When several syndicators arrive at the 42nd annual National Association of Television Program Executives convention in Las Vegas this week, they will for the first time in years be on a hunt for important station deals that could affect whether their projects move forward.
In recent years most major-market deals for new shows were wrapped up well before the syndicators and their station clients made their way to NATPE. But just a week before this year’s event, which runs Tuesday through Thursday, Telepictures’ “The Tyra Banks Show,” Sony’s Robin Quivers talk show and Twentieth’s “The Suze Orman Show” were all still searching for major station group deals.
What’s more, projects like NBC Universal’s Martha Stewart series and Twentieth’s “A Current Affair” revival were securing clearances in major markets that in past years also would have been wrapped up more than a month before NATPE.
“This year it’s going to represent more of a selling convention,” said Bob Cook, president and chief operating officer of Twentieth Television, which is bringing three first-run strips to NATPE. “In large measure, a lot of the projects out there have not found a home yet.”
Barry Wallach, president of NBC Universal Domestic Television Distribution, said he’s got real work to do at NATPE, especially considering the company didn’t announce until December that it was going forward with a strip starring Ms. Stewart.
“This year is a late syndication year,” he said. “We’ve got a daytime strip that’s in demand, and we’re early in the sales process. By nature we’re going to wind up with quite active selling.”
According to NATPE President and CEO Rick Feldman, NATPE 2005, held at the Mandalay Bay Resort, will be more manageable than it has been in years. “The convention floor and all of the seminars and conferences and workshops are all on the same floor,” he said. “Last year there was a lot more upstairs-downstairs. The actual exhibit space, which is the same [in size] as the space last year, is a much nicer space. In the Venetian we didn’t have the `A’ space.”
So television executives can forget about elevator traffic jams and mile-long hikes between meetings while pursuing their deals. In 2004 attendees spent much of their time shuttling around that year’s venue, The Venetian, and other Las Vegas locations to get business done. The move to the Mandalay Bay comes just as the NATPE convention appears to be turning a corner toward a more secure future in general.
Reeling from the stock market bust and the dot-com implosion, and further hampered by the suppression of business and convention activity caused by 9/11, NATPE in recent years seemed like an anachronism. Members of the organization whispered out loud that they doubted the necessity of the annual expense. Consolidation, rising production costs, shifts in the international market for U.S. programs and weakening ratings led to NATPE’s constituents further adjusting the ways they saw the annual convention.
But for many attendees, NATPE 2005 has caught up with the industry changes.
“Rick Feldman has done a phenomenal job in blowing life back into this convention,” Twentieth’s Mr. Cook said. “We are going to see more TV stations, ad groups and cable companies represented than in years past. It continues to be a great rallying point and opportunity to talk to our customers and competition.”
John Nogawksi, president of Paramount Domestic Television, agreed that NATPE has evolved.
“We’re in a perpetual state with our clients-it’s the one convention that still exists where the stations, the agents, the production companies all get together. I don’t look to close a lot of business; I look to expand relationships there,” he said. Dick Askin, president and CEO of Tribune Entertainment, said that while the sales component of NATPE diminished over the years, it always remained a productive convention, being the one time of year the entire industry spends a few days together.
“There always has been a serendipitous element to NATPE,” he said. “Not just the deals you expect to sign or announcing the deals that were made two weeks prior. There are always conversations or meetings that occur that move projects along that actually do develop into something of value.”
Mr. Askin, for example, said Tribune picked up distribution rights to a special about the Titanic in 1997 year after a chance meeting at NATPE with an associate he hadn’t seen in years. NBC had just passed on the special, and Mr. Askin realized there was an opportunity to work with his old associate.
“We went back to my booth, put the tape on and we ended up two weeks later making a deal on it,” he said. “We did like a 6.5 rating.”For King World Productions CEO Roger King, whose company is the undisputed champion NATPE party thrower, NATPE remains an important opportunity to meet in person with buyers.
“It’s more of a thank you for the business we’ve done with everyone,” he said.
