NATPE is one of those conventions that while meritorious sometimes fails to draw as many people as it should. With the tough economy, this year was no different. Attendance was down 20-25%, according to pres/CEO Rick Feldman. That’s too bad because several sessions tore into some of the industry’s most daunting problems with unusual gusto and daring. The conundrum over how to fund new shows even as ad dollars continue to wane was among the hot topics, as was the ongoing debate over how to make money from new platforms like mobile and online video. Still, the core of NATPE remains its membership of in-the-trenches producers—the ones who spend every waking hour trying to come up with fresh show ideas and then figuring out ways research, fund, shoot, edit (and in some cases market) them—all without going overbudget. Many of these scrappy producers struggle to get meetings with the network gatekeepers who hold the potential key to their salvation (or at least a way to pay off their debts). And once they get meetings, it’s often a hurry-up-and-wait game of patience, patience, patience to get a show on the air.

As an observer at NATPE, it was amazing to see the passion and dedication of these folks. They aren’t afraid to ask for what they want or go for the gold, even at the risk of looking needy or foolish. For example, after a Tues’ session in which several audience “questioners” pitched themselves and their projects to Lionsgate chief Jon Feltheimer (he was polite if not amused), it was no surprise that several panels of cable net gatekeepers found themselves giving advice on how to get those feet in the door. A few themes: Going through an agent is a must for legal reasons, and be sure to truly understand the branding mission of the net being pitched. “Everything we do goes through a brand filter,” said JoAnn Alfano, evp, entertainment at Lifetime. Said Kate Juergens, evp, original series programming and development at ABC Family: “I love a spec script,” noting that it’s still the best way to gauge the vision of the show’s prospective creator and/or writer. Michael Wright, evp, head of programming for TNT, TBS, TCM and Turner Networks, said James Duff’s pitch for “The Closer” involved him actually acting out a scene as Kyra Sedgewick. For successful show pitchers, “the DNA of that central character of their show lives pretty well within them,” he said.

One especially interesting session involved the folks at CableReady/CableU, who gave 3 teams of producers the opportunity to pitch their projects as they would in a meeting—only in front of a room full of colleagues and press. And guess what? Every single pitch had its merits, each with different presentation styles and overarching themes. Whether pitching the next reality show concept or a one-off documentary, it’s a tough game. Everyone should admire the tenacity of these producers and show creators. They are the ones who dream the big dreams, and try to convince those who control the purse strings to help them turn their concepts into reality. Well, at least a TV-based reality.

The bottom line: For every Matthew Weiner strutting around Hollywood with a Midas touch, there are thousands of small fish desperately trying to get their feet in the door. So while the big cable network execs out there can’t meet with everyone (nor should they), it might be worth giving some of these smaller producers five minutes of your time every now and then. How about one day per month in which you set up 100 five-minute meetings with upstart producers? Agent or not, they’ll sign the “I won’t sue you for stealing my idea” waivers and do whatever they have to do for their moment in the pitching limelight. Who knows? They might have the next big idea that becomes your network’s flagship show. And you’ll be the executive who gets credit for giving them a few minutes of your time. Even those whose shows you don’t pick will love you for seeing them. And if any of them actually make it someday, do you think they’ll forget who took the time to meet with them when they were just starting out? This is the TV business, babe. It’s all about karma.

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