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Syndicated Goo — A report from NATPE ’93: The flood tide of talk shows and non-network series is ready to engulf every segment of society By Debra Goldma

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You see that kind of thing a lot at NATPE, the business convention with a Las Vegas soul. It’s the market for programming rummaged from the junk drawer of the American psyche. The syndication business has but one reason to exist: to create shows that earn high ratings for the stations that buy them. Unlike the networks and their affiliates, if your show doesn’t deliver for a station, someone else’s will. Over the years, syndicators have done whatever it takes, leaving no prurient impulse unprobed, no titillation untouched.
Syndication executives can be very sensitive about their P.T. Barnum reputations. Sleazy? Exploitative? Not me, every syndicator will say. Maybe my competitor is. On second thought, my competitor definitely is. But me, what’s important to me is . . . entertainment. Giving people what they want.
If syndication is the pure art of attracting an audience, the first audience syndicators need to convince are the station buyers who flock to NATPE each year. You might think that professionals who make a living hyping programs to the public would be themselves immune from hype. But no. The NATPE convention is as full of manipulative blandishments as are the programs for sale. In the syndication tradition of appealing to basic instincts, food is a big draw, generating crowds that create an aura of excitement. The studio booths, gargantuan structures that reach up to 10,000 square feet, are virtual restaurants, serving up steam trays heaped with pasta, grilled burgers and franks, dim sum, cappuccino, and liquor for the asking. At lunch time, Paramount’s exhibition booth looks like a mall food court during Christmas season.
Station buyers also respond to the lure of celebrities, just like ordinary, TV-addicted civilians. ‘I want you to know I’m seriously considering your show,’ a station exec says deferentially to Les Brown, King World’s talk show contender, as if Brown were already a star instead of a heavily promoted wannabe. At the Columbia booth, a patient and polite Jerry Seinfeld, whose network sitcom is being offered for the 1995 season, is repeatedly accosted by an exec crying, ‘Jerry! Jerry! Could you come over here a minute? We want to take a picture!’ The exec then delivers the comic into the anxious hands of a Midwestern gm and his wife. What’s Seinfeld’s first appearance at NATPE like? ‘You know that game 52-card pick-up? Someone takes a deck of cards and throws them at you. That’s what it’s like.’
The mood at NATPE is fairly upbeat after three years so dreadful that industry executives questioned the need for a convention. This year a little of the magic is back. At one end of the hall, Viacom has set up a bungee jump to promote its tweener-targeted action game show Guts. At the Twentieth Television booth on the other end, people queue up to have their video snapshots taken with Bart Simpson. Like last year, a lot of the talk on the floor is about talk shows.
When Warhol said everyone will be famous for 15 minutes, he forgot to mention they’d do so as talk show hosts. This year the focus is on two candidates vying to join the many less-than-household names already on the syndie circuit. (On the convention floor, you can tell the talk show hosts from the game show hosts this way: The talk show hosts always ask you to repeat your first name, and then periodically utter it loudly while gazing meaningfully into your eyes.) Why the field is so crowded becomes obvious at the King World bread and circus bash, which includes a casino and a buffet dinner for 3,500, crowned by a performance by Elton John. If you guessed the affair cost $1 million, you’d be close. ‘But let’s put this in perspective,’ says one observer. ‘That’s roughly the equivalent of 12 to 15 spots on Oprah.’
For the syndicator who can come up with the next Oprah – a host who can take the talk show to the next level – the upside is huge. For months on end, the big players have been besieged by the agents, each with the megahost of the future. The newest generation of talk show on display at NATPE is neither an issue forum, like vintage Donahue, nor the confessional/therapy session of Oprah. The new talk show is a resource, a place where people can turn for inspiration and empowerment, for tools and information that will help them live their lives. Syndicators have heard the Call to Service that’s gone out throughout the land, and they have heeded it.
It’s no coincidence the potential new Oprahs are three motivational speakers, the Dale Carnegies of the video age (all of whom happen to be black). The first, Montel Williams, an ex-Marine with a shaved head who has been promoted as a tough guy, hasn’t drawn big numbers with his Viacom-produced show. Yet two more motivational speakers are on the way, Les Brown and Bertice Berry (from Fox’s Twentieth Television).
Brown’s concept is heaviest on the uplift. An orphan who became a self-made millionaire, Les has the requisite dysfunctional personal history. He promises his show is going to get away from ‘the exploitation of people’ in order to ‘inform, inspire and empower.’ It’s unclear whether this is a talk show or one of those town meetings promised by President Clinton.
