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Defections worry NATPE executives

Oct 15, 2001  •  Post A Comment

In committee meetings Monday and a board meeting Tuesday, the brain trust of the National Association of Television Program Executives will be wrestling with potential responses to the mounting attendance, participation and economic challenges faced by the organization’s annual convention.
“We will adapt accordingly,” said Bruce Johansen, NATPE president and CEO. “We are looking at everything we can to make this an attractive conference for everyone.”
NATPE’s various constituencies have been involved in discussions during the past year and a half about how the convention ought to adapt to the changing nature of the business being done at NATPE, which has become less a place at which programs are sold than a deadline by which distributors want to have clearances locked up in the majority of the country.
“We’re doing the due diligence of talking to all the constituencies of our industry to say, `How can this organization serve you?”’ said Jon Mandel, NATPE chairman and co-managing director and chief negotiating officer for MediaCom.
The answers vary according to the constituency being addressed. Distributors have cited costs-starting at $1 million to $1.5 million just to erect a large booth on the floor of the Las Vegas Convention Center-as the prime reason for moving their sales areas to the Venetian Hotel.
Executives with station groups of all sizes say that increasingly draconian cost-cutting measures make it difficult to justify attendance at NATPE, especially in an era when more and more syndication business is being concluded before everyone arrives at the convention.
As of deadline, there was little in the works for network-affiliate gatherings related to NATPE, which will be held Jan. 21 to 24. Fox, which held an affiliate board meeting and a bigger affiliates presentation on the Sunday before the 2001 NATPE convention opened, plans no affiliate convention and has not decided whether to hold a board meeting in Las Vegas in January.
NBC also held a meeting with its affiliate board last January but hasn’t decided whether it will do so this January.
Neither ABC nor CBS has NATPE-related affiliate functions planned.
The network-owned station groups are expected to send, at most, only small executive contingents to the 2002 convention.
“It looks like it’s disintegrating,” said one chief of a small-station group, who goes only every second or third year-and then only to renew relationships-because, “By the time I go, all my business is done.”
“There’s just no reason to go,” said a programming director at a major-market station. “We will have to have solved the problems before we go. I think NATPE has outdated itself.”
Mr. Johansen and Mr. Mandel vigorously disagree, and remain confident that the NATPE brain trust will be able to craft what Mr. Johansen calls “a concise strategy” for the short- and long-term viability of the convention.
“This convention is viable and it’s vibrant,” Mr. Mandel said. The domestic syndicators who are off the floor, he said, “are still going to be there, they’re still going to go to panels, they’re still going to be walking the floor. They are probably going to be hanging out with their international people, who are on the floor. They’re still in Vegas.”
“The show is not about clearing programs in Des Moines anymore,” Mr. Mandel observed. “The show is about all the advertisers that go to it [and] the networking that goes on in the halls … and [about] the various programming forums.”
He has worked hard to push advertisers and their agencies front and center at the convention with plans for everything from sessions on family-friendly programming to advertiser-sponsored lounges and a reception for key advertisers and sales executives from cable and broadcast networks, MSOs and barter and station-rep firms.
The NATPE committee and board meetings that were postponed by the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 are now set for this week. On Thursday, the board of the Association of Local Television Stations, which focuses on the regulatory and legislative agencies and personalities in Washington in programs it puts on at NATPE, is scheduled to convene.
Robert E. Branson, who was named ALTV vice president and general counsel last May, said, “We’re going to talk to our members and try to figure out exactly what we are going to do.”
With Washington, like the rest of the country, on heightened alert since Sept. 11, it may be harder to get governmental and elected officials to leave the capital to make an appearance on ALTV’s lineup in Las Vegas.
“I think nothing is certain now,” said Mr. Branson, who noted that in a normal year, there is plenty of time to make decisions about attendance and lock in participants. “This year, who knows?”
Mr. Johansen declined to give registration figures but said it is “healthy at this point” and running ahead of this time last year. Attendance at NATPE 2001 was more than 20,000, he said, with roughly a third of that international.
“It looks to me like the floor is going to be very strong with international and smaller domestic distributors,” Mr. Johansen said. “Every day I spend my day working with the companies who are going to the Venetian to figure out how to make this work.
“Nobody is questioning the value of NATPE. What people are reacting to are economic pressures,” said the NATPE executive, who doesn’t dismiss the pleas for lowering the costs associated with the convention.
“I’m all for that,” he said. “We do have to sit down and figure out a better way to hold this conference.”