Why NATPE Matters

You hear it every year about this time. As the industry converges on Las Vegas for the annual National Association of Television Program Executives (NATPE) confab, some network or studio honcho inevitably bitches: “Why are we even going to NATPE?”

“Any business we still need to get done would get done without spending the time and money to meet in Vegas,” they say. “There’s no point.”

At the risk of sounding like a shill for NATPE President Rick Feldman, I couldn’t disagree more. By the time this week’s powwow wraps on Thursday, all who dive in there will have a much clearer picture of the convulsions that are rocking the industry—and where the opportunities for growth will be.

Sure, syndication is a mature business dominated by a handful of conglomerated behemoths that scream “Old Media.” But this segment of the industry has a history of reinvigorating the medium with innovative content, creative distribution and an ability to connect with viewers. NATPE, still a lively bazaar for syndication, has always been about filling niches. And never before have there been so many niches to fill.

NATPE has wisely recast itself to address the programming needs of virtually every segment of new media, from mobile to the Web to hi-def. It has grown into an all-inclusive international marketplace. With Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!, Comcast, AT&T and Verizon sure to be represented, NATPE truly has become cross-platform central.

NATPE has always been about finding new platforms for programming. How else would a failed NBC series like Baywatch become a runaway syndication hit at home and abroad? Five years ago, it would be unthinkable for cable networks to sell syndicated runs of their original series to stations; now it’s standard operating procedure: Witness the success of Sex and the City, among others.

Syndication still generates billions of dollars, in part because the real success stories have always been distribution agnostics. Forward-thinking distributors have had success with giving first-run syndication fare a cable window, such as The Ellen DeGeneres Show and The Tyra Banks Show on Oxygen.

That mindset will allow the industry to be perfectly positioned in the marketplace as new distribution platforms present themselves, whether they be digital stations, Websites or iPhones. And it’s that capacity for innovation that can lead the industry to embrace new ideas and opportunities, like the ones outlined in our cover story this week (p. 24).

The dilemma facing all the programmers dragging themselves to NATPE isn’t so much a matter of distribution as supply. With yet more court shows and talkers in the pipeline, the business is struggling through a creative lull. Although it’s hard to remember now, stalwarts like The Oprah Winfrey Show, Entertainment Tonight and Wheel of Fortune broke new ground in their ability to connect with audiences long before they went on to become franchises and make stupid amounts of money year after year.

It’s that spirit that programmers need to reconnect with. The opportunity they face reminds me of that classic commercial for high-end haberdashery Barneys. The spot shows a group of boys asking one another what they want to be when they grow up. The usual litany follows: a fireman, a baseball player, doctor. Then one boy asks: “What do you want to be, Barney?” We hear “Barney’s” inner voice: “They’re all going to need clothes.”

So, when you’re at NATPE this week, remember: Be it Fox affiliates, AT&T or Slingbox, they’re all going to need programming.