or the "Baywatch" babes.
In the glory days, King World Prods. had a palatial spread in the center of the 300,000-plus square feet of exhibition space. On the the first day of the market you'd be lucky to get near it, for all the hustle and bustle, hype and hoopla that surrounded the King brothers like a golden aura -- the kind that only comes to self-made gazillionaires.
NATPE officials put a brave face on this year's gathering, but on the first day, prexy Rick Feldman acknowledged that there would be major changes next year, which probably means there'll be no floor at all, only private suites. There will be a redoubled emphasis on the conference element, which was strong this year, despite the weak overall attendance.
TV Week reported Thursday that turnout was down 14% from last year to about 6,000. At its peak, the three-day event drew 20,348 attendees in January 2001; from 1995-2000 it ranged from 15,000-17,500.
For sure, NATPE 2010 won't be as much fun as the old days, but then again, nothing is, in this economy.
I wasn't the only one feeling the then-and-now nostalgia this week.
"I miss Roger King," Swanson said Tuesday during a panel sesh, referring to the King World boss who died in December 2007. "Tonight would've been the party."