Dialogue: Rick Feldman

NATPE's president and CEO discusses the market's move to digital

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It might have seemed that Rick Feldman stepped into a hornet's nest when he took over as president and CEO of the National Association of Television Program Executives in April 2003. That was right around the time when TV syndication as we know it was giving way to a very different buying, selling and distribution marketplace model. "It's all going digital!" has long been the battle cry, but as the technology sat in limbo, NATPE itself began to be perceived as something of an anachronism. Now it's nearly five years later, and not only is Feldman still standing but his annual conference has shown signs of keeping in step with the times and mattering again. And as technology changes the business, the NATPE chief boldly declared last November that this year's gathering would be "the first NATPE of the digital world." Earlier this month, Feldman spoke with The Hollywood Reporter's Ray Richmond about the changing face of his organization and how it's keeping pace with a rapidly evolving industry.

The Hollywood Reporter: What did you mean when you noted that this year's NATPE would be the first of the digital world?
Rick Feldman: It just seemed to me that 2007 was the year when digital really took hold in this country, where more homes than not were able to access digital video content. And that was being reflected in the changing business and a more focused landscape as it related to what we do. We are very much an association of global digital content manufacturers now. Next year, TV stations will be going from analog to digital, and within five years, it will lead to a whole new fertile business of developing content with that extra capacity for TV stations.

THR: What steps have you taken to make sure NATPE remains vital and necessary?
Feldman: I've really been focused on making this a business-to-business show that's far smaller, scaled down and more focused than it used to be. It makes sense given how the definition of syndication has broadened. It's not at all like it was 15 years ago, of course.

THR: What's changed?
Feldman: Well, before it was essentially a market of five or six companies selling product to TV stations. Now, the market is all video content, both domestically and internationally. Domestic syndication has retreated, obviously. But other ends of the business are developing and picking up the slack. That's how it always works in any business. What we represent is the mirror to where the business is going.

THR: How has the business that's beat a path to the NATPE conference changed on your watch?
Feldman: There's a lot more user-generated video content being pitched. The people who come to NATPE are more often now major manufacturers of professional content. People still network in dinners and at parties here, but it isn't like the wild partying of the old days. Those days are gone, and they should be gone. A lot of money was wasted back then. There was a lot of excess. Now, it's more about people coming here thinking about investing their money wisely.

THR: Is the world of syndication and content distribution all moving online? And how long do you think it will take before it's all there?
Feldman: To answer your question: Yes, it's all moving online. But it's important to note that predictions are just predictions. This year, $65 billion will be spent on broadcasting and cable content. But only $3 billion of that will be spent for online video. Sometimes adoption is slower than one would think. DVR is still in only 20% of American homes, high-def in less than 15%. These things lead me to believe that while there's definitely something going on, it may really be more an evolution than a revolution. It may take more time to play out than most people think. How many years it will take, I can't say. No one can.

THR: How is this year's conference being impacted by the writers strike?
Feldman: It's such a bad thing for the industry and impacting so many people. As our organization celebrates and honors TV content, to have both sides not even talking to each other is greatly upsetting. But it doesn't really impact us directly. We continue to be the only marketplace where people all over the world come together to buy and sell multiplatform video content. Regardless of the other changes that go on in this business, no matter what's said or not said, you still should be at NATPE. That hasn't changed.