In Depth

Adalian Column: Upbeat at NATPE Despite Tough Times

Sometimes a TV theme song can say a lot. Last week, 20th Century Fox TV Chairmen Dana Walden and Gary Newman were sitting on a stage in Las Vegas at the National Association of Television Program Executives convention. It was just after 8 a.m., the room was a little more than half-full and NATPE chief Rick Feldman was about to begin a Q&A with the two studio chiefs.

And then the sound of ancient wisdom filled the ballroom at the Mandalay Bay:

“Keepin’ your head above water
Making a wave when you can
Temporary layoffs … Good times
Easy credit ripoffs … Good times
Scratchin’ and surviving … Good times
Hangin’ in a chow line …
Good times
Ain’t we lucky we got ’em … Good times”

Thankfully, nobody attending NATPE is as hard-up as the Evans family. The only chow lines at NATPE led to gourmet creations by celebrity chefs.

But the theme song for Norman Lear’s vastly underappreciated “Good Times” perfectly sums up how I saw NATPE—and the entire TV business right now.

As with the overall national economy, every day seems to bring another dose of very bad news to TV land. Last week it was the morgue-like feel of the NATPE floor and the (sadly not temporary) layoffs at ABC.

I wouldn’t be surprised if this week, the producers of “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” announced plans to start handing out trailers instead of full-sized houses. Or if CBS decided that it could only afford “Two Men” (sorry, Angus).

And yet amidst all the gloom, there are plenty of signs that the TV industry is far from dead. Like the Evanses, TV types are scratchin’ and surviving.

At NATPE, I shared an elevator with Wendy Williams, the radio deejay who’s about to launch her own daily talk show. Even as the major studios have largely opted against launching new syndie fare this fall, it’s encouraging that an indie player such as Debmar-Mercury is willing to roll the dice on a format that hasn’t produced a success since “Ellen.”

Ms. Walden and Mr. Newman also had some encouraging things to say about the business. No studio has been as adept at exploiting franchises in ways both traditional (“Family Guy” T-shirts) and modern (“24” mobisodes).

And yet Mr. Newman nearly made me tear up when he cautioned against putting too much emphasis on product placement.

“Every time we focus more on the integration than the show, we make a mistake,” he said.

Ms. Walden also had me silently cheering when she took a dig at networks who feel compelled to put themselves into neat little boxes. She spoke of two networks “who shall remain unnamed,” as she put it, who last season declared they didn’t want to hear any ideas for procedural dramas. Period.

“Are you so busy you can’t hear a pitch from a great writer?” Ms. Walden said.
Amen, Brother Gary. Right on, Maude … er, Dana.

I also talked with Jordan Levin and Pete Aronson, the two guys who run the Los Angeles-based digital production company Generate. They had just signed an overall deal with Mr. Newman and Ms. Walden, and they were psyched about the possibilities ahead—not just in the online world, where they play regularly, but in good old-fashioned scripted TV.

Imagine that.

Then there were the numerous reality producers and agents I bumped into at NATPE, all of whom seemed decidedly upbeat. No, really—they appeared genuinely happy.

Yes, they’re feeling the crunch. Costs are being trimmed across the board, and everyone is being asked to do more with less.

“The expectation levels haven’t diminished,” Granada America President-CEO Paul Buccieri admitted during one NATPE panel. “(Networks) want the same production values, but they want the budgets to be less.”

The unscripted troops remained energized in Las Vegas, however. Either that, or they put on a very good front.

CEOs from the major international reality production companies excitedly outlined for me their business strategies. Producers flashed big grins when asked what twists they had in store for existing shows. Agents still insisted that their clients are poised to explode.

It all felt so 2003. It felt good.

So many decisions in the TV world are made by executives thinking not about what’s best for their networks or studios but rather what makes sense for their much larger, less TV-centric parent companies. That’s why we’re seeing layoffs and cutbacks at studios and networks that still generate millions in profits every year.

For me, the big takeaway from NATPE was that the TV industry remains a remarkable reservoir of creativity and innovation, particularly when it comes to people who aren’t held hostage by major studios and networks.

As difficult as the next year will surely be for this industry, I’m also convinced that tough times will breed opportunity—and maybe even a few big landscape-changing hits, like that “Good Times” revival Sony ought to be pursuing right about now.

Of course, it could be that I’ve been thinking too much about another TV theme song that was playing just before Mr. Newman and Ms. Walden took the stage:

“Sunny day
Sweepin’ the clouds away
On my way to where the air is sweet
Can you tell me how to get
How to get to Sesame Street“