At the crossroads

In 2002, the NATPE market suffered a major blow when several big studios decamped from the market floor to nearby hotels. Will this year be its moment of truth? JANET STILSON talks to organizers and attendees about the market's future
January 1, 2003

In 2002, the NATPE market suffered a major blow when several big studios decamped from the market floor to nearby hotels. Will this year be its moment of truth? JANET STILSON talks to organizers and attendees about the market’s future

There was a surreal quality to the rock ‘n’ roll party that Tribune Entertainment held in New Orleans, U.S., in 1991. In some respects, it was a classic NATPE gathering – television executives, programming heavyweights and various hangers-on packed the boozy, raucous Big Easy club after a day spent buying and selling TV programs on the market floor. But, Geraldo Rivera kept jumping on stage to give the assembled revelers play-by-play reports of Operation Desert Storm. U.S. forces had just begun bombing Baghdad and Kuwait, and it had thrown the annual convention into a state of nervous expectancy.

This year, as the Santa Monica, U.S.-based National Association of Television Program Executives readies for yet another gathering in New Orleans (January 20 to 23), ‘Son of Desert Storm’ is jarring the nerves of many a TV exec. The coincidence lends perspective to some numbers: fewer than 9,000 people attended the show in 1991 – just slightly less than the 10,000 expected at this month’s event. Yet only two years ago, at the height of the euphoric dot-com era, the number of attendees swelled to over 20,000.

The swings in attendance and mood of NATPE over the past dozen years parallel an industry that has been on a roller-coaster ride of change. The explosion of cable channels throughout the ’90s, particularly in the U.S., made the NATPE market essential. Buyers and sellers converged to cut deals on every variety of show, including factual. Now that finances are tight all around, everyone in the industry is rethinking how – and where – to do business.

The disappearance from NATPE last year of most of the elaborate multimillion-dollar Hollywood-studio exhibits has led to an even greater exodus of smaller exhibitors in 2003. While NATPE is expecting around 100 exhibitors, and booths from significant players such as Discovery Communications and Hearst Entertainment, buyers are facing a scheduling dilemma.

Last year in Las Vegas, those with purchasing power trekked back and forth between the NATPE convention and the Venetian Hotel to visit the studios’ hospitality suites. This year, buyers will be shuttling between the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center and about six hotels.

In many respects, NATPE is caught between a rock and a hard place. It is committed by contract to convention-center space in New Orleans at a time when the industry is crying out for more cost-efficient ways of conducting business. Adopting a ‘you can’t fight city hall’ philosophy, NATPE is planning to transition to a more deliberate and organized hotel-suite configuration in Las Vegas next year, according to Bruce Johansen, president and CEO of NATPE. He also notes that Vegas is much easier for the entertainment industry to flock to than New Orleans, because of more convenient flight schedules.

As for this year: ‘We’ll lose money on this convention,’ says Johansen. ‘But, we’ve built reserves for such a rainy day, and we’re not stinting on anything. It will be a quality show – an investment in the future.’

The very future of NATPE is a question on the minds of some. ‘The sense I get is whether NATPE even continues or not is contingent on the success or failure of the show in 2003,’ says Kevin Byles, VP and general manager of Toronto, Canada-based CHUM TV International.

This point hasn’t been lost on NATPE organizers. Says Johansen, ‘NATPE is going to be different than it was last year in several ways. We weren’t aware of what was going to happen last year. We’re better organized now.’

To troubleshoot potential scheduling nightmares for buyers, a so-called Hollywood Plaza area of the convention floor has been added, where attendees can find out where distributors that have opted to take hotel hospitality suites are located.

‘The second thing is, we’re doing events on the floor that we didn’t have before, such as panel sessions,’ Johansen says, explaining that NATPE learned from other conventions that attendees like the convenience of conference sessions integrated into exhibition areas. NATPE is also throwing a happy hour on the floor this year to increase the opportunities for people to meet and greet.

