In Depth

Syndication’s Mirror: NATPE Show Shrinks

Change in Store for Industry’s Annual Meeting

The biggest annual event in the syndicated television industry wasn’t so big this year, reflecting the struggles TV stations face as the economy contracts and local advertising dries up.

Attendance fell 14% this year at the Las Vegas convention of the National Association of Television Program Executives, and a lack of new show offerings—combined with locked-up station timeslots—slowed deal announcements to a trickle.

NATPE President-CEO Rick Feldman described the predicament in his opening remarks at the conference last week: “NATPE is a mirror of our business.”

The character of this year’s NATPE, however, may not foretell its future. With license renewals coming around in the next few years, a new crop of first-run programming could reinvigorate NATPE as stations and distributors mull continuing expensive franchises.

Contracts for shows including “Oprah,” “Wheel of Fortune” and “Friends” are coming up for renewal, creating at least the possibility that slots for new programming will open up.

“There’s going to be a fertile environment for new creative thinking, but I don’t know how [the timeslots are] going to get filled,” Mr. Feldman said. “If there are new shows, it’s going to make NATPE a richer experience. If no new shows, then it won’t.”

Underlying the future of NATPE is the financial health of television stations, which are feeling the pressures of a declining advertising market as well as competition from other media.

Pali Research analyst Rich Greenfield last week said the local TV business is “in complete freefall.” He cut his ratings on CBS Corp. and News Corp., based on his forecast of weakness in their station businesses.

Like dominos, the lack of advertising hinders stations’ purchasing power, which in turn will curtail a distributor’s ability to produce expensive, high-quality first-run programming.

Tribune Senior Vice President of Programming and Entertainment Sean Compton said, “The economy is working against us,” but noted his company’s leadership is rallying the troops.

He said Tribune Chief Operating Officer Randy Michaels last week sent out an e-mail describing his vision for the company. Mr. Michaels said that because TV stations all look the same, Tribune outlets need to differentiate their brands beyond their network affiliations. That means each station needs to brand itself with distinct programming.

Integration Needed
Mr. Compton said that in addition to differentiation in branding and programming, stations need a profitable model that integrates Web and TV.

Mr. Compton said Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution has helped Tribune stations stand out by giving the company exclusive rights to off-net hit “Two and a Half Men” in syndication.

Warner Bros. Domestic TV Distribution President Ken Werner said the path to health for stations includes strong network affiliation, unique local sports events, exclusive news programming and first-run syndicated shows. The combination of lots of original programming at a reasonable price makes those syndicated shows an important part of the mix, he said.

If stations can shoulder the crunch occurring in the next few years, they might find themselves stable enough to start rebuilding and looking for new syndicated programming.

“I think as [stations] look forward, their deals need to be more flexible,” said Ira Bernstein, co-president at Debmar-Mercury. “They’re not going to be doing five-year deals or two-year deals off of a five-minute tape that locks them in at really high prices.”

Mr. Bernstein said stations can’t go on the defensive on programming just because economic forces are working against them.

“I don’t think, because the economy is bad and sales are down, you can curl up in a ball and not do anything or not buy anything or start triple-running shows,” he said. “You do need to be conscious of price.”

Debmar is one of the few syndicators launching a first-run program this year with “The Wendy Williams Show,” currently cleared in 45 of the top 50 markets.

Viewer Access
Ritch Colbert, principal at Program Partners, said stations are going to have to start searching for viewers across multiple platforms through aggregation of product.

Even if the economy resets itself to good health, he said, the television business may not return to what it once was due to audience fractionalization.

Mr. Colbert’s Program Partners had one of the larger announcements at this year’s NATPE, signing clearances for its Marie Osmond-hosted talk show in the top two markets, New York on NBC-owned WNBC and Los Angeles on Tribune-owned KTLA.

For NATPE, changes are already in the works for next year, as an immediate economic turnaround doesn’t appear to be in the cards.

Mr. Feldman said the Mandalay Bay has opened up more space in the suites at the hotel, setting up a departure from the convention-center floor.

“It is a tough decision for us to abandon the NATPE floor,” he said, “but the times call for tough decisions.”

He also said new features like the restaurant on the floor will more than likely be scuttled next year, as NATPE overestimated the demand for immediate dining. Mr. Feldman said the nonprofit NATPE took a modest financial loss on the Table X Restaurant it ran this year on the show floor.

Mr. Feldman also said total attendance for 2009 was around 6,000 people, down by about 1,000 from last year.

However, he defended the convention’s relevance despite the drop. “The people who need to make the decisions are still here, closing deals and making connections,” he said.

“The entourage may have been reduced, but there are still a lot of things getting done,” agreed Neal Sabin, Weigel Broadcasting executive vice president.

Other executives agree that even though there weren’t many deals being signed at the convention, it’s still important to connect with the syndication world face-to-face.

Mr. Bernstein said fruitful meetings took place at this year’s show.

He said he met with a midsize station group at NATPE that had bought Debmar-Mercury’s “Wendy Williams.” Based on that meeting, Ms. Williams might be driving the pace car at the Indianapolis 500, he said.

“That’s a conversation, as crazy as that sounds, that never would have happened [outside of NATPE],” he said.