On the Air: The latest news from the TV beat

Roseanne Barr a gracious host? Pamela Lee trying to make a TV splash sans Speedo? Whoopi Goldberg the new Paul Lynde? These are just a few of the many strange-but-true scenarios coming out of this year’s NATPE convention. If you’re not familiar with it, NATPE stands for the National Association of Television Program Executives, and its annual event, held this year in New Orleans, draws every suit in the TV business (the organizers estimate attendance at a little more than 17,000 people). It’s where the studios try to get the nation’s TV stations to stock up for next fall with their first-run syndicated programming (such as Baywatch, Xena: Warrior Princess, and Judge Judy) as well as recycled network fare — Columbia TriStar TV, for example, which made more than $3 million per episode on average the last time it sold Seinfeld reruns, is now apparently asking for even more. That’s a lot for nothing.

But NATPE is more than just a glorified flea market. After all, where else would Roseanne be asked to give the keynote address? Where else could you see an onslaught of overweight TV execs standing in line for hours just to get a picture taken with Pamela Lee (as husband Tommy glares in the background)? Meanwhile, reporters from all over the country are racing to confirm which big star had agreed to occupy the vaulted center cubicle in King World Productions’ new version of the classic game show Hollywood Squares. One rumor had Billy Crystal passing up $9 million per year for the hot seat; Seinfeld‘s Jason Alexander reportedly nixed a $3 million offer. King World finally settled on Whoopi Goldberg and made the announcement at a massive Superdome party at which Elton John performed.

Ultimately, NATPE is one big game of craps for local TV stations, which hope to land another Rosie or Oprah but run the risk of getting stuck with the next Carnie (Wilson) or Tempestt (Bledsoe).

Who are the best bets this year? Among the talk shows, King World’s Roseanne and Columbia’s Donny and Marie (yes, that Donny and Marie) are given better-than-average odds to succeed. Petry Television, a consulting firm that gives out programming advice to TV stations, says that on a scale of 1-10 (10 being the greatest chance of success), the Osmonds rate a 5.5, Roseanne a 6.5. Although its temperamental star does make the show a risk, Roseanne “could be the most rewarding,” says Petry TV vice president Jack Fentress.