The just-concluded NATPE convention reflected a clear picture of the state of the TV broadcasting business: plummeting revenue, layoffs and cuts in service. Rick Feldman and the association have some work to do to see the show survive, but it can. Broadcasters still need a place where they can shop for programming, compare notes and plot together on how they can reinvent themselves. But such a place has to be right-sized for the times and perhaps moved up on the calendar.
In one sense (and perhaps only one), the NATPE conference that just wrapped up in Las Vegas’s Mandalay Bay Hotel was a roaring success.
As any good trade show should, it revealed a clear picture of the state of the TV broadcasting business.
Unfortunately, it’s not a pretty picture, sort of like the one Dorian Gray had stashed in his attic. It’s marred by plummeting revenue, layoffs and cuts in service — all kinds of ugly stuff.
Maybe that’s why so many broadcasters stayed away from the conference. Who wants to dwell on that picture?
The biggest broadcasting event at NATPE was a luncheon and panel session hosted by B&C. Many a discouraging word was heard.
Among others, the panel featured the top executives of two of the nation’s largest TV station groups — Dennis Swanson of Fox and Ed Wilson of Tribune.
Both conceded that broadcasting was in a deep hole. Wilson could hardly have done otherwise, with his company hiding in Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
And both more or less conceded that the business is unlikely to snap back to its old self, even after the economy does.
Swanson was particularly gloomy, saying that stations have to adopt new “cost structures” in line with the new reality of diminished revenue. “That’s the highest priority we have.”
Everybody who works at a TV station knows what that means — layoffs. HR’s angel of death has already passed over many, if not most, TV stations and could come again. I could launch a new Web site devoted to stories of producers, anchors and other station rank and file getting the heave ho.
I suppose it’s the good broadcaster these days who replaces fired workers with technology or compensates for them with new ways of doing business.
So, Swanson talked about Fox’s initiative to pool local news gathering resources with other broadcasters and Wilson talked about cross-platform selling and motivating sales people to dig deeper for local ads.
The new cost structure also apparently means that stations are less willing to pay hefty license fees for first-run syndicated programming. That has put a major drag on the syndication business and real commerce at NATPE.
Only two big-budget shows are firm goes for the fall — Sony’s Dr. Oz and Debmar-Mercury’s Wendy Williams.
CBS had to withdraw a promising talk show featuring TV evangelist T.D. Jakes even though it had Tribune lined up in the big markets, reportedly because it couldn’t squeeze sufficient fees out of the smaller markets.
Program Partners may be able to forge ahead with its Marie Osmond talk show, having finally found outlet in New York (WNBC) and Los Angeles (Tribune’s KTLA), but it still has big holes to fill in the top 10 markets.
Post-NATPE, Twentieth’s Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? remains on the bubble.
The new reality may also affect renewals as they come up.
Over breakfast, a syndicator and I speculated that Oprah would not be coming back when her current contract expires in 2011, not because her ratings are dropping (although that’s part of it) or because she has better things to do, but because stations will no longer be willing to pay enormous weekly license fees for any show, not even Oprah.
So, after all these years, will Oprah accept a salary cut commensurate with those reduced licensed fees? Don’t think so.
Other perennials like Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune may also find that the cash isn’t there when they come up for renewal. Fortunately for CBS, those shows’ appeal is not based entirely on the fat salaries of their hosts.
NATPE’s big keynoter was Tom Rogers, the CEO of TiVo, who did all he could to break the spirit of any remaining broadcaster/optimist by predicting the end of advertiser-supported TV as we know it when DVR penetration hits 50 or 60 percent and more than half the people have the ability to skip commercials.
“In two to three years, the TV industry is going to face an advertising crisis that is more severe for it than this current financial crisis,” he warned.
“You need to take this threat as immediate,” Rogers said. “The entire landscape of TV consumption is about to be turned on its head.”
Remember, folks, this was the keynote.
NATPE itself served as a metaphor for the troubles of broadcasting. Despite an excellent program that included top TV execs (the likes of ABC-Disney’s Anne Sweeney and NBC’s Ben Silverman) and showcased technology that could one day save the day, it was unrecognizable to anybody who attended even three or four years ago.
NATPE contends that 5,000 people registered for the show. Maybe so, but it was way too few to inject any energy into either the exhibit floor or the hotel suites. Every day was Thursday.
Few broadcasters attended. As I said, the B&C luncheon was the biggest broadcasting event and I’m guessing that it drew no more than 75 station or station-group people. Twice that number may have been in the room.
According to syndicators and station reps I spoke with, major groups like Belo, Scripps, NBC, ABC and Cox were not represented at show.
Variety’s veteran editor/reporter/blogger Cynthia Littleton said “the somber mood and sparse attendance was unlike anything I’d ever experienced at this confab.”
True also of my 10 years covering the show.
By contract, NATPE must return to the Mandalay Bay next year. President Rick Feldman and his team will have a lot of work to do between now and next January to conform the show to the new reality. That probably means a smaller show next year, possibly without an exhibit floor, and a smaller venue in 2011 and beyond.
Here’s the good news for NATPE.
Broadcasters still need a place where they can shop for programming, compare notes and plot together on how they can reinvent themselves. But such a place has to be right-sized for the times and perhaps moved up on the calendar.
Don’t worry about the syndicators showing up. Whenever the broadcasters go, the syndicators follow.
As it is, NATPE is not without merit. Plenty of business is still being done at the show, particularly by the smaller, more agile distributors that are seizing opportunities that the big boys can’t. They were delighted to be at NATPE.
Hank Cohen, CEO of Trifecta, used the show to introduce Nite Tales, a Tales from the Crypt-like half hour with an urban twist and was pleased by the attention the show was getting. Host Flavor Flav even made an appearance on the exhibit floor.
“You still get to see people you never get the see elsewhere,” Cohen said. “It’s a great atmosphere for three days.”
The story was the same at Debmar-Mercury, which was buoyed by the industry’s (and viewers’) embrace of its new talker with Wendy Williams, who also attended the convention and co-hosted a Tuesday evening reception.
“Call me crazy,” said Debmar-Mercury’s Ira Bernstein when asked about NATPE. “I love it.”