Special report: Notes on NATPE

While Xena has managed to squeeze herself into a leather bustier and onto most tv sets in North America, non-fiction producers traditionally find it a little more difficult to find a comfortable place in the syndication scheme of things. While more...
January 1, 1998

While Xena has managed to squeeze herself into a leather bustier and onto most tv sets in North America, non-fiction producers traditionally find it a little more difficult to find a comfortable place in the syndication scheme of things. While more networks should mean better access to the U.S. market, less independents translates into fewer decision-makers choosing programs for an expanding audience. Add to that the fragmentation brought on by new cable channels, and you have a market significantly changed over the past decade.

natpe used to be the conference for Americans to sell to Americans, but changes in the market have ushered in a growing number of foreign players. Some see the influx as a move away from natpe’s original intent, but as event president Bruce Johansen pointed out last year, ‘Had the conference remained as it was, we would probably not have a natpe conference today.’ With fewer outlets in the u.s., the gathering needed to expand its horizons to keep from becoming a non-event.

But with natpe, the third fall/winter market after mipcom and Mip Asia, evolving into another international market, the question is whether or not it’s just an expensive duplication of efforts – whether it provides attendees with business opportunities other markets don’t.

While distributors peddling leather-clad warriors seem guaranteed success, non-fiction is a more complicated sell. The Martha Stewarts have broken new ground, bringing non-fiction into primetime, but has that translated into easier or more sales in the u.s. market?


Most distributors remark that there are really two markets taking place simultaneously in New Orleans: the domestic syndication market and the international, which may soon rival those in Europe. The strange thing about the emergence of an international aspect to NATPE is that it has not superseded the traditional syndication.

The fact that many major participants now take out two booths demonstrates the dual importance of the event. Companies like Columbia Tristar, PolyGram and Warner have the standard, New Orleans-sized mega-booths to cater to the syndication market, but have also begun investing in sub-booths to serve international clients.

NATPE’s new role is not lost on foreign vendors either. ‘I think natpe has two different identities, depending on which department in a company you speak to,’ observes Mickie Steinmann, vp of international television and home video at Paris-based Gaumont Television.


ABC, CBS and NBC, the grandparents of American television, are now feeling a squeeze on the dial thanks to the arrival of several upstarts. fox, the fourth network, has recently been joined by upn and the Warner Brothers Network, bringing the count of networks with a national footprint to six. This concentration has changed the face of syndication in the U.S.

‘With UPN and Warner, two independent stations in every market in the U.S. are gone,’ explains Mickie Steinmann of Gaumont. ‘That doesn’t leave too many seven-station markets.’ Few cities, except those the size of Los Angeles, have a seventh station. Not even New York can claim a non-network station now. The choice for distributors and producers really comes down to trying their luck in the syndication market or opting for cable, which usually means accepting less money and exposure.

‘It takes a lot of muscle and wherewithal to launch a syndicated show,’ says Gary Benz, president of California’s GRB Entertainment, ‘especially when you’re going against the major independents like King World or Paramount, which have shows that work and are going to be renewed for many years.’

GRB is hoping for syndication success with their Movie Magic series, but factual slots are not easy to come by, and are quickly swallowed by magazine formats, game shows and reality tv, leaving little room for anything else.

The crunch is being felt by network member stations as well. Besides advertising revenue, most affiliates make their money from selling local news. Capturing the audience to make that sale as profitable as possible can only be accomplished by running a big lead-in program to snare viewers and hold them for the news.

‘If you want to be number one in the marketplace, you have to buy one of these winning shows,’ says Benz. ‘But often the terms exacted on the stations is very tough – like having to buy packages of shows, or shows for a long time.’ However, with a sharp eye on the competition, stations are often willing to cough up big money for name shows in key slots.

Cable is more receptive to new programming, and penetration is high and growing, making it an attractive alternative to syndication for some distributors.

‘More and more people are turning to cable,’ says Steinmann. ‘The smaller, and even some of the mid-sized companies, don’t have the luxury of employing ten people to do syndication anymore. It’s also rarely a flat buy anymore. It’s usually barter, so not only do you need the sales people to syndicate the show, but you need the people to sell the ad time.’

As complicated as it has become, the syndication market remains the first choice of producers and distributors. ‘It’s more stable to go to the networks,’ explains Steinmann. ‘The cable guys don’t pay that well, and they like to control a lot of ancillary rights.’ The trick to making a dent in the syndication market seems to lie in finding an unexploited niche or trend which will capture the audience and bring in ratings as inexpensively as possible.

