By Lee Alan Hill
Special to TelevisionWeek
It’s not your parents’ NATPE.
“We’re really a digital distribution market and conference,” said Rick Feldman, president and CEO of the National Association of Television Program Executives, about the group’s upcoming conference and exhibition.
“People have a narrow view of syndication as a concept,” he said. “There hasn’t been traditional syndication-based solely on the sales of original and off-network programming to stations-for a while.”
This is why, he said, attendees at the NATPE conference Jan. 24-26 at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas will “see more of a nod to new players in the game. You’ll see representatives from AOL, Yahoo, Microsoft, Google. They are there to speak to independent producers about the program content they want and independent producers are there to get in on the ground floor with them.”
“That’s why you have to come to NATPE,” said Mr. Feldman.
The annual NATPE gathering has been transforming for quite some time, he said.
“More original content will have to be created for new platforms,” Mr. Feldman said. “More and more, NATPE is about searching for creative innovation, because it’s one thing to say we’re going to have content on cellphones, we’re going to have programming on the Internet. It’s another to say what programming will be the draw.
“Someone will have to take the lead. Someone will have to step up and lead the innovation. AOL is going to put the Warners library of old TV series on its service. Does anyone want to watch the old shows? We don’t know. The audience will decide what succeeds and what does not.”
Mr. Feldman is not saying programming from the vaults is necessarily tired. “But it’s still a question of what the consumer is going to support. We’re all talking about deals. Pick up the trade publications or the business section of the newspaper, speak to someone on the phone, and it’s deals.
“Yet as broad as NATPE is in attendance and as a showcase, it’s not about platform acquisition. It has to be about content,” he said.
Mr. Feldman acknowledged that the greater industry is changing so rapidly, and the deals and alliances are happening so quickly, that in planning the NATPE conference his biggest fear is that the most recent revolution won’t be covered by one of the panels or seminars.
The program schedule for printing and promotional purposes had to be locked by October. “I think, what if something big happens in November or December? Will we have it covered?” he said.
NATPE will continue to be international in scope, with about one-third of its attendees from outside the United States. But Mr. Feldman said participation by foreign concerns has stalled a bit because of the greater difficulty in obtaining visas post-9/11, a situation that is out of the hands of the organization. He said it has loosened a bit recently but foreign executives and producers still have to plan and apply well in advance.
While the buzz continues to be about new platforms and new outlets, Mr. Feldman said the traditional notion of syndication is still vital and vibrant.
“We’re going through a cycle now where there are not too many available time periods on broadcast,” he said. “That’s just the way it is. But a year from now, or two years, that big new thing will come along and it will open up.”
The same is true with off-network and off-cable programming sales, he said.
“There are several things we need to remember,” Mr. Feldman added. “There are fewer independent stations because there are more networks, but even the weakest broadcast station in the market is almost always drawing larger audience numbers than the strongest cable network.
“So the wide variety of platforms, whether DVD sales of the TV show or putting the show on the iPod, won’t affect sales to the stations. Even if a show is really, really successful on a network it gets a 20 share. That means that 80 percent of the audience didn’t see that show. That’s a significant number of people. When the show is sold after its run there is an audience that may be discovering it.
“And we also have to ask how many people want to spend 99 cents on an ongoing basis to see a show that ran on the network earlier in the week. We don’t know yet. There are so many variables of the deals and changes we’re hearing and reading about and what will stick. Again, the audience will decide.”
Mr. Feldman’s industry roots are in local stations. He ran USA Broadcasting before joining NATPE, and previously was station manager at KCOP-TV in Los Angeles, where he worked for 16 years.
“The local station can still succeed in the market,” he said. “You have to look at what local issues are and program to those-and I’m talking about more than on your news shows. You have to find the programs that resonate locally, creating them yourself if need be. And after that it’s still promotion, promotion, promotion.”
NATPE is making efforts to educate the next creative generation. Through its educational programs it sponsors seminars for college faculty and sends speakers to lecture at institutions of higher education.
“What we hope to do is raise the level of awareness of what it will take to be successful in this business,” Mr. Feldman said. “If we have intensive seminars for 300 to 400 professors, they go back to their colleges and we have reached thousands of students.