The boa constrictor seemed right at home on the floor of the National Association of Television Programming Executives -- but then, so did the double-humped camel.
Both creatures were unwitting shills for "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom" -- the "longest-running syndicated half-hour show in existence that's still shooting," said Harold Davis, vice president of syndication for Bozell & Jacobs, the advertising agency that distributes the show for the Nebraska-based insurance company.
Bozell & Jacobs has been bringing wild animals to NATPE to hawk "Wild Kingdom" for more than a decade now. "There's been a splattering now and then," said Davis, "but there's never been a real problem."
It's all part of NATPE's "There's no business like show business" atmosphere, with the accent on business. More than 200 exhibitors -- ranging from the Paramount Television Group to Mother Basilia Films -- have packed Moscone Center the last four days to peddle their programs to the nation's 820-plus independent and network affiliate television stations.
The sale -- or syndication -- of network reruns, game shows, sports, movies, and original shows directly to television stations has grown over the last five years to a cutthroat $1.2 billion industry that plays a major role in determining what the nations' 80 million television households will be watching.
"Less than 10 percent of the shows here will make it," said Jeffrey C. Kinney, a vice president of Genesis Entertainment. "It's guts ball."
While most of the shows here are "off network" -- a NATPE euphemism for "rerun" -- an increasing number of the programs are produced specifically for syndication.
"The most significant trend here is that first-run programming is not only alive and well but healthier than ever," said NATPE President John von Soosten. "The industry's discovered it doesn't need a network to provide a product. Syndicators and broadcasters are joining to produce first-run programs."
Companies such as Metromedia and Post-Newsweek stations (a wholly owned subsidiary of The Washington Post Co.) are working with a variety of other broadcasters and distributors to produce first-run shows including "Fame," "Small Wonder" and "America."
The biggest boost to first-run production -- and to the entire syndicated programming industry -- has been the dramatic rise of the independent, or non-network, affiliate station.
"The number of independent stations has risen from 106 in 1980 to 215 in 1985," said Al Masini, president of Telerep, which distributes "Entertainment Tonight" and "Solid Gold," both first-run programs. "From 1977 to 1985, independents went from covering 33 markets and 56 percent of the population to 99 markets reaching 82 percent of the population. As that's happened, the need for programming has become acute."
Another factor in the programming equation and incentive to first-run efforts is the "dwindling supply of off-network product," said NATPE's von Soosten. Television stations usually need "a minimum of 65 -- preferably 100" episodes of a show to air reruns five nights a week.
However, the networks recently have been so quick to cancel shows -- particularly situation comedies -- von Soosten said, that the inventory simply isn't there and, consequently, prices for shows that have survived for syndication have skyrocketed.
"Fifty-five hundred dollars an hour for "Dynasty" is absurd," said Elden Hale, vice president and general manager of WNEP-TV, the ABC affiliate in Scranton, Pa.
The price of a typical half-hour rerun for one of the top 20 markets is now nine times higher than it was just three years ago, according to a station survey by View Magazine and Butterfield Communications. What's more, independent stations are paying nine times more for reruns today than they were three years ago.
This shift in economics is prompting stations to consider more local production, more first-run programming such as the "Wheel of Fortune" game show, and coproduction with other companies to create network-quality programming.
"We're telling the studios that when they charge $1 million an episode in syndication, they are forcing us to become their competition," said Robert Bennett, president of Metromedia Broadcasting, which owns five stations and has been a leader in first-run production for syndication. "When the prices go that high, he have no choice."