NATPE 2006: Digital News Draws, but Some Fear It Means Loss of Focus

Jan 23, 2006  •  Post A Comment

A few years ago an attendee looking for panels and booths on digital distribution at the annual National Association of Television Program Executives convention would have had a hard time finding either. But in 2006 the discussion of new media platforms is of great interest to many NATPE conventioneers, who are eager to learn more about how new technology can be used to provide programming to consumers.

In fact, some NATPE veterans say the convention risks losing its focus on what has traditionally been its core: the annual summit of station executives and the distributors who supply them with syndicated product.

One of the veterans concerned about the inclusion of new technology and its impact on NATPE’s traditional business is Roger King, CEO of CBS Enterprises and King World. Mr. King is bringing his new talk strip “Rachael Ray” to the marketplace this fall and has cleared the show in more than 85 percent of the country.

With most of the selling done before the convention, Mr. King said NATPE will be about introducing Ms. Ray to station executives and networking, but he expressed disappointment that the convention is focusing on new platforms.

“I wish they would cut down on the technology,” he said. “NATPE should be a TV convention. [NATPE President and CEO] Rick Feldman should read what the letters stand for. It doesn’t say ‘iPods’ or ‘cellphones’ or anything else.”

While others may talk about distributing their creative product on multiple platforms, Mr. King said building value comes from focusing on the syndication model.

“You can only watch ‘Rachael Ray’ on the stations we sold, and that’s the key to building a franchise,” he said.

Some of the changes Mr. King criticizes are less the outgrowth of new distribution systems and more a function of corporate mergers throughout the business, Mr. Feldman said.

“The definition of ‘television program executive’ has changed,” Mr. Feldman said. “As consolidation hit, there weren’t as many small station groups. Program executives were coming and purchasing for multiple stations.”

And the inclusion of new technologies as part of the NATPE convention is a natural outgrowth of the organization’s mission, he added.

“While Roger doesn’t see as many of our old friends as we’d like to see, now we have program executives you didn’t count on,” Mr. Feldman said. “They are people Roger is going to want to talk to as well. The definition of who a program executive is is much broader now than 15 years ago.”

The opening panel at NATPE is decidedly old school, Mr. Feldman said, noting that representatives from local Gulf Coast-area media outlets will discuss how they covered Hurricane Katrina.

“Local television stations are vital forces in markets and will continue to be forever,” he said. “I chose that panel because I wanted to celebrate that fact.”

NATPE will remain focused on the issue that has driven the conference for decades-programming, said John Weiser, NATPE’s co-chair.

“Keep in mind the one thing all these delivery platforms have is the dependency on content,” Mr. Weiser said. “The primary business is TV stations, but the viewer has gone beyond the TV stations and is looking for additional viewing opportunities. [Adding platforms] should be done in a way to complement the primary airing that builds brands, and not fragments.”

For now, some major suppliers of content, such as Twentieth Television, are looking at the additional platforms being touted in the industry as promotional tools. While Twentieth is looking to extend and promote its brands through these emerging delivery systems, it is not yet wholly offering its syndicated product beyond television stations, said Bob Cook, president and chief operating officer of the company. But that doesn’t mean Mr. Cook is ignoring the changes.

“A lot of it is incremental, but that’s what we thought of cable years ago,” Mr. Cook said “But we don’t take it lightly. New media and broadband will all be significant players.”

Any talk of new platforms taking over the current TV model is premature, said Joel Berman, president of Paramount Worldwide Television Distribution.

“Selling a show to Google that has never appeared on television, we’re not there yet,” he said. “You need the television outlet to create the ancillary markets.”