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Not Your Dad’s NATPE

Jan 31, 2005  •  Post A Comment

At last week’s National Association of Television Program Executives conference in Las Vegas, a producer was pitching a show idea to Tom Gutteridge, CEO of FremantleMedia North America, in a suite at THEhotel, which is part of the Mandalay Bay Resort.

Instead of just describing the concept, the producer took out a small hand-held device and showed a full video presentation. He also placed a cellphone on the table as he began to tap on a laptop computer. A moment later his cellphone rang through a wireless connection. “The questions being asked on the show appeared on the phone in sync,” Mr. Gutteridge recalled. “And I played the game and at the end I didn’t win a prize. That to me is so interesting. I’ve never seen that before. It’s a new piece of technology that actually allows a phone-in competition to be run parallel to a live broadcast.”

That kind of interaction isn’t the traditional purpose of a trip to NATPE, which has long been known as a marketplace for distributors to sell TV shows to local stations. However, it was the kind of thing that was going on, beginning with the day before the conference officially opened, when NATPE and iHollywood Forum presented a daylong seminar on new mobile technology.

“Sure, we make big network shows like ‘American Idol’ and ‘The Price Is Right,’ but at the end of the day the new digital technology is absolutely at the center of where we’re focused right now,” Mr. Gutteridge said. “From the phone to other technology, it is all about ways that we can connect with our audience.”

While there were plenty of shows being pitched to stations, the reality is that NATPE is no longer viable just as a domestic market aimed at TV stations. In the wake of consolidation, distributors can sell most of the United States with half a dozen meetings. What has changed is that the same content, or spinoff versions, is now also in demand from international buyers and, increasingly, new technology players, from computer companies to satellite services to phone giants.

“The evolution of NATPE is reflective of the changes in the business,” said John Weiser, president of distribution for Sony Pictures Television and co-chair of the 42nd edition of NATPE. “As all these platforms have popped up, whether it’s SMS [mobile] or digital platforms at the local level, all of those things speak to the fact there is just more and more opportunity to sell content. [Video-on-demand] has become a revenue stream and not just a theory. These are now markets that can be monetized.”

While TV station groups often buy syndicated shows in advance, and thus send fewer buyers to see what is available, other media have more than picked up the slack this year.

“Pretty much every cable company comes in force,” said Arthur Hasson, executive VP of cable, Canada and ancillary sales for NBC Universal Television Distribution. “This was a broadcasters convention, but as broadcasters’ margins have shrunk, it is harder for stations to send more than one or two people. Cable, with their national networks, finds it much more feasible now to come down.”

The halls are filled with people bearing badges with company names that in the past might have seemed more appropriate at the Consumer Electronics Show or the cable convention. Now it is all part of an ever-growing mix of delivery systems tied together by one factor-they all need content.

“Content isn’t just needed on television,” said Byron Allen, chairman and CEO of Entertainment Studios Corp., who has been attending NATPE since the early 1980s. “It’s Internet; it’s mobile phones, broadband, cable, digital. They all need content. And this is the watering hole where we also now come to meet talent-sales talent, executive talent and creative talent. It’s where we gather intelligence, work on strategy, get a sense of the needs of buyers and sellers and come together.”

Even for some traditional buyers and sellers, NATPE is more than about sales. For instance, King World came to Las Vegas with most of its shows already sold. But the face time with clients is still valuable to cement relationships and prepare them for the next wave of content.

“If you said to me, ‘Does the amount of business done cover the cost of coming to this convention?’ the answer is no. If that was everything, we won’t be here,” said Joseph DiSalvo, president of domestic television sales for King World. “It’s not all about that. It’s about having a party like we did last night, where we can say thank you to all the clients who bought so much programming from us last year.”

Under President and CEO Rick Feldman, NATPE has rebounded with better seminars, wider appeal and a lower cost structure for exhibitors. The result is a marketplace that works not just for TV but also for a whole array of new players who are part of a major expansion in the distribution of programming.

“The feedback we’re getting is that, ‘This is fantastic. We’re going to be bringing more people next year,'” Sony’s Mr. Weiser said. “They see the value as they walk around because the entire community really showed up this year.”