NATPE Remains Relevant by Embracing Digital (Analysis)

Jordan Levin

What was once an event for domestic TV has evolved to serve syndication, international and digital TV businesses.

MIAMI BEACH – Only a few years ago there were real reasons to wonder whether NATPE was still necessary as a market for television program buyers and sellers.

However on Wednesday, as the curtain dropped on the 50th anniversary edition, chairman Jordan Levin and first year CEO Rod Perth were ebullient about the turnout, positive about the buzz from attendees, and bullish about the future of the market and conference.

“The question always is will NATPE survive and what makes NATPE relevant,” said Levin, who is CEO of Generate, a Los Angeles management and production company. “I think there is relevancy. I think there’s not a question any more that NATPE will survive.”

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It wasn’t just that 2013 attendance was up by double digits to almost 6,000 people, including 1,000 domestic and international buyers (the highest number in more than five years); but rather that NATPE has found its identify and reasons to exist after years of fruitlessly chasing the ghost of the once expansive domestic TV syndication business.

While the cable show is dominated by operators and the NAB event is mostly about operations and technology, NATPE has taken a stand on behalf of those who buy and sell the content that makes all of the platforms and technology pay off.

A little history: The acronym stands for National Association of Television Program Executives, a reference to an era when there were program directors at every local station who actually made buying decisions. That era peaked 2001 when an all time high of 20,348 people gathered in Las Vegas.

Over the years there was a consolidation of station ownership into national groups. Program decisions are now made by one person for that group so a lot fewer people came to NATPE.

When former NATPE CEO Rick Feldman was hired in 2003 attendance was just over 7,000 and falling. The board told Feldman they would take one more shot at finding a reason to continue before ending NATPE permanently.

Feldman‘s vision was to make NATPE a market for all kinds of content – broadcast and cable, domestic and international – even providing a place for new media seeking programming.

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Feldman’s plans were set back by the 2008 economic crisis, but since 2010 has gotten back on track.

One key decision was the move to Miami Beach three years ago. Since then NATPE has experienced a slow, steady increase in attendance. The new location has helped attract many more Latin Americans, and made it an easier trip for Europeans.

“I sure heard a lot of Spanish in the hallways,” said Tom Adams, research director, U.S. media, for IHS Screen Digest.  “For a lot of companies here it’s all about reaching Latin America, which is a key opportunity going forward.”

One annoying problem was a conflict in the dates with the Realscreen Summit (featuring documentary, non fiction and reality content), which went on this week in Washington, D.C. Eden Gaha, president of Shine America, was one of those who rushed to attend both. Although NATPE set up a video link between the two that wasn’t hands on enough for Gaha.

“It’s not ideal,” said Gaha. “As a production company we want to service everybody and be part of every facet of the industry. It’s a good idea to have them at different times. I really feel we needed to be in both places. I’ve seen a lot of company’s divide and conquer.”

Perth hopes to resolve the conflict, which will occur again next year, as both groups have already booked dates. NATPE will return to Miami Beach in 2014 and Perth hopes beyond.

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When Perth replaced Feldman last May, he asked the board to rethink everything again. “In September I said I’m going to get your attention,” Perth said he told the board. “I’m going to make you do homework.”

He had them to come in at 7 a.m. for what turned out to be a 14 hour meeting.  “We deconstructed NATPE,” said Perth, adding that “galvanized a sense of direction,  commitment, consensus. What is so gratifying is how it is coming together. It’s not perfect yet by any means.”

Perth said that this year 41% of the 200 speakers and panelists came from digital, while NATPE still served the traditional syndication business as well. “NATPE is perfectly positioned to become this engine and facilitator between these vertical worlds that have yet to learn each others language,” said Perth. “We’re determined to deliver on that.”

What was different this year was not just more panels and seminars, but that there were fewer silos. More events were planned around issues, not the form of distribution.

As always, there are two NATPE’s. For those who come to buy and network, there are events, panels and visits to the suites and exhibit floor. For many executives, most of NATPE is spent in a suite or a cabana doing business.

“This NATPE was very similar to all the others I’ve been to in the past in regard to relationships,” said Joe DiSalvo, president of sales for CBS Television Distribution. “I thought the turn out was great. It’s always great to reconnect with all the (station) group heads. I don’t always get a chance to see them  as often as I’d like during the course of the year.”

DiSalvo said they were able to use NATPE to increase their clearances for the upcoming show The Test from 56 percent in January to 80 percent. The alternative would have been to send salesman on the road.  “For that reason NATPE was a big help,” said DiSalvo. “We had everybody in one room and it allowed us to keep the momentum going.”

CBS threw one of the few company parties for buyers and media at a club on South Beach to re-introduce Arsenio Hall, whose talk show goes into late night in September. Hall came and spoke and worked the crowd.

“It let them see first hand how professional he is,” enthused DiSalvo, “how excited he is, all the promotional plans we have for the show. It’s always nice to have the stations and group heads actually meet the talent, see the talent and know how committed Arsenio is to this whole process.”

Curiously, Arsenio was about the only high profile star to show this year, after a bevy of stars led by Charlie Sheen and Katie Couric made the rounds last year.

This year Queen Latifah, whose upcoming talk show is being distributed by Sony and Bethenny Frankel, whose talk show is from Warner Bros. didn’t bother to attend. The distributors said it was because the shows are already sold but it was a missed promotional opportunity.

It also took away from the feeling NATPE was a big time event which brought a bit of Hollywood to Miami Beach. Asked about it, Perth just shrugged and said that wasn’t in his control.

What Perth wanted to discuss was how the increased attendance translated into real business opportunities. Jim Packer,  Lionsgate’s President Worldwide Television & Digital Distribution, agreed. He estimated that their traffic in the suite was up 15 to 20 percent from last year. “We  had more cable meetings this year than last year,” said Packer. It was a very good year.”

Packer said he also saw “a lot more digital distribution opportunities for content,” including several new SVOD (streaming video on demand) companies from outside the U.S. “They saw American companies come in with streaming companies that don’t even have offices in their country,” said Packer, “so they saw they better take advantage of their local content.”

The big companies took suites or cabanas by the pool where they could more easily control who they saw, to avoid wasting time on people who were not real buyers.

However, there was still an exhibit floor and for small buyers, where the lure was that everyone could come by. “For us it’s been more positive having a booth on the floor,” explained Nicky Davies Williams, CEO of DCD Rights of London, “because we see people we don’t know as well as people we know which would not be the case if he had a suite.”

What they can all agree on is that NATPE provides the return on investment that insures they will return again next year.

“We made a big bold bet where we said the future is content,” said Levin. “Content is what matters. It’s what has always mattered. It’s where value resides.”

That is why, added Levin, “we needed to bring together in one big tent these constituencies that revolve around content.”