Rick Feldman, president and CEO of the National Association of Television Program Executives, is busy preparing for his organization’s annual conference, which kicks off Jan. 15 in Las Vegas. But he took time out recently to preview the event and talk about the state of syndication with TelevisionWeek Editor Greg Baumann. An edited transcript of their conversation follows.
TelevisionWeek: Judging by the registrations, new members and reservations for the NATPE conference this year, what can you say about changes in the syndication business? Who is the most surprising entrant to your event?
Rick Feldman: I think the most exciting event that has happened this year is “House of Pain,” which is Tyler Perry. In fact, one of my big regrets about this show is that I wanted to do something with Tyler Perry at the convention and he couldn’t make it on those days. But through Debmar and through a relationship that William Morris put together with Marcus and his friends at Debmar, this whole testing of Tyler Perry’s show and then bringing it out into syndication is really, really a good thing. It’s very exciting.
For my purposes, as a guy who comes from the independent TV world, I’m really hoping to see some new players come into the syndication game and kind of freshen it up a little bit. There are other companies, like Trifecta that Hank Cohen and a couple of other people have started. There are smaller companies that are getting into this. Lionsgate, which is developing a library of stuff and has “Weeds” and some other things, is entering the fray. So while I don’t think this year, ’07, is going to be a particularly fertile year for the traditional studios and traditional syndicated fare, I think there are some bright signs on the horizon, like some of these new companies doing some new stuff. I’m excited about that.
TVWeek: Do you see a lot of these little companies popping up, filling the niches that the big companies are passing on?
Mr. Feldman: I’d like to say yes, but I have to say no. I think, unfortunately, until the business changes relative to how much it costs to create product, I don’t think that there are going to be many first-run shows developed other than in broadcast. … There are so many successful shows that have been on the air for 20 years, like “Wheel” and “Jeopardy!” and “Entertainment Tonight,” “Oprah” and then “Dr. Phil” and “Judge Judy,”-all these great shows-that there aren’t that many great time periods available. So while I think there are definitely needs out there, television stations definitely have needs, and while there are definitely opportunities for some smaller companies to enter the fray, your question was “lots of” and I don’t think there are lots of.
TVWeek: To what extent is the conference a good indicator of the health of the syndication business, and how would you characterize the market right now?
Mr. Feldman: We are a reflection of the business. I think because of the consolidation that has happened over the last five years, the syndication world is never going to look like it used to. There aren’t the opportunities for independent producers to come up with new first-run shows, and the 20 or 30 companies that used to produce syndicated properties over the years are now six companies. So we reflect that by having those companies there.
Everybody I know would love to have the situation be more fertile than it is, but it is what it is. And so what we’re trying to do is reflect the business as it stands. While NATPE used to be essentially a domestic TV syndication show, we’re not really a global digital distribution show. And domestic TV syndication, both on cable and on broadcast, and on other forms, is one of the things we reflect at NATPE. But now instead of all the conversation, it’s a big part of the conversation.
TVWeek: How are reservations this year stacking up compared with last year?
Mr. Feldman: It looks like it’s going to be about the same. We had pretty close to 8,000 people last year, and I think we’re going to have, give or take, about 8,000 this year as well. I don’t see any major growth opportunities right now, and so I think until some of the business paradigms change … you know, there’s been a lot of conversation and a lot of talk about the new ways that shows are distributed, but a lot of that is off the backs of the shows as they’re originally distributed on network, and a lot of those platforms haven’t really developed revenue streams yet. So until those businesses really become robust and thriving businesses, I think NATPE for the next year or two will stay pretty similar to where we are right now.
TVWeek: What about change in the composition of the people who are showing up?
Mr. Feldman: Well, there has definitely been that. We used to have more people from TV stations, and now because the stations are in groups, we get group heads from the stations. So where we might have gotten 50 people or 20 people from a group, now we’ll get seven, eight or nine. We’ll get some program managers, some people from corporate, so that has been a change. By the same token, we get people from Roo and Narrowstep and Brightcove and AOL and Nokia, you know, people that we wouldn’t have gotten. The new people don’t make up for a lot of the station people that used to come. While it’s a more diverse group of people, it’s not going to be as big.
TVWeek: How does the conference help people in the syndication industry understand the new stuff that’s coming in the next couple of years?
