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NATPE 2010: The Real-Life ‘Hangover’

Memories of the good old days, when NATPE wasn’t about the hype or the deal, but the community

I didn’t have to see “The Hangover.” I lived it.

For 20 years, I attended NATPE, officially the TV industry’s biggest program sales convention. In reality, it’s what occurred when outlandish sales goals, corporate credit cards, massive levels of testosterone, mountains of surgically enhanced breasts and the hearty welcome of New Orleans and Las Vegas spontaneously combusted. 

NATPE just ended in Vegas — although it was a shadow of its former self. It was Woodstock 2009 vs 1969. Attendance was down, companies’ presence was subdued. Booths once the size of two-bedroom condos shrunk while some syndicators vacated the convention floor for hotel suites.

It’s certainly the economy, which has cut budgets, attendee lists and station buyers’ pocketbooks. It’s also because the program sales business has, for all intents and purposes, vanished. 

Sure, a few shows still roll out each year. But the number of syndicators has dropped from dozens to a handful and the survivors are mainly network-owned, mandated to develop for their own stations’ needs. Show concepts receiving lukewarm reception are killed off earlier in the season and deals now need to be done long before the convention.

That’s not exactly true. For years, many deals were closed pre-NATPE and held back to reveal during the show. No one really believed the spontaneity — the media must’ve wondered why last-minute announcements included so much detail — but the posturing was part of the showmanship.

The real NATPE wasn’t about the hype or the deal, but the community. It’s where next generations got first-hand training in the industry’s think-on-your-feet, deliver-the-impossible philosophy. NATPE taught me lifelong skills and knowledge. Tomorrow, I could probably step in to lead the First Army into battle without breaking a sweat. My ability to toss out crashers is an art form. 

And I know to always keep a wad of $20s in my wallet in case the sales staff feels like lap dances.

Careers were made and lost at NATPE. Salespeople who didn’t meet targets were job-hunting by March. One December, a TV company’s brand new head of PR approached me with a job opportunity; eight weeks later, her boss offered it because she was gone –fired over a less than stellar performance during those three days.

It was a place to say goodbye. One NATPE, a beloved sales executive who’d been MIA for months due to a virulent cancer showed up unexpectedly and worked the entire floor. He was clearly ill but still had that salesman’s bravado; to each friend, he’d bellow “Things are great!” as if he was describing show renewals. We all kept up the façade but those hugs were tighter than usual, held a little longer and we’d turn our heads away, just for a moment. He was gone within the year.

Most of all, NATPE isn’t NATPE because the lawyers and HR folks woke up. It’s become the new Britney Spears: same look but subdued, politically correct and wearing a seat belt.

Gone are the Original Butt Sketch® artists. The female mud wrestling. The hot and cold running bartenders. NATPE offered cocktails from one end of the floor to the other, with an inverse proportion between the people who did the most drinking and their relevance there. For no reason, actor Chris Cooper and a collection of hangers-on once wandered into our booth, planted themselves in our most central seating area and proceeded to repeatedly enjoy our buffet and booze.  Before we diplomatically tossed them out.

During his first NATPE visit, Disney’s Jeffrey Katzenberg was reportedly appalled by all the liquor and strong-armed his executives to reluctantly drive a convention-wide ban for the following year. It was honored officially at least: every booth, including Disney’s, had a bartender in the back workspace. Prohibition was repealed soon after.

There were arrests – the combination of corporate Amexs, raging adrenaline and willing towns. One studio’s management team famously got busted for breaking the rules at a gentlemen’s club. Another senior executive didn’t show up one morning but was located later in the drunk tank, sporting a black eye. There were near-arrests, near-fistfights, countless shoving and shouting matches and crazy drunks with very important 9-5 jobs. I also learned to always keep the business cards of local cop contacts willing to assist after-hours.

What’s most interesting about those situations is that I can’t recall any causing someone to lose a job. It was almost a badge of honor.

There was sex, of course. Lots of it, and in the least likely places. A sales manager friend whose territories were mainly small-market stations once hosted the standard fancy NATPE client dinner and, last minute, had to double her table size … because her Bible Belt station manager guests had each shown up with a hooker date.

Every old regular has tales, some of which they might be willing to admit. At one particularly boring NATPE in Vegas, I considered marrying an infatuated client on the last night of the show. A famous TV personality pal already scheduled to make a NATPE appearance flew in with a maid of honor dress, dying to stand up with me, and one of the trades offered page one for the exclusive story and photos. I called it off only when I realized the client was sweet but dull and I couldn’t locate an Elvis impersonator rabbi.   

Next year, NATPE moves to Miami under a lengthy new contract. Its last time there in 1994, the city was rundown and we were just a week past the Northridge quake. Every time the hotels’ ancient air conditioning kicked in, we Angelenos nearly dove under tables.

Miami’s spruced-up surroundings are a better fit for NATPE’s reinvention. It’s as if some wild drunken guy faced mortality, got sober and dumped the equally-outrageous first wife for a new life with someone younger, simpler and lacking knowledge of his past baggage. Which, come to think of it, describes quite a few TV executives too.

Sundance might be more cerebral, MIP might have better espresso but NATPE – the old NATPE, that is, bursting with hookers and hustlers – was unequivocally the most fun. Go ask anyone who was there in the glory days. But keep in mind: just like Woodstock, the ones lived through it probably don’t remember much.

Flackback will explore the art and artifice of entertainment PR.  The author has 25 years' corporate experience and has finessed everything from a celebrity's drunken surprise marriage to his best friend's 16-year-old daughter to a 20-minute advance warning that her company's president was being fired. And she sees little difference between these scenarios.  She's chosen candor over a byline.