NATPE Comes to a Close: Change is Everywhere (Analysis)

"Arrested Development"
Christopher Polk/Getty Images

Cocktails with Charlie Sheen to promote his new syndicated series are what's hot at NATPE Jan. 23.

Big Hollywood companies and glitz were back, but now they stand alongside the growing digital contingent and lots of international buyers and sellers.

Miami Beach — For many of its 49 years, the National Association of Television Program Executives (NATPE) market, convention and conference was primarily an after-market where American-made TV shows that already had played in the domestic market were resold to foreign broadcasters.

There were some first-run shows sold to U.S. TV stations that would play in fringe time slots outside primetime, but for the most part the point was to wring the last drop of revenue out of existing and older shows, making NATPE a kind of flea market for used TV programming.

The lesson of this year’s NATPE, which wrapped Wednesday after a vibrant three-day run, is that the event has changed because the business and the world have changed. More than 5,000 buyers, sellers, advertisers, financiers and media from around the globe (an increase of about 10 percent from last year) converged to not only buy for broadcast but also for the expanding digital realm. And in many cases the buying and selling was secondary to the networking, meeting, conferencing and exchange of information and ideas.

PHOTOS: Midseason TV Preview: 17 New Shows Premiering in 2012

“The business has become much more complex, but it’s also created much more opportunity,” says Jordan Levin, CEO of management/production/new media company Generate and co-chairman of the NATPE board of directors. “Where in the past NATPE serviced an emerging business which was off-network syndication — a linear relationship between sellers, buyers, studios and TV stations — now the number of producers and content producers has proliferated. The number of buyers has proliferated.  Where in the past the TV business internationally was almost exclusively driven by product from the U.S., the proliferation of channels both here and abroad has turned the television business into a global marketplace.”

“Right now there is a very strong Americas-centric orientation between the Latin American, the U.S. and the Canadian business,” adds Levin, former head of The WB network, “but there is a growing and very  healthy delegation of buyers and producers from Asia, from Australia, from Europe and elsewhere which continues to grow. There are definitely more of all of them at NATPE this year.”

“There’s been much more of a focus on international and digital programming,” says Deana Myers, senior analyst, media and communications for SNL Kagan. “I think people are excited about that and the prospects for what they can get out of that, more so than in past years when the focus was mostly on domestic sales.”

What this digital dimension also means is that TV and film content that might have had a certain shelf life in the past now has new life in these emerging markets.

“Everyone seems to be going after those digital rights, trying to figure out ways to make money in that area,” adds Myers. “It seems everyone is out doing it versus a couple years ago when everyone was  scared of online and digital. Now they see it as added revenue."

The result, she says, is that new windows of opportunity have opened up, such as from streaming companies like Netflix and Amazon Prime. “You have long-tail buying,” says Myers, “so you can keep going for a long time if you have the content people want to watch. That is a new idea. It has also opened the way for all this niche genre programming that you can put out there that before would never have worked but can work in an environment where people can find it in a digital atmosphere versus a linear world.”

Cynthia Corzo, editor of the Miami-based Hispanic Market Weekly, says that is the case not just with U.S. content but also with the growing amount of programming being generated worldwide. One of the reasons NATPE moved to South Florida was to attract Spanish-language buyers and sellers and it has worked. NATPE president Rick Feldman estimates one-third of the attendees now come from outside the U.S.

“I’ve seen a lot more activity from Spanish-language media,” says Corzo, "and not just from big companies like Telemundo and Univision, but also from content producers at this conference. There is a big presence from Colombia, Argentina and elsewhere. I am hearing from network executives that the content being presented is pretty spectacular and more targeted.”

It’s quite a turnaround from only a few years ago when there were serious questions about whether NATPE was even necessary anymore. Beginning in the mid-1990s (after the repeal of fin/syn, which had kept networks from owning the shows they aired), the number of American TV content distributors dwindled from hundreds to a handful who could more efficiently do their business in direct meetings with an ever more consolidated group of local TV station groups. By the mid-2000s, the half dozen dominant studio providers of programs could fit into one hotel room with the handful of big TV group owners.

