Rewriting the Calendar

Hundreds of TV broadcasters, mostly station GMs and sales managers, will go to New York three months from now to rub shoulders with advertisers and to catch up on what's going on in their companies and the industry.

The impetus is the Television Bureau of Advertising, the trade group whose mission is to drive national advertising into local TV stations. For the first time ever, TVB is holding a one-day ad sales conference in conjunction with the New York Auto Show. The March 26 gathering is intended to bring together broadcasters, automobile manufacturers and other major advertisers.

But the broadcasters will have other reasons to go to New York. Many will attend company management meetings or the NBC affiliate meeting scheduled around the TVB conference. Many will entertain advertisers, agencies and media buyers.

"The conference is building some real momentum," says TVB President Chris Rohrs.

If the new TVB conference proves a winner, it will be an exception. Just about every other national convention and conference marking the TV calendar—from NATPE in January to The Western Show in November—is declining in size or importance.

The downsizing of the traditional industry meeting places reflects fundamental changes in the business wrought by consolidation, centralized management and, for the foreseeable future, more modest growth projections.

More than ever, managers are demanding that their subordinates justify business travel. They want to make sure the conventions they attend are worth every T&E dollar. Indeed, a new trade-show culture has emerged. In the past, it was business and pleasure. Now it's just business.

If managers are going to send their people on the road, it will be to sell, not to buy. That's why TVB—a selling conference—is attracting bodies, while traditional shows are losing them.

"All the trade organizations are or need to be reviewing their goals," says Jack Sander, president of the Belo TV station group. "In some cases they got so large and diverse that to some degree they lost focus, at least for companies like ours."

"The [cable] industry had been consolidating for five or seven years," says Char Beales, president of the Cable & Telecommunications Association of Marketing. "But it hadn't affected trade shows until this year when it all hit at once."

Troubles Everywhere

During the 1980s and most of the 1990s, the stature of the National Association of Television Programming Executives convention grew because broadcast program syndicators needed a place to meet broadcasters from the hundreds of TV stations across the country and sell them first-run shows and off-network sitcoms and dramas.

But due to recent station-ownership consolidation, syndicators found they could "clear" shows for much of the country through one-on-one meetings with several key station-group executives. In some cases, syndicators found themselves in the same media corporations with large station groups.

Consolidation also reshaped the syndication world. Over the past several years, the number of important syndicators has dwindled to fewer than a dozen. If they wanted, station buyers could sample all the new shows in one quick trip to Los Angeles.

It didn't happen overnight, but the relentless consolidation on both the sell and buy sides has made NATPE a bit of an anachronism, an artifact of a time when hundreds of TV stations independently chose programming from dozens of competing program producers. Last January, attendance dropped precipitously, especially among broadcasters. And at this year's show, slated to begin a four-day run in Las Vegas Convention Center on Jan. 21, attendance and exhibiting-company lists are expected to decline again. Exacerbating the situation: The major syndicators, led by Warner Bros., have decided to exhibit not on the floor, but across town at the Venetian Hotel suites.

Registration for NATPE is pacing 40% below last year. Early this month, the number of exhibitors registered was approximately 500—some 360 fewer than last year. Two hundred of the missing are no longer in business, having been bought or gone belly up.

Consolidation's repercussions have shaken the two principal cable conventions—the National Cable & Telecommunications Association convention in the spring, and The Western Show in late fall. Traditionally, these have been places where cable operators have shopped for programming and hardware.

Incessant deal-making has put 80% of cable subscribers in the hands of just six companies. The just-announced merger of AT&T and Comcast is only the latest in this trend. And a handful of executives at these companies are making most of the buying decisions.

The Western Show, the number-two show on the cable calendar, has been hit hardest by the consolidation. With most of the major programmers abandoning the exhibit floor, attendance fell 48% to just 17,000. So steep was the decline that many cable operators and programmers question its future as a national event. It may revert, they say, to what it was—a modest regional show for California and a few other Western states.

Attendance at the NCTA convention in Chicago last spring fell 20% to 24,000. This year's convention, set for New Orleans, May 5-8, may experience further erosion, but nothing like the Western Show's. Most programmers plan to exhibit and most cable operators recognize the need for the convention as an industry showcase.

"At the very least, we need to have a huge, all-stops-pulled trade show," says NCTA Chairman Michael Willner, "so we can showcase the industry to the financial and general press, regulators, and show them what we're doing and how we're doing it."

