Shopping In Syndication Hell

Look, it's George Hamilton hugging Robin Leach. And David Hasselhoff, with some new "Baywatch" babe. Is that Lauren Hutton over there beside Hulk Hogan? Hey, Fabio's signing glossies of his pecs for any woman who wants them: Halloo, what ees de nahm? If your idea of heaven/hell is a convention center in Las Vegas filled with fringe celebrities and surgically altered has-beens, then the National Association of Television Program Executives' annual shmoozefest is that place. This is where the producers of cheesy syndicated programming meet the local TV-station people who buy it. With a record 15,000 TV execs at last week's confab, NATPE has swelled into an international event encompassing broadcast TV, cable, satellite, interactive. Even so, it's still, as New Line Television VP Laura Gerson describes the scene, "like being stuck for a week in an airport lounge."

It's also like being stuck on the "Ricki Lake" show. The plump young success story of trash talk has spawned half-a-dozen clones on sale here for next season. Warner Brothers' Carnie Wilson show, "Carnie," is at the top of the list, having been sold to stations covering 70 percent of the country. The plump Beach Boy offspring whose bubble-gum band, Wilson Philips, enjoyed fleeting MTV fame has no credentials for hosting a talk show other than looking like Ricki Lake. Newcomer Charles Perez was once a producer on "Ricki," so he's certainly qualified to rip off her teen and twentysomething audience. Mark Walberg (from ESPN, not the Calvin Klein brief jockey) used to warm up studio audiences for talk shows, though not Ricki's. He's dreamt about this job since he was 14. "I wanted to be Phil Donahue!" he exudes. Ex-"Cosby" kid Tempestt Bledsoe and "Beverly Hills, 90210" brain Gabrielle Carteris are icons of the "Ricki" generation and so they, too, have been given talk shows. Hosting or interviewing experience is irrelevant. What counts is being under 30, or having an equivalent mental age. (Walberg is 32, Carter is 34.) "Intelligence is not a requirement," says Richard Swanson, marketing and programming director for San Francisco's KRON. Even Danny Bonaduce -- the "Partridge Family" tyke whose grown-up substance abuse and criminal antics made him the ultimate talk-show guest for years -- is now a host. His act cleaned up, Bonaduce has a radio show in Chicago and is primed for daytime TV. "If we ever run into trouble getting guests," he says, holding court in the enormous Disney booth, "I can always book myself."

Imitation is the sincerest form of television, as Robin Leach is the first to admit: "The tragedy of this business is that it's a copycat business." He should know. Mr. "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" is copying himself with "Lifestyles With Robin Leach and Shari Belafonte." George Hamilton and his ex-wife Alana Stewart are busy replicating "Regis & Kathie Lee" with "George & Alana," a vehicle Hamilton hopes will let viewers appreciate the man behind the tan. "I'm funny! I'm light! I'm vulnerable!" he says, his monkey-themed Hermes tie advertising the newly wacky George. For her part, Alana pledges to mock her ex's penchant for women whose age and IQ are "in the low two-digits." Meanwhile, "Baywatch" is spinning off a dubious concept called "Baywatch Nights." On this nocturnal variation of the world's most popular TV show, star David Hasselhoff says he'll be making "emotional rescues" instead of the lifeguard kind. The other feverishly imitated genres are crime verite -- like "Cops" copycat "LAPD," fronted by "Adam 12" cop Kent McCord -- and tabloids. "Hard Copy's" new competition is "Detour" and the marginally more upscale "Day & Date." Both pale next to "Death Row: True Stories," fronted by "Adam 12" cop Martin Milner, which includes reenactments of executions. "It's entertaining but also intelligent," says producer Paul Sirmons, standing inside a mock jail-cell booth decorated with a replica of "Ole Sparky," Florida's electric chair.

Not all these shows will make it, thank God, but their sheer volume is a sign of where the heat is in the TV biz. Network bosses like NBC's Warren Littlefield and Howard Stringer of CBS could be seen pressing flesh, but they aren't the major players of the 488 companies represented here. NATPE is a freak show compared to the genteel ceremonies where the old-line nets unveil their programming to advertisers. And the two new networks launched this month, UPN and WB, were devised purely as outlets for syndicated programming. "If the gladiators were the center of Roman civilization, this is the center of ours," says Twentieth Television president and COO Greg Meidel, who is making a killing on "Simpsons" reruns. No wonder NATPE set up shop across the street from Caesars Palace. Mingle long enough among the convention floor's steroidal wrestlers, Animatronic aliens, porn queens and cheap suits, and the whole TV industry starts to look like a microcosm of Vegas itself. A garish spectacle where no concept is too low and where the cheesiest airport lounge acts can always get their own show.