NATPE pulls out of ’03, ’04

Nov 26, 2001  •  Post A Comment

NATPE has canceled all of its hotel reservations in New Orleans for its planned conventions in 2003 and 2004.
The move means that, for all intents and purposes, the grand, gregarious, larger-than-life annual gathering of the National Association of Television Program Executives is dead, at least as it’s been known. Whether NATPE can somehow reincarnate itself in another form is open to question.
In a Nov. 14 letter to the hotels, NATPE blamed the 2003 and 2004 cancellations on the Sept. 11 tragedy:
“Due to the events associated with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington and their aftermath, particularly with respect to the country’s declaration of war, curtailment in travel generally and specifically that of members of NATPE, this letter is to constitute formal notice to you that the room reservations for the years 2003 and 2004 are hereby canceled.” The letter was written by New Orleans attorney Walter Wilkerson, who told Electronic Media that he had been retained by NATPE. “The letter was written after consultation with the client,” Mr. Wilkerson said.
Fittingly for a story about a TV convention, news of the room cancellation was broken last week in an enterprising news story on WWL-TV, Belo’s CBS affiliate in New Orleans.
Though Mr. Wilkerson told EM he had not contacted the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Bureau told WWL that with the room cancellations it considered the NATPE convention itself canceled for 2003 and 2004. “I think that’s a reasonable assumption for them to make,” Mr. Wilkerson told EM.
When hotel operators in New Orleans heard that NATPE’s stated reason for canceling in 2003 and 2004 was the terrorist attacks but that the organization was not canceling its convention in Las Vegas in two months, they were furious, according to a follow-up article in the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
“If they’re canceling in ’03, they should be canceling in ’02,” Tommy Morel, New Orleans-area director for Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, told the newspaper. “It sounds bogus.”
Organization regrouping
Indeed, when EM asked Mr. Wilkerson whether the real reason behind the 2003 and 2004 cancellations was the fact that every major domestic syndicator-now including NBC Enterprises, Tribune Entertainment and Paramount Domestic Television-pulled out of next year’s convention, Mr. Wilkerson declined comment, referring a reporter to NATPE itself.
Asked to comment, NATPE President and CEO Bruce Johansen said, in a written statement, “NATPE is involved in fruitful discussions leading to a strategic plan regarding the configuration of the conference in 2003 to make it appropriate for both domestic and international members. This plan may or may not involve New Orleans.”
Despite rumors of NATPE executives scrambling to find a second major organization to hold its convention in conjunction with NATPE’s, the first priority for NATPE is actually to change the time of year of its annual confab, according to one syndication executive familiar with the discussions. One idea is to hold the convention at the Sands convention center in Las Vegas sometime in March 2003, attempting to tie in to early advertising upfronts.
“We have to reach these [media] people at their point of planning, otherwise cable and networks will take all [the ad dollars],” the syndication executive said. “Shifting the time of year makes a lot of sense, especially if you’re putting emphasis on the ad community by bringing spot buyers in, which then would bring back the stations.”
Jon Mandel, current NATPE chairman and co-managing director of MediaCom, has been very vocal about pressing the advertising connection.
“The show is not about clearing programs in Des Moines anymore,” Mr. Mandel told EM recently. “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.”
However, one national ad player noted that although NATPE has been a solid base for testing the waters, little to no ad business was actually being done at the convention.
“Its been terrific in exposing syndicated programming to advertisers who had never before considered the outlet,” the ad rep said. “However, when the chips are down and the dollars are ready to be spent, syndicators simply aren’t at the forefront when they need to be.”
`A boondoggle’
Another buyer noted that only a timely New York gathering would provide a true advertising launchpad.
“I’ve just never seen the need for [NATPE],” said the buyer at a high-profile ad agency, who didn’t want to be named for fear of “a Monday morning call” from Mr. Mandel. “NATPE has always been more of a boondoggle. Most of the lower-level planners never go anyway, because none of us can afford to send them. It’s just less expensive for everyone-and more productive, from a business point of view-if they come to New York and talk with me and my team personally. NATPE has always said we on Madison Avenue can really focus just on syndication if we go to the show, but that’s bullshit. We’re professionals. If their syndicated product is of value to my clients, I can recognize that here in my office.”
One syndication president said maybe some sort of presentation by syndicators en masse in New York may be a good idea. “As far as a program-selling convention to stations, there are just too many pre-sales in late summer to justify any involvement in NATPE anymore,” he said. “As far as an advertising convention, last year we probably wouldn’t have gone at all if it wasn’t for the ad people showing up. The problem, though, is that all they can do is kick the tires, because in January they have no money to spend. It’s either already committed or it’s too early to plan for the next season. That’s why the people who make those decisions typically don’t come.”
Even with the question marks that inevitably arise from this situation-i.e., some studio promises of a dramatic return next year, a possible rebound in the economy or even an offer of free exhibition space for the cornerstone companies-the damage has been done. The likely deregulation and continued consolidation of content creators, stations and distributors have left too few players for the syndication game.
Making NATPE relevant
“It’s been extraordinarily difficult for [our syndication] company to distinguish what’s been good for us in the past and what’s better for us now,” admitted the president of one of the first distributors to exit the floor. “This market has done so much for the business in the past, and it was inevitable that it would [try to] broaden its horizons, but realistically there is no place for us [at NATPE] now except to go play golf with our friends.”
Indeed, international has become increasingly important to NATPE, but as one syndicator noted, “If NATPE just morphs into some kind of domestic version of MIP or MIPCOM, that’s fine, but it just not NATPE anymore.”
Some syndie players are still hoping NATPE will evolve into two conferences: one in Los Angeles that would take place during the time of year when program sales are more relevant to both stations and syndicators, and an upfront presentation conference in New York.
“Its kind of sad, really,” the syndication president lamented. “NATPE was put into a position to evolve as our own syndication changed and, like an old married couple, it looks like we’ve just grown apart.”