Wednesday, January 28, 2009

If Anybody Cares, the NATPE Convention is on in Las Vegas

It's been a long time since I attended a NATPE convention, the acronym standing for the National Association of Television Program Executives. Back in the day, when I was just a young'un and went to my first convention in San Francisco (accompanied by fellow Noser Jane, as a matter of fact!), it was a wild and wooly affair, populated with mostly male television producer sales reps, gorgeous girls used as bait at the program booths, huge displays by the big studios, and loads of food and drink for everyone. By the time I'd stopped going, not as many men reps, fewer booth babes, less food, and some distributors didn't even have a spot on the floor, opting instead to set up in offsite hotel suites.

You would have thought it would be a field day for a television lover, but mostly it was just a bunch of salesmen -- some great or at least nice human beings, some who should have been selling used cars -- hawking their programs. I always had more sympathy for the small distributors who were selling maybe one little movie package, instead of the bulwarks of the majors who'd trot out the stars of their shows to goose up the buyers and sad to say there would be long lines of industry professionals lined up to get their pictures taken with the overpaid performers. Ugh. Have some dignity, will ya?

My favorite memories of past NATPEs are idiosyncratic -- meeting Jesse "The Body" Ventura at the WWF booth and having a great conversation with this charismatic and articulate personality who went on to a successful political career; seeing Austin Power's amazing Verne Troyer ("Mini Me") who is, among many things, an actual wonder; being in a roomful of folks and having O.J. Simpson lawyer Johnnie Cochran, who was hawking a talk show of his own, pop in and be introduced, to a rather chilly reception -- there was no love in that room for how he got Simpson off. What else...? Meeting Prince Andrew who was also shilling for a documentary he produced. I believe I said "Hi there!", sans the royalty salutation.

Oh, and a wonderfully intimate session/discussion with veteran producer Aaron Spelling, where the small room was crowded with attendees who obviously loved and admired Spelling and television -- the kind of people there were never enough of at the convention. We were rapt as he passionately and charmingly discussed his long and successful career, from Charlie's Angels to Fantasy Island to Melrose Place to Starsky & Hutch and beyond. Spelling was a man with an incredible eye for talent, and his obvious enthusiasm for what he did was delightful and inspirational. Spelling personified everything that those of us who loved TV and made it our career believed in, and he was a rare and wonderful part of television history. What a treat it was to see him speak.

But mostly I fondly remember the ridiculous pranks my colleague and I used to play. Nothing too horrible, and far too little than the event deserved, with all the pomposity and egos contained within, but we'd go to the convention prepared with ream of papers printed up with either fake movie packages or mysterious posters -- the word "SUBMIT" along with a grainy photo of somebody like Shemp Howard or Rondo Hatton, for instance, or the deliberately cryptic image to the right -- which we'd gleefully distribute anywhere we could. We'd slip our material into displays, leave them in phone kiosks, put them on leaflet tables, anywhere we could, and leave giggling like mad schoolgirls. Our favorite "get" was when somebody was being interviewed in front of the Playboy booth, and we had put one of our posters in a prominent place where you could clearly see it. Ah, victory! (I hope I haven't compromised my former cohort who is still employed in the industry, but what the heck...)

Oh, I almost forgot about the time when the talk of the convention was when several distributors got taken to jail for groping some entertainers in a strip club. A real classy bunch, some of those guys, eh?

Over my long career I met very few people in television distribution who seemed to love or even understand the programming they represented. That is the sad truth of TV -- between the people who produce, who probably do love their programs, and the audience who sometimes also falls in love with the programs, is a vast sea of accountants, salespeople, marketers and others whose job it is to ram this stuff down the throats of the viewers and make the profit. I usually left NATPE with the feeling that I hated the industry and the people in it, to tell the truth.

But hey, if you are interested, some of the NATPE panels will be available on live internet feed from

So much for the memories of a cranky ex-exec! :-)


Jane said...

What an absolutely AMAZING post! I do remember the carnival-like atmosphere of that NATPE convention we went to in San Franciso. I also remember (oddly) our flight back to LA where I was carrying a giant Pumello grapefruit, and we had to sit next to someone so terribly odiferous, we were breathing into our perfumed kleenexes to survive.

I love your story about talking to Aaron Spelling, truly one of the giants of TV. My best moments across my many years in television, were always with the creators and innovators (seldom the talent or celebrities). The best encounter I ever had was when I worked at ABC. It was during pilot testing season and we just finnished a morning session viewing and discussing pilots and all the big execs broke for lunch. I stayed behind and noticed an elderly gentleman standing by himself, gazing at the program grid board (probably thinking where he would schedule the ABC shows to get the biggest ratings). I recognized that he was Leonard Goldenson, the founder of ABC, and I walked over and introduced myself. He was kind enough to spend the next 20 minutes talking to me about the early days of television, and how he was the first to strategize targeting a younger audience to counter program CBS and NBC. It was probably the most thrilling moment in my entire career. Like touching history. He came out with his bio a few months later, and I have a signed copy. What a treasure!

Jack Pendarvis said...

The way I heard it, you told Prince Andrew, "Hiya, kiddo!"

John Shoup said...

This years NATPE was just a
shadow of previous NATPE shows.
As a producer & distributor, this
was the first year in 30 that we
did not exhibit. Thanks for the
memories though.

Lisa said...

Jane, what a wonderful memory of Len Goldenson! All the negative things I said about TV applied to the younger generation of execs, not the pioneers. They had the vision! How could I have forgotten the Pummello and the stinky seatmate? Ah, I'm getting old!

Jack, you may be right. I know I was quite casual, at least! :-) And I do like calling people "kiddo"!

Thanks for the comments, John! Your shows are part of television history and it's too bad that NATPE hasn't aged as well as your product has! Thank goodness for the internet, though! We will link to your website! We love food AND TV at The Flaming Nose!

Dean Treadway said...

An incredible post, Lisa, that instantly put me back in the room where you and your cohort would be blackening in the teeth of the TV Guide coverperson and adding salacious commentary via talk balloons.

I think working with you must have been one of the most deliciously idiosyncratic experiences one could have had while toiling in the upper echelons of the TV business. We were, after all, part of one of the top cable stations in the business. That it was so incredibly fun and funny, and also so damningly sobering, most of the way through says a lot about your managerial technique. Seriously, working with you as my boss, I don't think I could have ever asked for a better fate. You spoiled me, really, because absolutely no one in TV will ever approach your singular attitude toward the art of programming. I consider myself the finder of the treasure of the Sierra Madre when I think of our time together. That it will never happen again in our lifetime is hardly a minus. We were lucky to have it as long as we did!

Again, an incredible post that brought back many memories ("Shake, sucker!") I often consider writing a memoir of my time at TNT. Have you ever considered this possibility? The result could be the funniest, most heartfelt book ever written about television programming.

Jane said...

If there is to be a memoir...I want to play too! The early days at KTLA made history on many levels and we have a million bizarre stories from that period!

Lisa said...

Thanks for the kind words, Dean. You know I feel the same way about those incredible years, before the Beast changed things! You were lucky to have been in cable when cable was still innovative, and Jane and I toiled in independent TV when it was the home of innovation. Things change, but when the beancounters and the crass marketers -- promoting without passion -- took over, give up. There are more of them than there are of us! :-)