NATPE attendees focused on content, relationships

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Having struggled since the dawn of the millennium to find its niche during a time of transition in the television industry, the National Association of Television Program Executives appears to have finally bridged the shaky gap between past and future to become the organization that its president and CEO, Rick Feldman, foresaw when he took the reigns in April 2003. And as the 2008 NATPE Conference & Exhibition kicks off Monday in Las Vegas, there exists the hope that the new digital age has -- really and truly -- arrived.

It was back in November when Feldman dubbed next week's show "the first NATPE of the digital world." The truth is that it's arriving not a moment too soon to rescue a once-colossal annual event that had withered as the domestic syndication market began to dry up. There is no longer a market for off-network comedies at stations o'er the land. And as the business has grown far more international in scope by necessity, digital platforms and the online world started to take center stage.

"It really used to be tons of parties and food and gifts because it was really a sales convention," recalls Mark Itkin, executive vp and worldwide co-head of television for the William Morris Agency, who will be attending his 25th NATPE next week.

"Just in the nine years I've been attending, things have changed a lot," adds Roma Khanna, president of global networks and digital initiatives for NBC Universal International. "The focus is more on talking business and the expanding global marketplace. When I got to my first NATPE, it was very domestic-U.S.-focused and full of glitz and glamour -- including stars and white tigers!"

Most of the stars and all of the tigers are gone. But the feeling that NATPE matters has returned.

"We've had to change as the business has changed," Feldman acknowledges. "The conference is far more scaled down and focused from what it was not so long ago. You still have the dinners and the cocktail parties, but it's more centered on networking and getting the job done now. To have this many people in the same place talking the same language is still a very valuable thing."

One of the things that's no longer the same at NATPE is the game of selling itself. Because sales of shows aren't made to individual station general managers but to the heads of station groups, the "family aspect has somewhat been lost," believes one high-ranking TV industry exec.

How has that served to change NATPE? It means the seller comes to the conference less with the idea of making a killing in lining up interest than simply looking to spread around the buzz.

"That doesn't mean that you don't bring along a show you're hoping will be a breakout," Itkin notes. "A few years ago, Paramount knew what it had in 'Dr. Phil' and was looking to really give it a major push." The same was perhaps true a year ago with the impending launch of "TMZ" by Warner Bros. Domestic TV Distribution.

"NATPE is really all just about content now, not just mostly but completely," finds Emerson Coleman, vp programming for Hearst-Argyle Television. "It's the singular focus. But there was a time when we went to the conference and really focused on the present. We had to have a show for a specific time and market. Now, we look much farther down the road into the future. We're looking to lay the groundwork to sell something as a strip for 2009."

If Coleman and his station group have expectations and an agenda for next week, it would be the opportunity to assemble key managers from his company in the same location to discuss advancing their growth and development -- as well as to be fully versed in all of the current regulatory issues and the 2009 transition to digital from analog.

"It's a chance to take a deep breath and focus our gaze on the future," Coleman maintains. "We have a pretty good idea of what's going down in the 2008-09 season, but beyond that is still forming. The keys to that are the kind of networking, partnerships and relationships that a NATPE helps to foster."

But Gary Lico, president and CEO of CableReady, says he's always seen NATPE as a networking opportunity.

"To my mind, NATPE has really never been about peddling or picking up individual shows but the contacts you make," he explains. "So much of my success, both personally and as a company, can be traced directly to the people I've met there over the years. But it's far easier now to meet the people you really need to meet because things are so consolidated. You can have the top 50 markets nailed down in three meetings."

But is NATPE still the place to launch a new program?

"Not necessarily," Lico admits. "But you still always have to be there if you want to be in the loop."

The international aspect of NATPE -- once nearly an afterthought -- is now a central focus of the conference. If you aren't thinking globally, then you probably aren't thinking about making money, figures Paul Buccieri, president and CEO of Granada America (the U.S. production arm of British-based ITV).

"International is where the real opportunity is now," Buccieri
stresses. "The global companies are the ones who have really taken over the floor. So much of the business on the domestic first-run side with the majors is conducted before anyone ever gets to the conference, and what isn't happens in the hotel suites. But the real value of NATPE for me now is the chance to see people I work with from overseas."

In Khanna's experience, the presence of all of the international markets in one place "allows you in one trip to get a lot done. The people who come a long way to get there are more often interested in talking business than those who haven't -- though not always, obviously. I'm able to talk shop and make content deals, too. The fact that it takes place after CES means I come to NATPE with a lot of new ideas that I want to discuss with global partners."

Then there is Doug Ross, founder and president of the full-service production company Evolution Media, whose current roster includes the reality show "The Real Housewives of Orange County."

"We're committed to meeting with a slew of buyers in rapid succession," he says. "No one is into hearing full-on big pitches. It's just, lay out what you have to say and move on. But it's valuable for us in that we're able to gauge what people are looking for and change our development strategy accordingly. That's what NAPTE is about. We assess which way the wind is blowing, place our finger on the pulse and mood, and deliver."

The over-the-top cocktail parties and presence of exotic animals will simply have to wait for another day.
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