That’s when a group of media veterans, led by Feldman, a former local TV station manager himself, set out to reinvent NATPE. At first the effort was just to open it up for the global market, where there was a lot more growth in private TV and cable outlets than in the U.S. Then it morphed again to encompass the Internet and digital producers and distributors, and to attract all the stakeholders in the new-media revolution. Now it has been permanently transformed into a content market and conference, where TV shows, movies and other video products search for multiplatform and multinational opportunities.

Last year a key element in the transformation was the controversial decision to move NATPE from Las Vegas, where it had taken place for years, to Miami Beach, where it would be a shorter flight away for Europeans and right in the heart of the Latin American sphere of influence. There were grumbles from those coming from Los Angeles, who now faced a longer flight, and there were also first-year logistical problems like long waits for elevators. This year the suites used by big companies were more spread out (the wait in one tower fell from an hour to about 15 minutes during busy times, which still resulted in some grumbles).

But Hollywood had a bigger, bolder, more visible presence than it has had in years. There were more first-run shows being sold and promoted to local TV stations, which have mostly recovered from the recession and are healthier than they have been in years.

“I actually felt this was a little bit of a resurgence for NATPE, frankly,” says Jim Packer, Lionsgate’s president of worldwide television and digital distribution. “The crowds were here. They were here to do business. They were here to meet with people, which from the business side made me happy. We concluded a bunch of deals here, which I didn’t expect to do.”

PHOTOS: Charlie Sheen's Colorful Career

Some of those were deals for Anger Management, a show that isn’t even in production yet, starring Charlie Sheen. Packer got commitments for the full 100 episodes that are planned for Latin America and has multiple offers from major European markets, even though there is no assurance the full number will be produced. That will depend on what happens went the first 10 air this summer on the FX Network.

“I’m selling the hundred,” says Packer. “If you’re buying Anger Management, you aren’t getting an option [to opt out after 10] in any international territory. I’ve already closed a number of deals. People are coming in sight unseen and buying the hundred.”

Packer was also selling Boss, thanks to its recent Golden Globe win, and finding a lot of enthusiasm for Hunger Games, which will soon be out as a theatrical release and will eventually be sold for international TV.

“I also enjoyed a little bit of the fun,” adds Packer, who worked previously at several other studios including MGM. “You think about NATPE and it was one of the things that went on for many years. The fun had left NATPE. There used to be lavish parties, things at night. It got a little showbizzy. This year some of that was back.”

It’s not just big companies feeling the difference. Paul Bales, COO of L.A.-based producer and distributor The Asylum, was on the expanded exhibition floor at NATPE, selling shows like the upcoming family movie A Golden Winter, about orphan puppies who save Christmas, as well as Asylum's library of cable movies like MegaShark vs. Giant Octopus, one of more than 50 movies originally produced for the Syfy network.

“For us, business is better this year,” says Bales. “We’re new in television so our expectations were managed, but this show has beaten our expectations. We’ve done some good sales. Most importantly, it is a market that gives us a great opportunity to meet with networks, both those we work with and ones we want to work with. Many of these are people who we don’t get the opportunity to meet otherwise. We are certainly doing more international sales than last year.”

The era of the long tail also has changed the way much of the business is done. “The more traditional business goes on,” says Levin, “but in the digital space, it is more driven by networking. A lot of these people don’t have a home base here to operate from. They are used to a very complex oriented experience where they’re listening to each other at conferences. This has transformed NATPE. What you’re seeing is with certain areas or topics or personalities a deepening conference orientation is growing alongside the transactional marketplace which was always NATPE’s historic foundation.”

This year, the digital conference center was moved to a larger space and sessions were often standing room only, while more traditional sessions, such as one-on-one interviews with top executives, often went on with lots of seats still available.

As part of that digital revolution, the number of people who watch NATPE conferences online also has been growing. This was the fifth year it was available and organizers estimate that there were more than 100,000 streams watched during this year’s event by people who did not attend on site.

NATPE as an organization also has been growing. Last year, it acquired the DISCOP market based in Budapest, Hungary (there also is another in Africa). This has given the group more to do year-round and that larger scale makes them a better business for everyone they serve.

But don’t expect Rick Feldman to agree that the future is as a conference. “I see it as a marketplace with a conference attendant,” says Feldman. “We need it to be the preeminent marketplace for the global content business, based in the U.S.”

Next year, Feldman has big plans for NATPE's 50th anniversary, which definitely will be in Miami Beach once again — and online.