An Example of Smart Thinking in the TV Business — How the TV Station Summit Came to Be. Lessons for NATPE?

Jun 25, 2012

We’re on the eve of the second annual TV Station Summit in Las Vegas, which I think is one of the smarter events that have debuted in the TV industry in the past several years.

It’s a first-rate example of people in the industry getting together to figure out how to evolve one of our big, tentpole legacy conventions that had lost some of its relevancy into a must-attend 21st century affair.

To learn how the TV Station Summit evolved, I spoke to Mike Mischler, executive vice president, marketing for CBS Television Distribution, which is CBS’s syndication division.

First, a little history. The TV Station Summit is put on by Promax. Promax was founded relatively early on in commercial TV history. According to the PromaxBDA website, “Promax was established in 1956 as a non-profit, full-service, membership-driven association for promotion and marketing professionals working in broadcast media. In 1997, The Broadcast Design Association (BDA), who had partnered with Promax for years on their annual conference, officially joined forces with Promax and became PromaxBDA.”

For years PromaxBDA was a must attend for broadcasters. But as TV continued to evolve, the organization encountered a problem that many trade organizations face, as Mischler explains: “What was happening over the last decade is that the broadcasting side of the TV business was finding Promax as an organization and as a convention and as an event less and less relevant to what they wanted to talk about. So over the years there was an attrition of broadcasters leaving and not attending the convention.”

Mischler, who at one time was a board member of Promax, continues, “As fewer and fewer broadcasters attended Promax, it increasingly became a question here at CBS Distribution about our attendance, because those broadcasters are our clients. Especially in the first-run business. Obviously we sell to cable and everybody else. But on the broadcast side, the station executives are our No.1 clients, and that’s the business area we work in. So if they weren’t going to Promax, or attending in fewer numbers, it seemed to make less and less sense for us to participate."

Clearly this was developing into a major problem for PromaxPDA and its president and CEO, Jonathan Block-Verk.

Mischer says, “Very wisely, Jonathan sat down with a bunch of us on the distribution side, and those of us who had been former board members, and said, ‘What can we do to fix this?’

“Jointly with us, he came up with the idea of maybe separating out a meeting time for broadcast stations to meet with distributors, with networks, and with their station groups on specific days and specific times during these days. Then, on top of that, we’d add a really, really condensed, hyper-focused Promax event that would deal with station issues — that is, issues that really matter to stations. Thus was born the Promax Station Summit.”

With the TV distributors on board, the next agenda item was when and where. Adds Mischler, “One of the keys to this event is both the timing and the location. We had to find a place that was going to offer a maximum amount of space for a minimum amount of cost. What could be better than summer in Las Vegas? Promax chose Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas last year, and that’s where it’ll be again this year.”

And how does Mischler judge the event with just one year under his belt? “I’d say it was a success last year and, from all that we can tell, that it will be a success this year. And the reason I say it was successful last year is that, for a for a first-time event, the Station Summit drew 500 people. We were deluged with people in our room wanting to have meetings with us on the Studio Day. So for the first time in a long time we were able to talk to multiple stations on one day and really get our messaging out about the upcoming season.

"And the reason I say we think it will be a success this year is that we’re expecting about 300 more people to attend. We’re expecting minimally, for every one of our shows, about 40 stations and 60 attendees that will be rotating through to talk to our people during the day. So, for our Jeff Probst show that we’ll be launching this fall, we’ll have an hour and fifteen minutes or so set aside to talk about the marketing strategy, the advertising campaign — those strategies the stations want and need to talk about.”

One of the smart things Promax and its collaborators have done in setting up the Station Summit is to concentrate on business issues, forgoing any bells and whistles.

So the Station Summit kicks off Tuesday, June 26, 2012, with affiliate meetings between stations and ABC, CBS and NBC.

Wednesday is Studio Day, when station executives meet with their syndicated programming partners at CBS Television Distribution, Debmar-Mercury, NBCUniversal Television Distribution, Sony Pictures Television, Twentieth Television and Warner Bros. Television Distribution (under its new umbrella, Warner Bros. Brand Networks).

The final day, Thursday, is for Promax sessions and an affiliate meeting of The CW stations. Some of the more interesting sessions include marketing to millennials, successful strategies for launching — and maintaining — a daytime talk show, plus the inevitable panels on social media today.

What’s particularly striking about the Station Summit and its connection to local TV stations is when one thinks about what NATPE used to be. NATPE was the marketplace where local TV stations would go every year to buy syndicated programming. With consolidation in the TV business, resulting in fewer owners of TV stations and few program suppliers, that marketplace function of NATPE has withered. So one natural evolution for NATPE could have been this Station Summit.

Instead, NATPE has had a change of direction itself, finding new life by moving from Vegas to Miami to serve a very strong Latin American contingency. The main NATPE convention has at the same time tried to entice more local stations to attend by having more sessions about the ad sales side of the business, but it remains questionable whether that strategy will work in the long run.

Incoming NATPE President and CEO Rod Perth certainly has his hands full meeting the challenges of today’s rapidly evolving video environment. We wish him the best of luck. Wonder if he’s ever met with Promax chief Block-Verk. Might be a good idea.

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