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Business brisk at evolving NATPE

Jan 27, 2003  •  Post A Comment

A chill wind may have been blowing through the streets of New Orleans for most of the National Association of Television Program Executives convention, but the action on the convention center floor and in hotel suites around town was hotter than expected-even as the market itself prepared for some potentially radical changes.
Several rookies solidified their presence for the fall, including Warner Bros.’ duo of “Sharon Osbourne” and “Ellen DeGeneres” and NBC’s “Starting Over,” while Sony sold off-cable runs of “Ripley’s Believe It or Not.”
However, several key veterans are still on the prowl for major market clearances and could face trouble if they fail to secure time periods in the Big 3 markets.
The market’s biggest news came from NATPE itself. In 2004, there will be a new home for the conference, a new president/CEO, and the prospect of at least some major distributors returning to the floor.
There are also serious discussions behind the scenes about moving the entire event to a new month. (December, anyone?)
The forthcoming departure of NATPE President/CEO Bruce Johansen culminated a chain of events for syndication’s primary “town-hall meeting,” which included a long-term commitment to The Venetian in Las Vegas for January of next year. Already Sony has committed to holding a booth at the Sands Expo Center beneath the Venetian, while distributors such as NBC Enterprises and Twentieth Television have said they are mulling the possibility as well.
“Based on the setup in Las Vegas and conversations with our clients, we’re committing to a position on the floor next year so we will be easily accessible to our buyers,” said John Weiser, executive VP, Sony Pictures Television.
That tone was enough to keep Mr. Johansen in good spirits, despite his departure announcement.
“This was truly a really good year. From attendance to the amount of business getting done, this conference has exceeded our goals,” Mr. Johansen said. He intends to run the nonprofit organization until a successor is found. He noted that it was “bittersweet” to leave after a 10-year run, but he looks forward to the future.
Throughout the week there were rumors about who exactly would fill Mr. Johansen’s shoes. Among the names rumored to be in consideration for the position were Rick Feldman, David Woodcock and Barry Thurston. However, Mr. Johansen quickly denied that anyone has been approached or names even submitted to the newly installed search committee. He did say that the position requires knowledge of each aspect of the multifaceted distribution business.
“It’s going to have to be someone who understands production both domestically and internationally, because both sides of the business have been and will continue to be vital to NATPE’s livelihood,” he said. “Whoever it will be will have to bring fresh thinking to keep NATPE at the forefront of the industry.”
The search committee will be headed by Lew Klein, co-founder of NATPE and president of the organization’s educational foundation. The committee will also include NATPE chairperson Peggy Kelly, immediate past chairperson Tony Vinciquerra and other executives, such as Lifetime President and CEO Carole Black.
Mr. Johansen confirmed that a proposal was being mulled to shift the long-running market from its longtime January home to the beginning of December. However, it will be part of his successor’s job to determine whether that would be best for the long-term future of the organization before any final decisions are made.
Under the proposal, NATPE would shift to one of the first two weeks of December, beginning as early as December 2004. He noted that the shift would make the annual show less expensive for both the convention and its attendees as Las Vegas tends to be slow during that period. Other benefits of the move, according to NATPE executives, would be a longer period between it and MIP, an international market that recently moved to March. In addition, the move would step closer to the domestic syndicated buying season, a complaint some distribution executives have said made NATPE less important these past few years.
Other executives were wary about a move to December, noting that it is budget time for many companies and a time when holidays and vacations often take precedence. Others said they could not be ready in early December because they are still gathering data from the November sweeps that is needed to make programming decisions.
“It’s a serious option right now, but we must first look at all the advantages and disadvantages of making such a move,” Mr. Johansen said. “Frankly, there may be a year when there are two conferences, one in January and the other in December.”
Whether or not NATPE decides to move to its own pre-Christmas time slot, business will be the motivating factor. Whether it’s because of the attendance at the affiliate meetings or just because of a late selling season, syndicators saw business move at the market for the first time in several years.
“We are very pleased with the market,” said Ed Wilson, president of NBC Enterprises. “Companies met with a lot of key decision makers and were able to not only meet expectations but surpass them. We have an opportunity to reshape the convention next year and this NATPE was a terrific launching point.”
Mr. Wilson’s company saw sales of upcoming reality skein “Starting Over” jump past the 60 percent barrier and the show now has claimed 8 of the top 10 markets including the NBC owned-and-operated stations. Among the sales completed last week were the addition of Denver, Pittsburgh and Charlotte to the clearance list. The company also renewed freshman series “The John Walsh Show” in 60 percent of the country with deals with stations in Orlando, Fla., Baltimore and Kansas City, Mo.
