Editorial: NATPE market at a crossroads

Jan 28, 2002  •  Post A Comment

The war between the National Association of Television Program Executives and a number of major studios, led by Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution President Dick Robertson, may have been inevitable, but it needs to be resolved soon. Last week’s NATPE convention in Las Vegas, with exhibitors split between the Las Vegas Convention Center and the Venetian, did not work for many clients.
A little background: For a long time now, Mr. Robertson and a number of his cohorts have complained that the annual NATPE gathering has been run by the buyers of TV programming, not the sellers.
While the NATPE convention has created an artificial deadline by which many buyers feel they must purchase programming-a factor that’s certainly a plus for sellers-what the sellers give up is the leverage of going into a market, building buzz for a show and telling a station that if it doesn’t buy a program for a certain price, the studio will go across the street and sell the show to another station.
Instead, what happens at NATPE is that the buyer tells the seller that if the terms aren’t more favorable for a certain show, the buyer will just walk a few feet and speak to another seller who is equally eager to sell the buyer its show.
As NATPE Chairman Jon Mandel noted last week, Mr. Robertson, when he first started in the syndication business, used the NATPE gathering to great advantage. By coming to NATPE, which at that time drew hundreds of TV station managers eager to see the shows of the big studios, Mr. Robertson, who was with a small company called Telepictures, was able to get the managers to see and buy his product as well.
But the business has changed dramatically. As a result of station consolidation and the ratings metering of so many markets, NATPE in January is really too late to serve the majority of the syndicated TV distribution business.
Furthermore, Mr. Robertson is no longer the little guy. It isn’t realistic during these tough times for the syndication business to expect Warner Bros. and the other studios to welcome a NATPE that allows many of their smaller competitors to ride on their coattails.
That said, we hope a solution can be found between NATPE and the domestic studios leading the mutiny-a solution that can work for everyone, big and small supplier alike.
We are uncomfortable with so much consolidation on both the buyer side and the supplier side of the TV programming business. It inevitably leads to more sameness in programming, and this sameness, in turn, hurts the syndication business, since viewers keep switching the dial looking for fresh, compelling programming.
Yes, NATPE alienated many program suppliers in recent years as it struggled with the changing business and stopped focusing on suppliers’ needs. It may be too late, but a healthy, streamlined, revamped NATPE held at a more appropriate time of year could still be useful for the domestic TV syndication business.