This year’s convention is devoting much attention to how TV stations, producers, studios, networks and syndicators can take advantage of the new platforms that have sprung to life in the past few months.
Syndication is dead; long live syndication.
This year’s NATPE is focused on selling programming to anyone and everyone who has a screen on which to put it. All of Monday was dedicated to mobile-phone applications, while the rest of the week is liberally sprinkled with panels on how TV stations, producers, studios, networks and syndicators can take advantage of all the new platforms that have suddenly sprung to life in the past few months.
“NATPE is now a global digital distribution show,” says NATPE President Rick Feldman. “The truth of the matter is that people have defined syndication too narrowly. When you use that word, people think of domestic television. But it’s about buying and selling product across the world on all sorts of platforms.’
Executives from top Internet portals Yahoo!, Google and MSN are streaming to this show in Las Vegas, hoping to forge new relationships with content providers. Cell-phone companies, suddenly hungry for video content, spent a whole day in Vegas wooing studios. Producers and techies suddenly find themselves on the same side, after years of eyeing each other warily.
“It’s not a matter of us wanting to be techies just for techies’ sake,’ Feldman says. “These gizmos are only as good as the content that’s on them. You’re not going to access something silly if what’s on it isn’t something you want to watch.
“The interesting thing is what will be created three, four, five years down the road directly for these platforms. In a couple of years you are going to see producers creating first-run content for some of them.’
And that’s the difference. Up until now, what the Internet represented for producers was mostly a way for the tech-savvy masses to swipe their carefully created content. But with reasonably robust digital rights management in place, and no real choice in the matter anyway, producers are finally ready to get into bed with Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and the rest.
The two sides need each other. Networks, syndicators and TV stations are desperate for a big growth spurt. Garnering some ancillary revenue by selling content on emerging platforms is likely the answer. After all, the ringtone business—in which erstwhile teenagers spend $2.50 for a five-second music clip—is a multi-billion dollar business. That fact has not escaped Hollywood.
Meanwhile, the tech guys—from portals to software developers to cell-phone providers—need new ways to attract subscribers and advertisers. While search capabilities and news headlines and all that are just great, nothing distinguishes a brand like original, popular content.
The proliferation of broadband is allowing TV to run over the Internet just like it does over a cable system. Big players such as Microsoft want to own a big piece of this new market; TiVo, which builds digital video recorders, plans to eventually run broadband through its server, allowing for all sorts of interactive applications.
“IPTV isn’t going to be like cable. It has to be different,” says Phil Corman, director of worldwide partner development for Microsoft TV. “IPTV will offer instant channel changing, an unlimited number of channels and picture-in-picture technology.”
For example, Microsoft TV is working with Major League Baseball (MLB) to offer Game Day, which will allow baseball fans to watch games in many markets at once, all streamed over the Internet on to their TVs.
The biggest hold-up to IPTV, Corman says, is negotiating for the digital rights. Some programming entities, such as MLB or Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Entertainment, own their own rights, making negotiating much easier.
“The acquiring of digital rights is huge, it’s everything,” Corman says. “But once people see what we can do with IPTV, that’s going to force the market’s hand.”
The past four months have begun to shine a spotlight on these burgeoning relationships. Almost daily since September, there’s been a frenzy of press releases announcing new deals, new distribution plans and new programming models. But the big question remains: Will new platforms turn into new cash?
“I think these platforms can add to the bottom line as long as we are smart enough to create unique content that matches each platform,” says Terry Wood, president, creative affairs and development, King World and CBS Paramount Domestic Television. “You talk to people in a different way on Verizon’s Vcast or on a computer than you would on the TV show you do every day. For a while it was about promotion and brand extension and it’s now becoming a business. We should be paid for our content.”
At the moment, syndicators are mostly using these new platforms to expand their brands, promote their shows, age down their audiences and bring people back to the TV program.
“New technology is being developed every day,” says Betsy Bergman, senior vice president of domestic marketing of NBC Universal. “It’s absolutely a space we want to be in as marketers and program providers.”
Syndicators are excited about all the new opportunities, but selling TV shows to TV stations remains deeply important to them. While some executives look forward to the opportunities emerging platforms may bring, others say syndication’s foundation still rests on the relationship between studios and TV stations.
“I don’t think this saves the syndication business. I think the syndication business has to survive and maintain itself on its own merits,” says Jim Paratore, president of Telepictures Productions and executive vice president of Warner Bros. Domestic Television. “The engine that pulls the train is broadcast.”
“This business is constantly changing, but I feel like our bread and butter still is the sale to the television stations. We are exploring other platforms but only as they expand our shows’ brand and reach,” says NBC U’s Bergman.
But Bergman also voices the hopes of the entire business: “The more you can bring to a show’s bottom line, the better story you can tell from a business standpoint. Whether it’s mobile or online, it’s all fantastic; we love it all.”