Recession puts crimp in TV convention Execs seek new hits at video bazaar

January 25, 1992|By Gary Dretzka | Gary Dretzka,Chicago Tribune

NEW ORLEANS -- Last year, the National Association of Television Program Executives' convention -- usually the most lively of affairs -- wore a cloud of concern and woe, due to the impending launch of Operation Desert Storm. TVs carrying Cable News Network updates were scattered around the convention center and were well watched.

This year, the nearly 8,000 TV programmers, station managers and various syndicators, celebrities and media gathered in this most seductive of American cities were stung and subdued by the reality of the recession. No TVs were needed to spread the news.

If the gloomy national economic picture wasn't bad enough, folks here could be heard grumbling about everything from slumping ratings, cable competition and audience fragmentation to a Federal Communications Commission that never seems to move fast and forcefully enough to serve the perceived needs of local affiliated and independent stations. But that's not to say folks didn't manage to have some fun here.

This is still the kind of convention where the glitzy, and often goofy, world of syndicated TV (non-network and off-network repeat programming) is opened to the forces of the marketplace in a vast bazaar. Buyers kick the tires of new first-run shows and familiar used entertainment vehicles, while sellers extol the virtues of products often held together by video chewing gum.

To help oil the wheels of commerce, syndicators trot out an eclectic mix of mid-level stars and stock their booths with an assortment of refreshments and food. Tuesday and Wednesday, it was impossible not to stumble upon such celebrities as Tony Curtis, host of "Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon," looking 70 and dressing 18; radio reactionary Rush Limbaugh bear-hugging potential buyers of his proposed talk show; a typically buoyant Vicki Lawrence, hawking her own talk show; Jenny Jones, whose Chicago-based talker is on the bubble; and former athletes O. J. Simpson and Johnny Bench.

Sadly, the pro wrestlers -- always a highlight at NATPE -- arrived Wednesday, fully 48 hours after the first "major" news conference was held by Paramount to announce new big-budget 1993 titles, "The Untouchables" and "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine," a prequel to its "Next Generation" hit. Holding Hulk Hogan's place at the World Wrestling Federation ring was HBO's Matt Lauer, who was pitching "Bodystars" -- sort of a workouts-of-the-rich-and-famous series.

Nearby, programmers who may already be showing Oprah Winfrey's blockbuster program were offered a series whose host is her steady pal Stedman Graham: "Sports Lifestyles." Those envious of the success of "American Gladiators" could pick up "Knights and Warriors," a medieval clone.

Fans of "Studs" and "Love Connection" possibly will be getting their double-entendres next fall in nearly a half-dozen similar raunch-o-ramas, including "That's Amore," "Infatuation" (with Bob Eubanks), and "How's Your Love Life."

One show that could use a new name is "Magic Johnson's All-Star Slam 'n' Jam," a celebrity hoops series with a publicity packet that includes pictures of sultry cheerleaders.

When station executives weren't on the exhibition floor gobbling shrimp and being pitched, they could take in a number of interesting seminars, mostly dealing with the intricacies of today's TV market, but also some important issues.

Prompted by Louisiana's own contribution to racial harmony, David Duke, NATPE put together a discussion on "Racism, Intolerance and TV," featuring Norman Lear, Alex Haley and Casey Kasem, among other journalists and producers. It was the kind of thoughtful self-examination that many viewers might have found valuable on the stations controlled by those in the audience. Too often, unfortunately, adding reruns of "Good Times" and "Family Matters" are the closest many of their stations get to enlightened, integrated programming.

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