Reinventing NATPE

Illustration by Chris Morris

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At least three things won't be around at the National Association of Television Program Executives market and conference this year, and they're all signs of the times: Disney -- not exhibiting for the first time in years; CBS' hit "The Big Bang Theory" -- which, in the past, would have been launched into syndication by Warner Bros. at the event; and Oprah Winfrey, whose long-running show ends in 2011.

But make no mistake: all three of those players will be on the minds of the distributors and stations that do attend.

"(Oprah) will be talked about a lot," predicts Kevin Beggs, Lionsgate TV's president of programming and production, as well as the chairman of NATPE. "Any time there's a huge realignment, there is opportunity -- and that's what you have here. It's not just a show that was getting long in the tooth and decided to hang it up; it was by far the most popular in (daytime) syndication and talk for 20 years. That's opportunity."

Opportunity is one way to look at it. And if he's right, a little good news is welcome in the domestic syndication market, which has been shrinking for the past two decades. That shift has been reflected by NATPE (held this year at Mandalay Bay Resort in Las Vegas, Jan. 25-27), which has been forced to downsize as the number of independent American TV distributors and independently owned local TV stations has declined drastically. Today, TV production and distribution are dominated by just a half-dozen companies and a few large station groups that often control two or three outlets in the same market.

This translates into fewer people coming to NATPE each year. The 6,000 or so expected this week are down sharply from the early 1990s, when more than three times that would show up to buy programming on a busy exhibition floor and attend high-profile dinners and parties. Dinners and parties will still be held, but for a select number of buyers, and the trade show floor has shrunk to fit into the resort's ballroom rather than the larger convention space.

For the first time this year, most exhibitors will work from suites in the adjacent luxury lodging called the Hotel.

But some exhibitors love the suite life -- like Cleveland O'Neal, founder, president and CEO of Connection III Entertainment (syndicator of series like "Made in Hollywood" and a small library of movie and specials). Having a suite adjacent to larger distributors, he says, "levels the playing field."

He adds, "If we have a billion-dollar studio competitor right across the hall, and there is a GM from ABC, in whatever market, (who's) coming to see the larger studio, we can also set an appointment that same day or the next hour to showcase our product."

Others see downsides to being in a suite all day, particularly for less well-known companies. Gary Lico, president and CEO of CableReady (distributor of shows like "Inside the Actors Studio") and veteran of Columbia Pictures Television, says big guys like suites because, "They don't want every Tom, Dick and Harry with a programming idea to barge in."

The show floor, Lico says, has allowed him to meet a lot of new clients. "To ask them to walk down a hallway, knock on a door and come in to buy programming is unwelcome. If everyone is on the floor, it's a better opportunity for everyone."

Despite such opposition, the future of NATPE's event doesn't seem likely to include a significant trade show floor, especially given that it will move to a new base in Miami next year.

"We're changing to a model, going to Miami, where almost everybody is going to be in suites," notes NATPE executive director Rick Feldman, who's overseeing the event for the seventh time. "We still have a viable and lively floor, but the new people that come don't care about that. Spending money to build (a booth) is not as viable an idea as it used to be, and personally I just want people to come in whatever way makes sense for them."

Such is the new NATPE mantra: Do what works for you. The nonprofit that once was all about buyers and sellers has become service-oriented, shifting focus to networking opportunities and the importance of being part of the biggest annual convention for video content. Feldman wants attendees to see value in rubbing elbows with players in network, local, cable TV, advertising, research, tech, new media, mobile -- and more -- from around the world. Such an evolution requires new thinking in a number of areas.

That's why this year attendees will be offered the opportunity to shell out an extra $100 and receive mentoring for 90 minutes from an experienced executive of producer, or to pay a fee to the "NATPE Navigator" for introductions to industry insiders. Those who don't pay extra will still be able to listen to more than 200 speakers on hot-button topics as part of the standard admission fee.

