A zebra could get vertigo from surveying the sea of sport coat patterns filling the California ballroom. Filling the sport coats are representatives from most of the local TV stations in the United States, and they are here as delegates to the annual convention of the National Association of Television Program Executives (NATPE).
These elegates are voting with dollars on the programs you will see on television next year.
The overwhelming majority of the executives are white middle-aged males, some of whom brought their wives along for the wingding. The men attend seminars ("Public Affairs Need not be Dull Affairs"), go to mass luncheons, and give awards (Jerry Lewis won the "award of the year" Saturday for his "humanitarian efforts."
But mostly they buy, buy, buy. In lavishly catered hospitality suites of the Hotel Bonaventure, producers hawk everything from "Bonkers" to "Bazooey" - respectively, a comedy show and a kiddle show - from cold movies to new specials imported from England.
Network prime-time schedules will not be locked in for weeks to come, but local stations need to buy programs not for other time periods so their salesman can start selling advertising. Independent stations not affiliated with networks have even more time to fill. Larger stations, including the 15 owned by the three networks, may have their shows picked laready, and may be attending NATPE just for the dubious pleasure of getting lost in the newly opened and mazelike hotel, but for others there is actual business to be done.
"This is the place to lose all your illusions about television as an art form or any other kind of form," grumped one independent producer. "You realize what it's really all about. It's a butcher shop." Actually, it's more like a flea market, with program suppliers promising "new" and "different" programs that they nevertheless assure their customers are "proven successes" that will get them big ratings.
So in the hallways you may overhear one man in a plaid suit tell another man in a pinstripe suit, "We were getting 20s with that show! We beat the pants off the other guys." By "20s" he means the percentage of audience his station garnered in a given time slot.
When NATPE started in 1964, only 71 people attended the convention; this year, NATPE President Jim Major told the crowd, there were more scheduled speakers than there were delegates the first year. Total attendance reached a record 2,819. What gave NATPE its big boost was the 1971 FCC prime access rule that ook a half-hour of programming away from the networks each night and returned it to local stations.
This was supposed to result in a renaissance of locally produced programs. Instead it created a "fourth market" in television for major and minor program suppliers. Here are some of the bold and venturesome television shows being sold at the NATPE convention:
"The Hee-Haw Honeys" which will "capitalize on the phenomenal success of 'Hee-Haw'" and star three young women described by Variety as "high spirited, good looking and well-endowed."
"The Cheap Show," a spin-off from "The Gong Show," that boasts "the chintziest" sets, "ludicrous" questions and "terrible" prizes. "The guests are humilitated," says an ad in the official convention guide, "and everybody has a great time!"
"The $1.98 Beauty COntest," yet another imitation of "The Gong Show" from the same producer. This "spoof on world-wide beauty pageants" stars zany Rip Taylor, in a "wild, wacky and wonderful show."
Some programs do sound more ambitious than these. The Young and Rubicam Advertising Agency is causing a stir with a new syndicated halfhour soap opera fittingly titled "High Hopes." Y&R says, "It's destined for the kind of daytime ratings and demographics advertisers love." Viacom, which formerly distribute mostly offnetwork returns like "I Love Lucy," is expanding to original production with a new situation comedy called "Please Stand By," set at a tiny "Mom and Pop" TV station that is perpetually on the blink. Stars include Elinor Donahue, once the elder daughter on "Father Knows Best."
"We can help pump up your ratings," boasts one syndication outfit. "Watch your ratings soar when you catch a million kids," another company trumpets. And Paramount TV, which is selling returns of "Happy Days" now for telecast no earlier than the fall of 1979 - and selling them at record prices - warn local broadcasters, "60 percent of the new network programs were canceled this season. THe crop of new available off-network series is going fast. More than ever you need 'Happy Days."
There are more than free drinks and gooey hors d'oeuvres in the hospitality suites to impress executives. The syndicators of the revived "College Bowl" lure buyers with a $5,000 scholarship contest. Another firm offers executive chances on a Caribbean cruise. Trinkets and tote bags are handed out by the ton. Thus could be seen a paunchy programmer from Pittsburgh waiting for an elevator on the 32nd floor and holding by its ears a Fozzie Bear doll given him by the distributors of "The Muppet Show."
The Fozzie Bear's mouth had fallen open and you couldn't really tell if he was screaming in pain or laughin in victory. "The Muppet Show" is the most successful newly produced syndicated television show in history. Probably, he was laughing.
Other stars turned up in the flesh - from Bert Lance, who shook hands for Colber Production, which is trying to syndicate his daily commentaries to Merve Griffin, the everbouncing talk show host. In the Viacom suite the real Soupy Sales stood shaking hands and joking with drinktoting executives while a life-size carboard cutout of Soupy Sales stood in a corner with its hands to its ears. It appeared to be doing "The Mouse."
NATPE will close shop today with a convention highlight scheduled for this morning. A session to which all delegates have been asked to wear black, blue or white masks, issued them by NATPE, so that they can "get things off their chests" in secrecy. Of course they will all be wearing their name tags, but doesn't it sound like fun?
Fun is not the order of the day however; business is the order of the day for these 3,000 people who know above all the business of television is business. And they have an official sanction for their belief. FCC Commissioners Margarita E. Wite, James H. Quello, and Abbott Washburn all attended the convention and each got the honor of being named "FCC COmmissioner of the Day." Travel expenses for the commissioners to attend these sessions are paid out of the commissioners' "travel accounts," according to an FCC spokesman.
That NATPE is dominated by middle-aged males is obvious just from roaming the halls or sitting at luncheons and listening to people talk about which shows will "deliver" the most women between 18 and 49. One of the NATPE founders emphasized the organization's masculinity at a Monday luncheon. It was a pleasure for him he said to have watched NATPE grow from being a tiny infant into "a handsome and well-bred young man."
This young is not just handsome and well-bred either, he also is filthy rich. Next year, he hopes to get richer, even if it takes "The Cheap Show," to do it.