NEW ORLEANS -- he idea was that at high noon, several selected conventioneers would assault the chairman of Genesis Entertainment, choosing from a fearsome array of weapons.

"We have cherry pie," enumerated the executive producer who was supervising the stunt. "Twinkies and chocolate cupcakes soaking in water; they're getting pretty soggy. Freshwater trout." The fish stared glassily from a bowl of ice. "Silly String in multiple colors. And we're getting spaghetti and meatballs." A crowd of onlookers began to gather, which was, of course, the idea.

The first challenger, the president of a television station in Green Bay, Wis., scored swiftly and messily with a pie. The crowd applauded. The sticky chairman, Gary Gannaway, looked rather pleased himself. His new TV show, "Grudge Match" -- to feature just this sort of slimy combat between disputatious friends and associates -- had already attracted 53 stations willing to put it on the air this fall. By the end of the day -- and who could say that a pie fight and two buxom "assistants" in boxing shorts and "Grudge Match" baseball caps didn't help? -- Genesis Entertainment would close eight more deals.

Welcome to NATPE, the strange annual cafeteria from which the nation's TV stations select their menus of syndicated programming for the coming season. During the flush 1980s, syndication became a $3 billion-a-year business, a launching pad for stars -- Vanna, Geraldo, Arsenio -- with vowels on the ends of their names. For better or worse, it's a cultural force: Oprah Winfrey typically beams into more American homes than Dan Rather or Tom Brokaw, and Ted Koppel's not even close.

Unlike network programs, supplied to groups of 200 or so affiliated stations, syndicated shows are peddled one station at a time ... Duluth, Spokane, Dayton. The National Association of Television Program Executives conference, the world's largest marketplace for TV products, last week attracted representatives from hundreds of American and international stations to the vast New Orleans Convention Center. Their shopping lists determine whether "Grudge Match" lines up enough buyers to get on the air (syndicators want commitments covering 70 to 80 percent of the United States in order to launch a show); whether Ron Reagan gets to become a late-night personality; whether America's ready for a six-hour miniseries on Joseph Stalin; and whether anything can dislodge the hugely profitable "Wheel of Fortune" from its seven-year perch atop the ratings.

But the first task is to get customers to pay attention. This is why there's a bearded dwarf in a sequined Elizabethan doublet handing out press kits at the Global Wrestling Federation booth. Anything to get 'em into the booth. 'Everyone's Got a Talk Show'

The industry needs a hit. In off-network syndication (the stuff the networks have already aired -- "M*A*S*H" and "Cheers" and even "Mr. Ed"), prices have receded from the mid-'80s record set by "Cosby," which sold for an unlikely-to-be-equaled $600 million in license fees and ad revenues. In first-run programming (the stuff produced especially for syndication), there hasn't been a big success since "The Arsenio Hall Show" and "A Current Affair."

Last year at NATPE, syndicators unveiled a raft of "Jeopardy!"-clone game shows; they all floundered, including -- the man had a bad year all around -- the Donald-inspired "Trump Card." The recession hasn't helped the situation, and neither did the specter and then reality of war, which last week had station managers gathered around monitors watching CNN when they might otherwise have been writing checks for old sitcoms.

So the syndies, as Variety likes to call them, want a win. This year they're betting on talk shows. "What you're going to see," predicted Geraldo Rivera, "is talk basically banishing game shows from daytime television. And when you think about it, that's not such a bad thing."

But whose talk? The major syndies -- Viacom, Warner Bros., MCA et al., each with million-dollar-plus "booths" big enough to house the Brady Bunch -- all have their nominees.

At Paramount's encampment, the ferociously dapper Maury Povich was glad-handing program directors and station managers hour after hour. "The Maury Povich Show" had "clearances" (contracts to put the show on the air, that is) from 90 stations, including WRC in Washington, before NATPE even began. It was therefore, as they say in the trade, "a firm go" for fall. But Povich wasn't taking it easy.

"I want to find that story in Tennessee where the husband and wife fought over those frozen embryos," he was fiercely explaining to two window-shoppers from WMC in Memphis, with whom he and a Paramount saleswoman were closeted. "I don't want a geneticist or some outside lawyer; I want that husband and I want that wife and I want that judge. I want to go to that town; I want to put them all on."

The men from Memphis, trying to figure out what to schedule at 10 a.m. after "Donahue," listened calmly but noncommittally; Povich moved on to repeat the routine with station execs from Nashville and Miami.

