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Guest Commentary: NATPE letdown

Feb 3, 2003  •  Post A Comment

“Why is it like this?” asked Matthias Kremin of Germany’s WDR, who was attending his first National Association of Television Program Executives convention.
I asked every buyer I met, “What do you think of the convention?” but Kremin’s words crystallized all the responses for me.
“Why is it like this?” What has happened to NATPE? Why is it that the country that produces and exports more television programs and movies than any other on earth can’t assemble in a cohesive way to share ideas and, oh yeah, buy and sell programs?
We all know the answer: consolidation. What was once six distributors (Paramount, Viacom, King World, CBS, Group W, Worldvision) has become two. And the guts of NATPE-television station programmers-have been whittled down to a few groups and group buyers who call the shots in the major markets and most of the country. There’s your big answer: fewer companies buying and selling.
Then there’s that macho thing: Before abandoning the convention floor in 2001, citing exorbitant costs, the majors built themselves those famously flashy booths at a frenzied pitch, flush with the need to outdo each other sizewise. Factor in the celebrities and the chefs (and the celebrity chefs), and it’s easy to see why the tab for these big guys was in the million-dollar range. There seemed to be no limit to their need to show off!
When the first major walked away from NATPE, the faltering economy and consolidation were converging at the same time the size thing was getting out of hand. What to do? Reduce the size of the booth? Bring in only one star from your hit sitcom? Not serve food? (Remember when that was the big issue?) Never!
It was easier and more face saving to simply declare war on the organization itself and retreat to a hotel suite-inadvertently causing buyers great inconvenience as they job between five different hotels and the convention center, their wallets filled with $4.50 cab receipts (for those who want to avoid the wait for the shuttle bus’ circuitous route).
And there’s nothing more inviting to a buyer than peering into a suite from a hotel corridor and seeing a team of sales people anxiously awaiting a reason to get off the couch and go to work!
This year, the convention floor was “interesting” (sort of how you’d describe a painting you don’t especially like). The former occupants of booths along the side walls (Hong Kong tourism, Sisters of Mercy, the National Guard) now seemed to be at the center of the floor. Booths that were once nice little enclaves were now dominant, becoming the biggest on the floor not by ambition but by attrition.
Clearly, NATPE is evolving as the TV industry is revolutionizing. But the guiding force for change at NATPE must begin with this question: What do the buyers want? How can we construct a U.S. television convention that shows our best side and creates an environment where buyers can do business in the most efficient way possible? How can we keep the show in show business?
There wasn’t one buyer I spoke with-domestic or international-who wasn’t absolutely befuddled by what the NATPE confab has become: a pain in the neck to navigate and an environment closer to an aluminum siding convention than the fun business we love.
What do the buyers want? They want a voice that’s the loudest in the room and a belief that the U.S. TV programming business is vibrant, viable and customer-centric. They want a business that has not only the ability but also a mandate to show itself in the best way possible.
Let’s all put our personal grudges aside and figure out how to serve our customers better and how to create a new NATPE-one that gets us all together to share ideas and, oh yeah, do that buy-and-sell thing too.
Gary Lico is president and CEO of CABLEready, a Stamford, Conn.-based independent programming representative firm.