It's too early to tell if fewer programmers will be on the floor at the National Show, although Starz and Encore have already said they won't be back. Showtime, HBO and ESPN have agreed to take suites.

NCTA officials believe heavy floor traffic is key to making the show look and feel like a success. To up traffic, the opening general session and some smaller panel sessions will take place on show floor. "I can't assume people will come just because they have for many years and even though it's the national show. I need to give them a reason," says NCTA's Vice President of Industry Affairs Barbara York.

The National Association of Broadcasters annual convention, the huge show at the heart of the broadcast year, is still the most important marketplace of professional video and audio gear in the world, attracting not only broadcasters, but also producers from production and post-production houses, corporations, government and the health-care industry. "In terms of where do you go to see technology, NAB is still the place," says Alec Shapiro, a marketing executive for Sony, NAB's largest exhibitor.

As a technology show, it still attracts broadcast engineers and technicians charged with buying. But as a broadcasting convention, NAB is something of a bust. It no longer draws the top managers in the industry or even a critical mass of network or station executives. When this year's convention opens its doors in Las Vegas on April 6, most station GMs will be at their desks.

Part of the NAB convention's problem is that three of its largest and most important members quit the association over policy differences. CBS, Fox and NBC will send engineers to the convention to shop, but they feel no obligation to send executives to attend management sessions or to show the flag. It also didn't help that TVB has decided to shift its sales conference from NAB to the New York Auto Show.

Major station groups are paring back the number of executives they send. Hearst-Argyle, which once sent managers from each of its stations, now sends a core of eight to 10 managers. Tribune Television, the fourth-ranked station operator in the country, says it will send just six managers and engineers to NAB. Still, says Tribune Television President Pat Mullen, "I suspect NAB will still be a very healthy convention."

The NAB in Las Vegas last April was down, but only slightly. Attendance dropped from 115,000 in 2000 to 113,000. Exhibition space shrank from 953,000 square feet to 938,000 square feet. Chris Brown, NAB's senior vice president in charge of conventions, does not expect any significant fall-off this year. "In the long run, if people are only going to be able to go to one show this year, we are going to stack up well against their other choices," says Brown.

Time To Rethink

Hard-pressed or not, all the traditional conventions are looking for ways to reinvent themselves and attract more people. NATPE has been drawing more international broadcasters, who like the show's January timing and find much value in the one-stop shopping the show provides.

Organizers believe they may be able to help syndicators sell their time to advertisers—now their top priority. NATPE Chairman Jon Mandel, a top media buyer, has been pushing the idea of NATPE-sponsored screenings of syndicated shows for advertisers, possibly in New York.

NATPE has also begun merger discussions with the PROMAX/BDA, a struggling convention of TV promotion executives. With prospects bleak for this year's convention in June in Los Angeles, PROMAX hopes that it can bolster itself and NATPE by cooperating. "There are obvious synergies in the audiences that we have," says PROMAX/BDA President Glynn Brailsford.

To consider its options, NATPE has formed a committee under Tony Vinciquerra, the newly named president of Fox Television Network. "The conference certainly has a place," he says. "Everyone wants to say NATPE is a horrible thing and should be dead. But the fact is it's a huge international convention."

A wild card is the Syndicated Network Television Association, representing the broadcast program syndicators on Madison Avenue. It's searching for a new president, and, following TVB's lead, it is mulling over a screening in New York to tout members' shows to advertisers.

Like PROMAX, the Radio-Television News Directors Association's annual convention has fallen on hard times with declining attendance and a shrinking exhibit. Then it had to cancel the last show scheduled to open the day after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

And like PROMAX, RTNDA thinks the solution to its problems may be a merger. It's now talking about joining with the NAB's conference. Such a combination seems to make sense since news directors are interested in the hardware on the NAB exhibit.

Another merger in the works involved NCTA and the Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing. They are talking about folding its CTAM Digital and Pay Per View conference in with the NCTA convention. CTAM Digital is now scheduled for March 5-8 in Los Angeles.

By focusing on selling rather than buying, TVB seems to have caught a wave. ABC, LIN, NBC, Tribune, Nexstar and Hearst-Argyle Television have set company meetings tied to TVB. Others including Gannett and Scripps are considering it.

TVB was smart to move its conference from NAB in Las Vegas to the auto show in New York, says Paul Karpowicz, vice president, LIN Television. Once his sales managers were done with the TVB sessions at NAB, he says, "there was nothing else for them to do other than maybe play golf."