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Glitz and Glamour Mask Slow Year for Syndication

January 29, 1989

HOUSTON (AP) _ At one end of the exhibit hall, the video image of former CBS News President Van Gordon Sauter soundlessly hawks ″Hotline,″ a glittery new game show that home viewers can play by telephone.

At the other end, 72-year-old retired Pennsylvania butcher Frank Maturo makes Bloody Marys for passersby while his son tries to sell their 60-second show, ″Your Minute Message on Meat.″

What both booths at the annual convention of the National Association of Programming Executives have in common is few buyers.

They sat next to Joan Rivers and had their pictures taken, but most station representatives had already committed themselves to syndication hits such as King World’s ″Wheel of Fortune″ or Tribune Entertainment’s ″Geraldo 3/8″ and had little space on their schedules for anything new.

The annual NATPE convention, a syndicated television bazaar, typically features more tackiness than trading. But this year’s convention reflected a downturn in an industry battling cable and video alternatives.

Still, the exhibit floor of the George Brown Convention Center provided a sensory overload of lights, glamour and glitter. There were celebrities, showgirls, life-size cartoon characters and live animals, including a giant albino python helping pitch a program called ″Monty’s Traveling Reptile Show.″

″This is a shopping mall from hell,″ said Ron Powers, the former ″CBS Sunday Morning″ media critic here on assignment for GQ Magazine.

Despite the state of the industry, NATPE had more than 7,300 participants, down only slightly from the 7,500 of last year.

″It was not a good year for both the buyer and seller. But what did happen here, it’s a chance to get together and cry in each other’s beer, so to speak,″ said NATPE President Phil Corvo.

″I would say it’s somewhat more subdued in the last year or two,″ said Norman Horowitz, president of MGM.UA Telecommunications Inc., which was offering ″Hotline,″ the game show produced by Sauter’s company. ″Cable is taking a big bite out of ... broadcasting. Video is taking a big bite out of ... everybody, so that it is somewhat subdued. But it’s a business with a lot of money involved and a lot of people are going for it in whatever means available to them - glitzy booths, glitzy presentations. ... Last year, with ‘Group One Medical,’ we did a cholesterol test, and it was a knockout.″

″Group One Medical″ was one of a wave of ″reality-based″ shows offered last year that did not make it through the season.

″The talk on the floor is that buyers are very apprehensive this year because last year they got burned by ’USA Today,‴ said David Sams, co- executive producer of ″Rollergames,″ one of the few new shows drawing any interest this year.

Last year’s convention was abuzz over GTG Entertainment’s $40 million seeming sure thing, ″USA Today: The Television Show,″ a daily newsmagazine. But the critics rejected it, and the ratings were disappointing. Many stations have dropped or moved the show.

Reality shows continued to be the order of the day. The only new genre seemed to be so-called ″crash TV,″ prompted by the success of syndicated wrestling shows.

″American Gladiators″ at least offered a peek at its stars, male and female athletes who will take on competitors in a series of ″trash-sport″ events. ″Rollergames″ had only a brief video clip and a slick brochure that promised a combination of Roller Derby and MTV.

The pitch seemed to be working. Sams said his sales had climbed from 57 percent of the country before the convention to about 75 percent.

″It’s all about hitting a nerve,″ he said. ″It’s all about capturing attention.″

Corvo predicted that syndication will suffer another down year but rebound in 1990-91 when contracts are up and stations are looking to replace programming.

Over at the ″Your Minute Message on Meat″ booth, Frank Maturo’s meat- buying tips played incessantly on a monitor in the background while son Sam tried to sell the spots - and gave thanks they weren’t next to this year’s cholesterol-test booth.

″We’ve been getting a lot of traffic,″ Sam Maturo said. ″I don’t think it’s been a wasted trip. Trying to get into the larger markets is tough. These people have to be sold.″

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