NATPE: As Syndie Product Pipeline Goes Dry, Stations Do It Themselves
The lack of new shows and stars has led to a re-invention of NATPE and big changes in the local TV, cable and syndication businesses.
Scott Sternberg’s producing credits include The New Hollywood Squares and The Gong Show, so he has frequently had reason to attend NATPE/Content First over the years.
Although he is a NATPE board member, Sternberg wasn’t able to be in Miami Beach this year and his absence says much about what is going on in this corner of television.
Sternberg is on location shooting the second season of his home renovation series Fix It & Finish It. He also produces such shows as The Shatner Project for DIY and On The Case with Paula Zahn for the Discovery ID channel.
Fix It & Finish Itis a daily show done on a modest budget for the Raycom station group, produced by Bellum Entertainment Group.
Sternberg did 150 shows in the first season and now is working off a new two year order for 300 more – 60 one week strips. That’s even more impressive than the 90-10 deal for Anger Management, although budgets are quite different.
“They’re very cost effective,” says Sternberg. “We’ve kept the number down to where we have to have it,”
In each market the show does promotions – furniture, windows, raw materials, paint and more - with local businesses and contractors that helps shave the cost even more. “Stations like it,” says Sternberg, “because the vendors in the market get some nice feedback and response. That’s a big part of it.”
These shows take up shelf space on stations and leave no room for more costly syndicated fare. That is why even big players like Tribune have jumped into productions and co-productions.
“Station groups are reaching out for programming,” says Sternberg, “because in the last few seasons, with the Probst’s, Ricki’s and the Katie’s, and other shows that haven’t done as well as expected, they’ve been paying cash license fees, doing cash barter deals, just to see those projects not succeed.
“So now the Raycom’s and Gannett’s and Sinclairs and others,” adds Sternberg, “are saying we can go ahead and develop our own product.”
Years ago NATPE was like a circus filled with stars, parties, events and promotions for syndicated shows; but the market has changed with industry consolidation.
In recent years NATPE big name guests promotion syndicated shows - Katie Couric, Meredith Vieira and most memorably Charlie Sheen who held court at a party around the pool of the Fontainebleau Hotel’s nightclub.
Not this year. The only notables on hand were there to do panels or make presentations, A few like Donald Sutherland were on hand with special product to sell, and Eva Longoria appeared on a panel where it was noted she has sold eight shows in the past few months and is now as much a producer as an actress.
“The market has changed,” says Sternberg. “There’s less and less product getting the green light and many more renewals so there is no room for new product. There are not that many shows being launched at NATPE and not many stars coming to support shows that are about to premiere.”
The highest profile new syndicated show scheduled for this fall is The FAB, starring Tyra Banks, a lifestyle/talk show from Disney. Even though it is still selling some markets, Banks did not appear at NATPE to promote her return to local stations.
The shortage of viable high profile new shows means some existing syndicated programs can move up to better stations in each TV market, improving their visibility, ratings and ad value.
So when Queen Latifah was cancelled by Sony Pictures Television, it was not a new show that got the valuable slots on the CBS stations in the major markets; but a surprise performer entering its sophomore season – Hot Bench.
Of the shows that launched last year Hot Bench is arguably the hottest. It is a sister shows to Judge Judy under the CBS Television Distribution banner and has proven its appeal in its very first season, often on lower visibility stations. Now it is getting an upgrade beginning March 30 in New York, Los Angeles, Denver, Chicago and other markets into the time slots that Queen Latifah is vacating.
“Queen Latifah, who I admire,,” says Randy Douthit, who executive produces Hot Bench along with CBS Television Distribution, Maureen Fitzpatrick and show creator Judy Sheindlin, “didn’t give them what they needed. This is a show that possibly could give them the number that would help their stations just like Judy gives their stations a great news lead-in.”
Douthit worked in local news, at CNN and ABC, before joining Judge Judy and now Hot Bench. He says court shows have natural built in drama and are very cost effective. He estimates each episode of Hot Bench costs less than a quarter of what an episode of the ill-fated Katie Couric talk show cost.
“One of the things about a court show is it doesn’t cost a lot ,” says Douthit, “yet its still entertains and it’s a good story telling vehicle with a beginning, middle and end. If you’ve got likable talent you can very well have a winning show.”
The gimmick on Hot Bench is that the three judges take the viewer inside the deliberations, “You get to see inside the mind of a judge,” says Douthit, “and see what they’re thinking. That’s the really big difference from other court shows.”
The lack of shows and showmanship – most syndication is sold before the market even begins by the handful of dominant players – has forced NATPE to re-invent itself as a market for all kinds of television and video and digital content, not just in the U.S. but worldwide. This year it added reality to sessions on network, syndication, digital, advertising, branding and international TV.
Young viewers have turned to games and gone mobile; making the available audience even smaller as the number of players grows on the air and online. One studio brought more sales people for domestic and international satellite this year than for worldwide syndication sales.
For the first time in years NATPE isn’t on the same dates as Real Screen, the non-fiction conference that takes place next week in Washington, D.C. that is why this year there was a big push into reality TV, which has been the domain of Real Screen.
“At no point is this a syndication convention like it was up until say ten years ago,” says Rod Perth, CEO of NATPE and a veteran TV and station executive. “There’s been a gradual decline, so we’ve adapted and now we’re thriving.”
“We are sitting on a really compelling, interesting, relevant event,” adds Perth, “that crosses over just about every sector of the business.”
CORRECTION Jan. 24 7:30 a.m. the names of other executive producers was added; the spelling of Randy Doughit's name was corrected in one place.