Warner Bros., which has deemed "Jesse Jackson" an unlikely renewal, this year offered a talk show starring a comedian named Jenny Jones. MCA was betting on "Up Late With Ron Reagan" -- "a white-bread Arsenio," one observer sniffed, but by midweek it had clearances from stations covering more than half the country -- and Viacom was trying to resurrect David Hartman.

"Everyone's got a talk show," rasped Joan Rivers, a rodenty terrier named Spike under one arm. She said she wasn't worried, though: Her own show was doing fine, and she was carrying Povich's child.

Rivera, meanwhile, unveiled the kind of "surprise" that syndies like to spring at NATPE, a deal that undoubtedly could have been struck and announced weeks earlier, but what fun would that be? "Geraldo," his masters at Tribune Entertainment said with fanfare, had been sold to a regional channel reaching 30 million people in and around Moscow, making it the first regularly scheduled American show in the Soviet Union. "This could set detente back two or three decades," mused the host.

It's serious business, more or less. (A Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle was spotted entering an otherwise reputable cafe on Bourbon Street Tuesday night.) Though syndicated programs have mingy budgets compared with the networks', even a cheap game or talk show costs almost $10 million to make and market these days, and the fatality rate is high.

Getting a string of clearances is not the same as getting audiences and, therefore, advertisers. "They're all cheering, 'We cleared 80 percent of the country, we've got it, we're launched,' " cautioned longtime syndication maven Bob Jacobs, a producers' rep. "They're not telling you that half those markets are airing the show at 2 in the morning."

Some mutterers on the floor foresaw an industry in which only rich companies such as MCA and Columbia would survive, muscling smaller shops right out of the game.

On the other hand, you had to admire the creative approach of Washington's own Ed Baruch, president of Baruch Entertainment, who was peddling a magazine show called "Golfing America." He had enlisted the attention-getting services of the Butt Sketch Artist.

"I spotted him at a convention in Dallas a few years ago," Baruch said, proudly leading an observer over to meet the artist at his easel. His actual name is Krandel Lee Newton and he can produce a pencil sketch of a person's posterior in an impressive 2 1/2 minutes. "I can't compete with the Paramounts and the Warner Brothers," Baruch explained, "so I gotta come up with something unique. This guy last year, he was a major hit for us. We had so many people, there was a line. The theme was, 'Kicking Butt at NATPE.' " 'Always Room for a Great Idea'

Some of syndication's major players have grown concerned about the industry's image. Last year's banning of food, booze and in-the-aisles entertainment from NATPE's convention floor was an attempt to bring a more dignified atmosphere to the occasionally raucous proceedings. It proved a short-lived and distinctly unpopular attempt -- the open bars and elaborate buffets returned this year -- but at least "we don't have clowns and dogs running through the aisles doing tricks," says Shelly Schwab, president of MCA TV.

Nevertheless, syndicated TV is a different animal. "Syndication is the shlock end of the television business," said veteran Variety reporter John Dempsey, "and that's saying something."

The syndies' shows are cheaper than prime-time network TV; they have to be. At 3 in the afternoon in Washington, just 36 percent of homes have their sets on, as compared with 63 percent between the hours of 8 and 11. A smaller audience equals lower ad revenues; hence the reliance on low-budget formats like talk and games. Even a relatively pricey magazine show such as "Entertainment Tonight" cranks out a whole week's programs for what a network might spend on one episode of a low-rent sitcom.

The content is different too. Shows aired after breakfast, or in early evening when people are coming home from work and making dinner, can't be too demanding; people "can't watch TV in as focused a way as they can at 8 p.m.," says Scott Carlin, senior vice president at Warner Bros. Domestic Television.

So drama doesn't work. Suspense doesn't work ("Once you know who shot J.R.," a Warner spokeswoman points out, "you know"). "Hill Street Blues" brought a respectable price in syndication but got paltry ratings. Judge Wapner, however, is presiding over "The People's Court" for the 11th year.

Some of these syndie-network differences may blur as the networks, too, face smaller audiences and insist on cheaper programming. Already the kinds of "reality-based" shows popularized in syndication have shown up on the Big Three: "Rescue 911," "Unsolved Mysteries," "Top Cops." "Years ago no one would have thought they'd be network shows, let alone highly successful ones," says Warner Bros.' Carlin.

Still, there remains an entrepreneurial bent among syndicators, even in a tough market. A local talk show like Oprah's or Phil's can go national and rake in the cash. The Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles can come out of nowhere. The King brothers parlayed a home office and the rights to "The Little Rascals" into dominance of first-run syndication, with annual revenues of an estimated $120 million from "Wheel of Fortune" alone. It's a lot harder to do now, but there remain plenty of people willing to try. "There's always room for a great idea," says King World President Michael King. "Someone will start a show in Glen Falls, Montana, and it'll hit a nerve."