Syndication is lucrative, even though advertising dollars are being carved up six ways between the networks. It is, however, a market which now belongs almost completely to sitcoms, aside from fiction series such as Baywatch and Star Trek: The Next Generation. Getting non-fiction on-air in a desirable slot requires a magician’s sleight of hand. Even the Bob Villas and Martha Stewarts of the little screen, who have carved an impressive niche for themselves, can’t command the audiences required of the top slots. Children’s programming, the traditional backbone of the syndication market, is also feeling the pinch, as only a few companies control the entire market, making it almost impossible for newcomers to make a go of it.


What happens at natpe: the syndication market, is very much removed from natpe: the international market. The two seem to coexist with little interaction and only minor difficulties.

‘At NATPE,’ warns Benz, ‘you go deaf from the shout of the major syndicators. It’s a big market and it’s important to them. They put so much fanfare behind it that other people’s messages might get dwarfed. To me, I don’t feel as a small independent that I’m competing with the majors. And my buyers, especially the international ones, are not there to listen to the domestic fanfare. They are there to hear about new projects for the international market.’

While domestic sales are still thriving, regardless of who is buying, a question remains about the role of foreign players in a traditional American market. Is the television world ready for another global market at the end of the year, and what role will it fill? After mipcom and Mip Asia, what’s left over for natpe? Tom Devlin, senior vp of international sales at New York’s Hearst Entertainment quips: ‘I’m not a farmer. I don’t have another crop to bring to the marketplace every month.’

While mipcom is the undisputed mainstay of the international broadcasting community, the calendar gives natpe a distinct advantage over its competitors. Coming after the September launches, natpe offers buyers the advantage of seeing how series and one-offs have performed in other markets. January also marks the start of the fiscal year for most buyers, allowing them to start the process of dealing for the new season unencumbered by past obligations. ‘From an international point of view,’ explains Steinmann, ‘[natpe]‘s on par with mipcom, and maybe even growing more important.’

Mip Asia, on the other hand, seems to be the poor cousin next to the other markets. The obvious criticism is it’s too far and too expensive, but it also has not delivered the buyers who can’t be found at other markets.

International distributors see natpe as an opportunity to meet and greet where the Americans feel most comfortable. While other markets see the lower echelons attending, Steinmann points out that NATPE brings out the ‘big guns’ from both the American and international players, a situation which makes it the ideal situation to talk coproductions.

Tim Smith, executive vp of production at L.A.’s Unapix Entertainment says natpe is the perfect setting to hash out coproduction deals. ‘Everyone’s there, and they’re in the proper mindset. They’re in the market for something like that, so it’s more productive.’

natpe tends to look more like the middle ring of a circus than a market as some attendees go all out, but with half the participants of mipcom, there’s a chance to do some honest dealing. London distributor Itel takes advantage of natpe’s positioning to use it as a launching pad for that year’s programming slate.

‘It’s really the first opportunity for us to unveil the sorts of programming we’re going to have for the rest of the year,’ explains Mike Morris, head of marketing and business development at Itel. ‘We’re there to sell to Latin America. We’re there to sell to Asia. We’re there to support our European deals. We’re not there to compete against King World’s syndication deals.’

Oblivious to the displaced Hollywood glitz of the syndication crowd, many Europeans see natpe as the start of their selling cycle. It’s a cycle which continues on to Monte Carlo, mip-tv, mipcom and then L.A. Screenings. NATPE and L.A. Screenings are the two best opportunities for distributors to reach the important Latin American market, with natpe also delivering a large Asian contingent.


It remains to be seen whether NATPE will play an even more important role for factual programming in the future. While all distributors are bringing some share of their non-fiction catalogues, the syndication market and networks now belong to the Seinfelds and Simpsons of the dial. The big players have an appetite for ‘real tv’, but cable will remain the mainstay for non-fiction producers, with the occasional foray into the lucrative world of network syndication.

Gary Benz does have some sympathetic, if uncertain, encouragement for producers in the genre. ‘I think what things like Martha Stewart’s success demonstrates is that no one really has a handle on this. New shows can break out. They might not all be super-high profile, but there are niches out there that people can go out and capture and do well with.’

In this Report:
-Notes on NATPE
-Unravelling the Latin Puzzle

About The Author
Andrew Tracy joined Realscreen as associate editor in 2021, following 17 years as managing editor of the award-winning international film magazine Cinema Scope. From 2010 to 2020 he also held the position of senior editor at the Toronto International Film Festival, where he oversaw the flagship publication for the organization’s year-round Cinematheque programming and edited its first original monograph in a decade, Steve Gravestock’s A History of Icelandic Film. He was a scriptwriter and consultant on the first season of the Vice TV series The Vice Guide to Film, and his writing and reporting have been featured in such outlets as Cinema Scope, Reverse Shot, Sight & Sound, Cineaste, Film Comment, MUBI Notebook, POV, and Montage.