Warner Bros. flew through its own deals for its two upcoming talk shows. The syndicator created a buzz just before NATPE by announcing it had cleared two shows to two station groups on the same day.
Through the first day of NATPE, “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” was sold in more than 78 percent of the country, highest among the new first-run strips, and “The Sharon Osbourne Show” in more than 67 percent of the country for a fall 2003 debut. The newly announced sales in major markets for “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” include WHDH-TV (Boston), WGCL-TV (Atlanta), WKBD-TV/WWJ-TV (Detroit) and KING-TV (Seattle) in addition to the previously announced NBC O&Os.
As for MTV’s reigning matriarch, Sharon Osbourne, the syndicator added KTVU-TV (San Francisco), WBDC-TV (Washington), WCCB-TV (Charlotte, N.C.) and WASV-TV (Greenville, N.C.) to its Tribune group clearance. Both series have also cleared the WB 100+ station group.
On Sony’s end of the business, off-cable strip “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” has now cleared 75 percent of the country, recently adding Los Angeles station KCAL-TV and Chicago’s WCIU-TV to its roster. In addition, the company announced that “Pyramid” is officially getting picked up for a second season.
“We were busy the entire time closing a ton of business,” said Mr. Weiser. “Thanks to our ‘Ripley’s’ clearances, sales on off-net runs of ‘King of Queens’ as well as our renewals for ‘Pyramid,’ there has been a ton of movement on our product, and we figure to increase our market share this fall.
After hitting a homerun this season with “Dr. Phil,” King World saw its upcoming “Living It Up! With Ali & Jack” secure more than 75 percent of the country, signing on St. Louis station KMOV-TV, Hartford, Conn.’s WFSB-TV and Nashville’s WSMV-TV, among others, for the fall, pinning down 28 of the top 30 markets. With company president Roger King telling inquirers that “business is brick,” the syndication behemoth formalized “Dr. Phil’s” renewals with a number of stations through the 2005-06 season and landed upgrades in Orlando, Fla., where it will air in access as of March 8, and Jacksonville, Fla.’s prime-time clearance on WJXT-TV at 9 p.m.
Sister Viacom company Paramount Domestic Television had already earned clearances for its top property in 2004, the “Entertainment Tonight” spinoff “The Inside
r.” But for 2003, the group announced it had signed 60 percent of the country for upcoming off-net strip “The Parkers,” with all top 10 markets on board, including Fox O&O stations WNYW-TV and KTTV-TV.
“We set out to make sure we left NATPE better than how we came in, and that’s exactly what happened,” sad John Nagowski, president of Paramount Domestic Television. “We ended up with more deals in the pocket now because stations have opened up their books and people are buying now.”
Even nonstudio independents found interest. October Moon Television cleared the second syndicated cycle of “Road Rules” in over 70 percent of the country. “Road Rules” has performed strongly though its rookie season, earning a 1.7 rating.
An ABC station group source confirmed that the group would not renew “Caroline Rhea” for season two. Meanwhile, Fox O&Os have opted not to pick up another season of “Shipmates” for that strip’s junior year.
There remain a number of series to watch over February sweeps. Although these shows have not been dropped by their major-market stations, no renewals have been inked yet. Among these are NBC Enterprises “The Other Half” as well as Telepictures’ “Jenny Jones” and “Change of Heart.”
Still, with national rollouts of new shows coming as early as June, with the launch of Twentieth’s “Ex-treme Dating” there will be more business completed in the coming months. After an economic downturn that affected everyone in the industry, executives were able to leave NATPE knowing that the pot was once again bubbling, even in advertising.
“Anticipation was mixed coming into the market,” said Bob Cook, president of Twentieth Television, whose company has cleared off-net runs of “Angel” in over half the country, with “Ex-treme Dating standing at a similar number. “But meetings were productive, and we saw a lot of productive advertiser involvement. There was a whole lot of searching around to find more efficient ways of doing business, such as product integration.”
“We’re not back where we were just a couple of years ago,” added Twentieth Executive VP Paul Franklin, “but we’re chipping away at it. This is an optimistic business right now, especially for us, coming off the ‘Malcolm [in the Middle]’ clearances last year. We have a file stacked full of offers, and that’s encouraging to us.”