Two years ago Samuel Goldwyn Television, a small syndicator, came to NATPE with something called "American Gladiators." Now it's shown in more than 160 markets (including WDCA in Washington, where it's "a huge hit" on Saturday afternoons, says program director Sandy Pastoor). Several Gladiators -- Nitro, Blaze, a couple of others -- were on hand to meet and greet at the Goldwyn booth last week. Coming soon: American Gladiator posters, pajamas, Nintendo games and vitamins, plus a 40-city arena tour.

What, exactly, do the Gladiators do? Goldwyn President Dick Askin, encountering a reporter who confessed to ignorance, was happy to pop a reel of highlights into a VCR. The show pits amateur contenders chosen in nationwide tryouts against Nitro and Turbo and the gang. A live Hollywood audience watches and cheers as the competitors joust with four-foot padded sticks, fire tennis-ball launchers at one another and try to pull their opponents off hanging rings -- all for glory, honor, cash and Chevrolets.

When Goldwyn first ran this idea up the NATPE flagpole, says Askin, "some of the programmers were intrigued by the concept. Some of them were fearful of what it might become. Some of them looked at this as the decline and fall of the American television empire."

By this year's NATPE, though, it seemed clear that top honors in the decline-and-fall category belonged to "Grudge Match." It had clearances in the New York, Los Angeles and Chicago markets (7, 5 and 3 percent of the U.S. population, respectively) and more than 60 other cities. Even before the second-day round of convention floor pie-and-fish tossing, with an executive vice president as the patsy, Genesis Entertainment announced a firm go.

At first, confessed creator Rich Melcombe, Genesis execs wondered if people would actually get into a ring and sling chocolate pudding at one another on national television, just to get even with a friend who spilled ink on a borrowed dress (to take one example on the pilot show). They needn't have worried. "Within 48 hours we had 50 possible contestants," Melcombe found. "They were coming out of the woodwork." 'A Lot of Pesetas'

At Booth 1023, home of Fremantle International, a wall of video monitors showed manic quiz show contestants hopping up and down and screaming out their answers. But not in English.

That syndication is internationally contagious was underscored by the growing foreign influx at this year's NATPE bazaar. Programmers from La Paz, Madrid and Paris lined up alongside station managers from Denver and Baltimore to have their pictures taken with Oprah. Other countries have tuned in to dubbed American network programming, from "Bonanza" to "Twin Peaks," for years; now syndicated shows are crossing borders too.

Fremantle, for instance, bills itself as the world's largest supplier of game shows. "Europe started to expand very dramatically a few years ago" as countries began adding independent channels, President Paul Talbot explained. What better to fill all that air time with than such classics as "Family Feud" and "The Dating Game"? They're produced overseas in the appropriate languages, and they're huge.

"The Price Is Right" is probably the biggest hit. In France ("Le Juste Prix") it's seen seven days a week and has the highest audience share of any show on the leading French network. In Spain ("El Precio Justo") its ratings are bolstered by "staggering prizes, Ferraris, beautiful homes by the sea," Talbot reported. "A few months ago they gave away $600,000 worth of prizes, which is a lot of pesetas."

The old war horse has also found its way onto screens in Germany ("Der Preiss Ist Heist"), Italy ("Il Prezzo E' Giusto"), Holland ("Prijzenslag") and, soon, Greece. "The good solid ones just go on and on and on," Talbot said, a happy man.

Of course, internationalism works both ways. Nick Austin, who's British, had a small booth and a big idea: The Landscape Channel. It's seen weekday mornings on Channel 4 in the U.K. and in nine other countries.

Think of a video yule log, only prettier. The Landscape Channel supplies beautiful pictures, usually of wildlife or natural wonders, with classical music soundtracks. No words, though: "It would ruin what we're trying to do."

Images of Brazilian waterfalls accompanied by Tchaikovsky, a popular Landscape offering, appeared on the monitor as Austin explained. The most popular segment depicts a community of penguins waddling to the stately strains of Pachelbel's Canon in D. Although, Austin noted, the pigs-with-Bizet number was also well loved.

"It's difficult to understand, I know, until you've been at home and had it on," Austin said sympathetically, his product having been compared in print to wallpaper. If U.S. stations seemed slow to pick up on it, he was convinced that familiarity would, sooner or later, breed acceptance.

"There's a place in America," he said, "for low-stress television."