Although the major-market deals are still outstanding for some major strips, quite a bit of business already has been done for fall 2005.
Acme Stations’ Senior VP of Programming Bob Shaw said that as a general rule he likes “to have at least 80 [percent] to 85 percent of my business completed prior to NATPE, if possible.”
He continues to go to NATPE mostly a matter of clean-up, he said. “I guess there’s another 15 percent to look at,” he said.
John Deushane, the chief operating officer for Granite Broadcasting, said NATPE for him continues to be more about the discovery of hidden programming gems than anything else. That’s especially true for Granite’s WB affiliates in San Francisco and Detroit.
“It’s an opportunity to look for that special weekend program or classic evergreen program for our WBs” he said. “We have to be creative with our San Francisco and Detroit stations.”
Going into NATPE, stations generally are aware of the new high-profile strips the majors are marketing, Mr. Deushane said. Despite the fact that high-profile programmers were slow at the start when it came to rolling out new first-run product, it didn’t change the basic calculus of his business.
“The larger markets and deals are done prior to NATPE,” he said. “We don’t necessarily chase the flavor of the day. If we’ve had success, and success can be defined in a lot of different ways, we will usually default to a renewal of that program as opposed to trying to find that next great hit. But it does give us an opportunity to meet face to face the West Coast heads who get to New York rarely.” Bill Butler, NATPE board member and VP of group programming and promotion for Sinclair Broadcasting, said the convention gives buyers an opportunity a studio salesperson can never provide in the traditional station or corporate office house call.
“It’s one thing to have people sit in an office and pitch ideas from studios,” he said, “it’s quite another to wander the hall and look at the whole world of programming. It’s a real education and a reinvigorating, creative process.”
Some Doubts Remain
Not every attendee, however, is bullish on NATPE. One product supplier who asked not to be named described the convention as a “waste of time” because fundamental changes in the syndication business have made the conference obsolete.
“The relevance for NATPE faded for several reasons,” he said. “One, most of the shows are pre-sold. Two, the companies send less people. Three, because of consolidation they send even less people.
“You would think NATPE would entice stations to get their program directors and general managers to come. You see the group guys, and they say, `Oh, I have to talk to my station guys.’ But they are not there. I’ve talked to a lot of program directors, and they say, `[(My] station isn’t sending me.”‘
In particular, the product supplier said, the conference favors the bigger program suppliers over smaller production houses.
“If NATPE is supposed to work, it’s got to work for everybody,” he said. “If they were doing something right for the business, they would put King World in the middle and put all the little guys ar
ound them. If you leave the big area [that houses the major suppliers], you walk around and see how much business is taking place on the floor.”
John Weiser, president of distribution for Sony Pictures Television and co-chairman of NATPE, said challenges faced by smaller suppliers have nothing to do with NATPE and everything to do with the business environment.
“If a smaller company feels they get lost between the big ships, that’s the marketplace,” Mr. Weiser said. “If a smaller company comes out with [`The Oprah Winfrey Show’], they will get the attention of the marketplace. It doesn’t really matter the size of the company. It’s the quality. And by the way, plenty of big companies come out with bad product and people walk right by their big booths.”
Other industry insiders who also asked not to be named wondered out loud if a convention that for many companies is still less about sales and more about networking really justified the expense. But for Byron Allen, chairman and CEO of Entertainment Studios, consolidation hasn’t meant the end of doing business for small companies.
“You have fewer people,” he said, “but you have more decision-makers. Consolidation has been wonderful for me. “
And as far as NATPE changing, Mr. Allen said the convention’s transition will be a constant, and station groups that make choices based on corporate pressures and not on content do so at their own peril.
“It will continue to evolve like everything else in the universe,” he said of NATPE. “The guy who loses focus on one simple idea-find the best show and put it on the air-that guy loses. My whole business model is that syndicated shows have a 95 percent failure rate. We know those shows are going to go forward, and they are going to get canceled, and then we inherit their time spot.”
Mr. Allen said the reason for being at NATPE was simple.
“We’re selling,” he said. “We’re definitely selling.”