For many, networking, rather than deal-making, has become one of the key purposes of going to NATPE. Gary Lico, president and ceo of the Stamford, U.S.-based doc distributor CABLEready, explains: ‘The reason for NATPE has changed. You don’t need to reach 130 stations anymore.’ Due to consolidation of U.S. TV station groups, ‘you can reach them in five phone calls. For us, NATPE is like the prom – to see and be seen, to catch up with friends and make sure you look good.’ CABLEready, which is promoting shows including The Electric Lounge (Planet Productions, Steamboat, U.S.), a 13 x half-hour series, and Cosmodrome (St. Paul, U.S-based Bosch Media Group), a two-hour special, is one of the companies that opted to exhibit on the floor. CHUM is using NATPE as an opportunity to convene the program directors of its many stations, which are dispersed across Canada. ‘A programming meeting at NATPE is relatively inexpensive, and we get value out of the U.S. environment,’ says Jay Switzer, president and CEO of CHUM and a former NATPE board member. The Canadian company is shopping Exposed, a 10 x 30-minute celeb interview series, among other programs.

Indeed, NATPE has encouraged several U.S. TV station groups to hold corporate meetings in conjunction with the show, among them Fox, CBS and NBC. ‘ABC is the holdout,’ says Johansen. ‘These are the key buyers. We’re helping with their meeting costs, supporting them with hotel accommodations.’ In some instances, he says, the organization has arranged free accommodations and in other instances, financial incentives.

In fact, NATPE has made exhibiting ‘much less expensive,’ Johansen says. CABLEready‘s Lico notes that NATPE made deliberate attempts to make exhibition space more cost effective for smaller distributors in past years as well. But for many, the price is still too high, and that is why so many more exhibitors are defecting to suites this year.

Says CHUM International’s Byles,’I have no axe to grind with NATPE. It comes down to a cost issue. In Las Vegas last year, with the split venues…I saw less than half the traffic. We want NATPE to continue, but…I have to be careful about how I spend my money.’ As a result, CHUM is opting for a suite at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, where several major distributors will have a presence.

‘It doesn’t make sense to pay north of $50,000 for exhibition space when you can do it in a hotel for $10,000,’ says Max Weiner, co-managing director of Brussels, Belgium-based distrib CDC United Network. His organization, as well as several other companies that target Latin American buyers, have organized hotel suites at the Marriott Hotel. ‘We’re no longer willing to pay the exorbitant amounts that NATPE requests, given what we can expect to make in return.’

Continues Weiner, ‘They were charging $300 to $400 a day for video [equipment] rental. That’s what it costs to buy them at retail. They aren’t fooling anyone. They haven’t bought any goodwill from me.’ CDC is selling factual shows such as Terrorism in Washington a one-hour one-off produced by Latin American pay-TV channel Infinito.

E! Networks is another supplier that simply can’t make the economics work to remain on the exhibition floor. This is the second year the channel has opted for hotel space – this time at the Ritz. ‘NATPE right now is a place where you can keep up current relationships and start discussions for new business,’ but it’s not necessarily a place where you rack up big sales, explains Duccio Donati, E!’s vice president of international sales.

That rationale is echoed by Brian Kelly, vice president of production at Arlington, U.S.-based Henninger Productions. ‘We’re in constant contact with our clients, so while NATPE has always been a nice perk, I’m not sure we can quantify any sales.’ For that reason, the exhibition space was ‘very high’ on Henninger’s list of expenses to cut. Instead, its staffers will walk the floor to raise interest in programs such as Anatomy Of…, a 13 x one-hour series, and Secret Societies, 10 half-hours.

Despite the sharp words that some, like Weiner, evince when speaking of NATPE, others feel the event’s changed circumstances have to do with larger forces at work.

E!’s Donati says his company has used NATPE as a means to connect with clients in Latin America and Asia. But, the Asia TV Forum, held in Singapore in December, has helped satisfy E!’s need in that region, and the fragile economic condition faced by Latin American networks has made NATPE less vital in reaching that constituency.

‘I think there’s still value to NATPE, but it isn’t the same as it used to be,’ says Donna Harrison, senior VP of unscripted and reality programming at Tribune Entertainment. She notes that distributors are selling shows much earlier in the cycle than they used to. ‘I think it’s important for NATPE to evolve, but I don’t have the answers on what that evolution should be.’

This year, exhibit booth defectors and loyalists alike seem anxious to see how the nature of the show – dispersed across so many locations – will be viewed by the attendees that are most crucial: the buyers. As CDC’s Weiner puts it: ‘The question is, will they show up, or will it be chaos?’

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