TELEVISION executives peered into ``the tube'' for a couple of days here last month and didn't like what they saw. Both artistically and commercially, the immediate future for syndicated TV - shows sold individually to stations - looks pretty grim, and even the industry's professional optimists agreed that some essential ingredients were missing. If there was any trend for the coming syndication season, it was the proliferation of talk shows, explained not so much by any newly discovered American curiosity about people and events, but rather by the fact that talk comes comparatively cheap.
The need for production economy, along with a tangible fear of taking risks in an uncertain market, dominated every aspect of the producers' presentations.
The occasion to assess the television market was the National Association of Television Program Executives (NATPE) International, the place where station managers come to survey the shows - old and new - being offered by the syndication companies, and to meet with the key agents who sell time on the stations and who advise them on what programs to buy.
This year, standing out among the 7,584 people attending, were an unprecedented number of dollar-rich foreign buyers from Europe, Latin America, and the Far East. They were just about the only ones to leave the NATPE convention smiling.
Of course, the market, held at the huge New Orleans Convention Center here, suffered considerably from the outbreak of the Gulf war.
Buyers and sellers alike found it difficult to concentrate on the business at hand, and many could be seen congregating in front of the huge screens set up on the convention floor to follow the dramatic CNN coverage.
But even that distraction didn't hide participants' complaints about the lack of quality, the producers' timidity in choosing themes, and their inability to find what the audience really wants.
Mike Levinton, vice president and director of programming for Blair Television, says ``what I'm concerned about is that we may all miss the ratings boat for the second year in a row. A second year of bland program offerings will be like a kiss of death for the syndication industry.''
HENRY SCHLEIFF, chairman of Viacom, one of the most powerful of the producer/syndicators, called NATPE a ``bizarre bazaar'' and blamed some of the industry's problems on the stations' tendency to discontinue shows the minute they don't pull their weight in the ratings race.
``The networks are changing their schedules every couple of weeks,'' he says. ``People have loyalties. They get used to tuning into a given program on a given day at a given time. Now we are frustrating them.
``Audiences find it more and more difficult to find the shows they want to find.''
Mr. Schleiff, considered one of the most thoughtful executives in the industry, says producers find it increasingly difficult to anticipate audience tastes. ``No one knows these days what will or will not work. Certainly, the audience seems addicted to shows that have been on a long time. In part that explains why there has been such a drop in new programs coming on the air.''
Frank Mancuso, chairman and chief executive of Paramount Pictures struck a similar note.
``The audience is tougher to get and tougher to keep,'' he says, noting also that leisure time is becoming more precious. ``The era of the couch potato is over.'' The audiences ``are looking for more bang for their buck.''
``I didn't see a single exciting new idea,'' complained Larry Cazavan, the manager of the WATE station in Knoxville. ``My audience will just stick to its old favorites like `The Cosby Show.'''
Partly because Arsenio Hall, Donahue, Oprah, and the rest have endeared themselves to their audiences, and partly because talk shows are relatively inexpensive to produce, new chit-chat hours will flood the air this coming fall.
The companies say that talk shows will replace the game shows as audience favorites - game programs having largely lost their appeal. ``Jeopardy'' and ``Wheel of Fortune,'' however, continue to attract large audiences.
Among the new talk show hosts are Ron Reagan in a late-night slot, Bill Sternoff and Janet Zappala, Maury Povich, Jenny Jones, David Hartman of ``Good Morning America'' fame, and a Chicago disc jockey, Jonathan Brandmeier, whom Viacom's Schleiff rates highly in terms of his conversational elegance.
Though wavering in the ratings, Jesse Jackson and his show will continue, as will comedienne Joan Rivers's talk program. Audiences will also be introduced to a glamorous young lady called Nia Peeples who'll be the centerpiece of a show called ``The Party Machine'' from Paramount.
WALKING around the floor of the NATPE convention, with its myriad of neon lights and modern displays, program excerpts blaring from hundreds of television sets, eye-catching displays (Disney used a huge 8' x 10' television screen and the British imported one of those red London bus), and odd assortment of shows (there's a new one called ``The Soap Show'' which previews the new soaps and interviews its stars) left this visitor overwhelmed and slightly depressed.
The emphasis on the need for ``quality'' begins to ring hollow when one is faced with ``an exciting new show'' called ``Grudge Match.''
``Imagine,'' says the press agent, ``if you have a grudge against someone, you invite him into the area and you can have it out with oversize boxing gloves, wet spagetti, or whipped cream pie.
``They'll love it!''