"What we're really trying to do, now that we're smaller, is (capture) the people who pay a little extra for various things we offer, (to) see if we can advance their game," Feldman says.

Seven events back, when Feldman arrived, NATPE had suffered a near-mortal blow -- first from the decline in syndie distributors, then in the aftermath of Sept. 11 -- which put attendance in freefall. From 2003-07, Feldman says attendance actually recovered somewhat, rising 27%; but then, with the global economic recession, the bottom dropped out again. During the past two years, attendance has fallen 15%; going into 2010, the outlook remains cloudy.

"At a certain point in time, if people feel there is no need to get together under the conditions and terms we have all agreed on, NATPE will go away," Feldman says. "But as long as there is a U.S. professional-video-content business, as long as NATPE can morph and change and reflect the business as it is happening, I'm going to keep fighting the good fight."

So far, it's working: Feldman appears to have stabilized the situation for now, in part by underscoring the "conference" element. While most attendees still come for the commerce, the networking and a strong program of panels have become a strong draw.

"I send my crew to relevant panels," says John Bryan, MGM's executive vp program strategy. "With the technology boom right now, you need to stay well informed. So do we go to sell? Yes, but it's also interesting to go out there and listen to everything else that is going on."

This year, technology is slated to be a major topic and is perceived by the organization as a growth area; to that end, NATPE will present the inaugural Digital Luminary Awards, honoring new media, video game, Web and mobile companies.

But not everyone is on board with the changes. Janice Marinelli, president of Disney-ABC Domestic Television, declined to say why her company won't be exhibiting, but other insiders suggest it's that Disney doesn't have anything new to sell in first-run or off-net markets. The same suggestion appears to be behind Sony Pictures Entertainment's absence for the past few years, though a handful of suits from each company still attend.

Majors like Warner Bros. are adjusting their sails -- and sales -- when it comes to NATPE. The company has downsized its presence in recent years and taken suites for meetings and screenings, but it is waiting until later this year to make a major sales push on "Big Bang Theory," which is up for syndication in 2011. Previously, NATPE would have been the natural place to launch "Theory," but Ken Werner, president of Warner Bros. Domestic Television, notes that later this year the economy might improve, and an influx of new money from retransmission consent deals may boost TV stations, which have felt the pinch from a sharp drop in local advertising.

"We are hopeful that the economics of the television station marketplace have stabilized," he says. "We're hearing that station revenue is up, so when stations start looking at how they will spend money in 2011, 2012 and beyond, we hope they feel comfortable about the returns an investment in 'The Big Bang Theory' is sure to produce."

The economy has also affected the way stations buy programming. For months, they have refused to make purchases except on a barter basis, which meant they could avoid laying out cash. While some deals have been done, it has slowed the rollout of new shows -- another reason there will be so little fresh meat at NATPE this year.

"The recession affected a lot of people, and there is certainly more prevalence of all-barter deals," says Mort Marcus, co-president of Debmar-Mercury. "It's a short-term fix, but when the stations are under pressure not to spend, that is what they do."

For now.

There are signs, however, that the outlook is improving. Some recent pre-NATPE deals, like Fox's renewal of "Family Guy," came at lower rates but did include some cash with the barter. Such news has Debmar-Mercury, which distributes such shows as Tyler Perry's "House of Payne," "The Wendy Williams Show" and movies from parent Lionsgate, investing in the future. Debmar will launch new content on Comedy Central and TBS this year, which will be syndicated within two years -- when they expect the market will have improved.

Meanwhile, there is no time to wait for those in the scramble for Oprah's air space. The Queen of Syndie's abdication has, in its own way, given the business a slight rejuvenation.

"Shows that are successful will get the most benefit out of Oprah's move," says Ira Bernstein, Marcus' co-president at Debmar-Mercury. "The biggest show in syndication is gone, so there's going to be a little bit of musical-chair movement. We think most shows will benefit from that."
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