Besides being a motivational speaker, Bertice is also a sociology professor and a standup comic. She’s characterized by Fox’s competitors as ‘intelligent’ – not necessarily a compliment in this realm. At a press conference, Bertice commandingly explains she’s going to give her discussions ‘more closure’ so that ‘people can take something away from the show.’ She wants the program to be more about real life. To illustrate what she means by ‘real life,’ she relates the night she got a call in her hotel room from a guy who’d seen her check in and wanted to ‘cuddle’ with her. ‘So now I’m thinking talk show all the time and I think, hmmm, Perverts Who Are Polite. Ted Bundy was polite, right? I mean, what do you do with a polite pervert?’
But when asked when it hit her that she’d finally Made It Big, she is instantly rendered speechless by an onrush of tears. Suddenly the press conference feels like a test episode of her show. ‘Right now, here’ she chokes out. The audience of reporters bursts into applause. Recovering, Bertice launches into shtick: ‘You know, my mother thinks I’m at the Nappy convention. Just a bunch of us girls with nappy hair getting together . . . ‘ The reporters laugh heartily. Greg Meidel, Twentieth’s impossibly blond head of syndication, looks pleased.
Not every new talk show is out to serve humankind, however. Garth Ancier, the former boy wonder at Fox who is now at Columbia, is remaking Fox’s failed Jane, this time with the formerly fat but still substantial Ricki Lake. (Talk show host is the only job on TV where physical imperfection can be an asset – witness the epic Oprah weight wars.) Ricki will bring that Oprah-esque warmth and empathy to a younger demographic, Ancier explains. But don’t think just because Ricki isn’t going to empower people that this show is going to be sleazy. ‘The show is going to concentrate on relationships,’ Ancier explains. The distinction between the two works like this: If you do a show about women with big breasts (Sally Jessy Raphael, Montel Williams), that’s sleaze. If you do a show about women whom men date only because they have big breasts (Jane), that’s relationships. ‘That turned out to be a very feminist show,’ Ancier points out.
Teen problems are also much on the syndie’s minds. Rysher is promoting Jennifer, a blond-maned, first-name-only former actress who is the host of Wavelength. Jennifer got into the teen programming business several years ago when she was looking to place ads for her chain of non-alcoholic nightclubs. Like the other teen shows, Wavelength banishes adults. Teens want to talk to each other about each other, for each other. Jennifer (who, despite the tousled grunge look she affects in the promotional materials, is very much an adult) is planning to tape a segment at a drug rehabilitation center. ‘Then we’ll come back and continue the process on the talk show segment,’ she says, blurring the line between talk show host and facilitator.
Herd instincts are also in evidence at the convention. At the head of the class are Cops, the down-and-dirty, ultra verite bust ’em and book ’em show from Fox, and the genre’s gray eminence, Rescue 911. If syndicators have their way this fall, no form of heroics in the face of disaster will go unrecorded by video camera, thanks to Firefighters, Emergency Call, The Real Stories of the Highway Patrol, On Scene Emergency and Prime Suspect. Reality shows are the purest demonstration of TV’s talent for making the real seem unreal and vice versa. In Florida, a station recently became embroiled in controversy for airing a videotape – later rebroadcast on one of the networks – of a husband pumping eight rounds into his estranged wife. Said a station executive of the killing, ‘It looked like a reenactment.’ Yet reality shows are also inevitably uplifting: The bad guys are caught, the victims comforted, the baby saved. As Les Brown might say, it’s inspirational.
Moving from trends to the eternal verities, a few T&A shows appear at NATPE, as they always do. All-American, the syndicator that brought us the lifeguard parade Baywatch (known inside the industry as Buttwatch), is pushing a sister show, Acapulco HEAT. In this one, the beach bunnies are anti-terrorists (HEAT stands for Hemisphere Emergency Action Team) led by Moldavia’s own Catherine Oxenberg. Then there’s a drama series about scantily clad fashion models, billed as a ‘reality show.’
In the old days, sample female merchandise in suitably skimpy attire would be at the booths or roaming in the aisles, along with the whole variety of costumed characters. In those days NATPE was like Carnival; it’s no wonder so many have been held in New Orleans. But three years ago, in a fit of misbegotten respectability, food, booze and broads were banished from the exhibition floor. After one dismal year, the food and liquor were reinstated, but the babes are gone forever.
So it was like old times when word spread about a new show on the floor, Party in Progress, which is, as producer John Rohrer put it, ‘built’ around a bikini contest. By Wednesday, a crowd gathers at the dinky booth on the edge of the exhibition floor. Guys in Nicole Miller ties line up to have their pictures taken with four essentially naked girls, though some of the men seem to have trouble figuring out where to put their hands.
What they really want, of course, is their hands around the profits that come from a hit show.
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)