A Different NATPE World

Change comes slowly in the huge factories that are TV studios, but many business-development executives say that producers, writers and other members of the creative community need to start thinking in terms of creating shows for all sorts of new platforms.

The proof of that will be in plain sight at the National Association of Television Programming Executives (NATPE) conference beginning Jan. 24 in Las Vegas. By quick count, 21 NATPE panel discussions—not quite half—will cover the new delivery platforms, from iPods to mobile phones to DVDs to video-on-demand. That’s at a conference that has been mainly a programming convention selling syndicated programs and reruns to TV stations and international outlets.

“We need to be proactive about finding pieces of material that lend themselves to creating original content for multiple digital platforms,” says Zach Van Anberg, co-president of programming and production for Sony Pictures Television.

Programmers are exploring how they can maximize a show’s value via all emerging platforms. New distribution routes may change the off-net syndication window or eliminate it altogether for some network shows. ABC, for example, was the first network to offer episodes of current shows for download on Apple’s iTunes store for $1.99 each. The first to become available were No. 1 show Desperate Housewives, Lost and Commander-in-Chief, all of which are serialized and may have a tough time in syndication.

But Disney executives aren’t sure that every show should be available on-demand. Grey’s Anatomy, for example, which has “closed-end’ episodes, isn’t available on iTunes.

“There may be better ways to maximize our opportunities through syndication,” says Albert Cheng, executive VP of digital media for Disney-ABC Television Group. “It’s too early to know if on-demand lowers a show’s syndication value, but I think we’ll start to learn that there are no risks of hurting the show in the downstream window by making it available by on-demand today.”

So networks are testing the waters. That’s why, so far this broadcast season, Viacom-owned CBS and UPN have been experimenting with lots of different methods of distribution. CBS streamed episodes of now benched sci-fi thriller Threshold over its Web site at CBS.com to try to boost viewership. The network also let fans watch a repeat showing of the pivotal but lightly watched Thanksgiving episode of Survivor online. UPN streamed Everybody Hates Chris over Google TV, and CBS made two episodes each of Monday-night comedies How I Met Your Mother and Out of Practice available on Yahoo! TV. A couple of weeks ago at the Consumer Electronics Show, CBS announced that it will team with Google to offer old episodes of CSI and Survivor.

TV studios and networks hope these new outlets will eventually create new revenue streams. Right now, though, they’re just promotional vehicles.

“We are using all of these platforms to drive awareness of the shows and bring in more viewers,” says ABC’s Cheng. “Whether you can actually use these platforms in terms of storylines and whether they make you think differently about TV shows in general is still unknown. We’re used to watching shows that are pretty linear and passive.”

NBC makes programs available on iTunes and offers loads of clips and other information on its NBC broadband site. NBC Universal’s wholly owned The Office has been one of the most popular downloads on iTunes, which executives hope will boost the show’s popularity in its new slot on Thursday nights.

“When we sat down during the summer after the show’s second-season pickup, we thought The Office would be an excellent show to take advantage of in the digital realm,” says Shelley McCrory, senior VP of comedy series for NBC Universal. “Early adapters fit right into this show’s key demographics. You look at what’s happened to the show on iTunes, and the sensibility of the show really appeals to the next generation of viewers. But that wasn’t something we were necessarily thinking about when the show was developed.”

It is something NBC is thinking about now, McCrory says: “There’s a lot of talent out there, but it’s not all ready for prime time. Getting that talent on other platforms is very much a part of our mission right now.”

Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for nearly 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for entertainment marketing association Promax. She has written for such publications as TVNewsCheck, The New York Post, Variety, CBS Watch and more. Albiniak was B+C’s Los Angeles bureau chief from September 2002 to 2004, and an associate editor covering Congress and lobbying for the magazine in Washington, D.C., from January 1997-September 2002.