Mr. Feldman: Well, I think everybody who is in the traditional syndication business has their goals and their P&L’s and their day-to-day aggravations, and they don’t necessarily always have time to take to sit back and listen to ideas expressed from people that are tangential to their world and may ultimately affect their world. They may not affect their world that day, and so I think that if people take the time to go on our Web site a month or two before they end up going to NATPE, what I’m hoping is that they will take an hour each day and they’ll go to something or listen to someone who will say something that when they walk away from that, they’ll think, “That’s a really good idea. I can actually do something with that.”‘
Or that will spur somebody to think in a different way, because we all know you get into a company and there’s an ethos in the company, there’s a mind-set in the company, many people think the same way, and a lot of these companies are, unfortunately, not able to choose the way things are done. You don’t have the time to speak with many people in the outside world, as you’d like. I think the opportunity to hear people who are doing similar things to what you’re doing may be able to give you ideas you haven’t thought of. That’s what I’m trying to present at NATPE.
TVWeek: What about Mobile ++? How has that grown in the past three years, and what will it be focused on this time?
Mr. Feldman: Well, it’s growing mightily, actually. The first year we had about 250 pays and this year we have a total of 600 pays and then maybe 700 people total, and that’s changing in the sense that originally when we started-almost three years ago-everybody was talking about mobile and that was kind of like the major platform. That was the cat’s meow. Over the last couple of years, that’s changed. While mobile is still very important, people haven’t yet figured out what format to present the information or the content, and exactly how to monetize it, really.
Original programming for the cellphone is OK, but basically limited. People are talking much more now about the opportunities to create content directly for the Web. So what I think you’re going to see is NATPE Mobile morph into a much more vertically integrated digital day rather than a mobile day. It’ll be much broader in year three than it was in year one or year two.
TVWeek: The conference is at the Mandalay Bay …
Mr. Feldman: Yes. NATPE Mobi
le is on Monday, Jan. 15. The Brandon Tartikoff Awards is Monday night, and then our keynote is Tuesday morning. We then go all three days, Jan. 16, 17, 18, at the Mandalay Bay.
TVWeek: Do you figure that the conference will be at the Mandalay Bay in coming years?
Mr. Feldman: It’ll be there as long as I’m here.
TVWeek: How long are you planning to do this?
Mr. Feldman: I’m committed to do this through NATPE ’09, and then I will take a more laid-back, ceremonial role and help the organization find my successor. Six years is good, and after that the hero that you are turns into the bum you’re destined to become. So I will try to avoid that.
TVWeek: So you’ve been president since 2003?
Mr. Feldman: Correct.
TVWeek: Taking a kind of roundup approach to looking at what has happened in the business, characterize the evolution and where you think it’s going to go.
Mr. Feldman: I think there are a macro and a micro way of looking at this. The way I look at it is that the linear world is coming to an end, and that ultimately people are going to find many, many different ways to pay for content. And the problem over the next couple of years is going to be how to create business paradigms that will support the fractionalization of the business.
That’s one of the reasons why Chris Anderson, who wrote “The Long Tail,” is there. What Chris Anderson talks about is the monetization of the stuff at the end of the tail, which I think is a great thing. NetFlix is a perfect example. NetFlix takes advantage of the long tail by being able to monetize content and movies. But the problem will be for [NetFlix founder] Reed Hastings three years from now is that people are not going to be any longer accessing DVDs through the mail. So what is the business paradigm going to be, and is he going to be able to keep this great idea going?
All of these businesses that are being developed kind of monetize content, either major content in its B, C, D iteration or B, C, D content from the beginning-we’re not sure how that’s going to work. So while the digitalization of the business has led to much more freedom and democracy and access to content, and while people want to talk about user-generated content in YouTube, now that YouTube is part of a big organization, they’re going to have their issues.
Copyright’s going to be an issue; Comedy Central’s content on YouTube isn’t going to be there anymore. You know, if you’re Comedy Central why do you want your content on YouTube? Yes, a lot of people go to YouTube, but don’t you want them going to your Web site? And once they come to your Web site, is it free or do you want to make them pay for it?
The development that I have seen in the last three years is how incredibly complex this business has become and how, if you’re a guy who’s been in the business a long time and have done a bunch of great, wonderful things, maybe a lot of the things that you learned and a lot of the experience you have is not particularly valid or relevant right now and you may be holding onto ideas that aren’t very good. Some of these young people are going to come in with ideas and you’re going, “No, we did that already and it didn’t work,” but now it may be the time.
I see a lot of significant push-pull in companies between the digital people and the more traditional people, some of the older people vs. the younger people. There’s a lot of push-pull that’s not even generational, just conceptwise: What ideas are going to win out? And considering I have a lot of access to a lot of people and I’m able to pick their brains, I’m amazed by the wealth of smart people we have in our business, but also how challenged they are by the current environment.