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Price Point | NATPE As We Knew It

The virtual, but still vital, NATPE that took place this week occasions a look back to its origins from early days of hotel suites to a carnival-like heyday packed with stars.

This week’s virtual NATPE was an electronic marvel, showcasing an industry whose reach is farther and deeper than ever before. A special shout out to Jordan Wertlieb, president of Hearst Television, who received the distinguished Lew Klein Award.

Lew Klein was an innovator and master local programmer. It’s been almost six decades since he and 60 or so station program directors banded together in a New York hotel to form a professional organization. They called it the National Association of Television Program Executives, but in pronouncing the acronym, NATPE somehow became “Nap-tee.”

Syndication was not big business in those days; local programming was king of the great stations. Syndication consisted of old movies, a few originals like Ziv’s Highway Patrol and Sea Hunt, and of course the off-network staples led by I Love Lucy.

Syndicators were called “film peddlers,” a slightly pejorative term for what was then considered secondary programming sold by episodes and number of plays. In some cases, stations bought full libraries of programs, but the main distribution system was 16mm film moved from station to station via Greyhound Bus.

NATPE solved an industry problem because it put buyers and salespeople at the same venue, but the organization did not become really important until 1970. That’s when the FCC implemented the ill-advised Prime Time Access Rule, which prevented off-network programming from running during access in the top 50 markets. Take away The Honeymooners and stations were sure to create their own local prime programming, or so the regulators thought. Instead, they got Wheel of Fortune.

The Prime Time Access Rule created the modern syndication business, something NATPE was well prepared to handle.

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Of course, the new world of syndication had to find its way. Through the 1970s, NATPE was hotel suite-based. Syndicators would move beds and furniture to set up their wares. Single rooms were used for private meetings. There was no glamor, just business. But the business was no longer five and dime. It was becoming much bigger with the promise of big money. It was much too big for just hotel room meetings. That’s when my generation of NATPE was born.

By the early 1980’s, when I first attended, NATPE was a massive event with virtually every star who had ever appeared on television — or wanted to. Disney boasted the first $1 million set among acres of equally luxurious venues. As program director of the Washington CBS affiliate, I was at constant risk of being tackled in the aisles by salespeople.

After spending a day on the exhibit floor in San Francisco, my wife once remarked: “The only thing missing from this place is carnival rides.” She also endeared herself to Roger King when she told him Divorce Court was a terrible show because it promoted immoral lifestyles. Years later at a NATPE in New Orleans, he remarked upon seeing her: “Oh yes. Divorce Court.”

Like the television industry itself, NATPE reflected the times. As the dollars grew, so did the syndication sales organizations, opening offices around the country. Stations with 50% profit margins could afford to pay the cost. Those were the glory days when half the celebrities in Hollywood seemed to have their own talk show pilots. To say they all failed is only a slight exaggeration.

But life is full of changes. The recession of 2009 brought a dash of cold water. Like talent contracts, stations suddenly wanted to negotiate the cost of programming down. Several days of partying in convention cities no longer seemed an appropriate use of resources.

The consolidation of station groups also changed the syndication business. There were simply fewer decision makers than in the past. During the 1960s, program directors had been powerful forces in TV stations.  Today, the job as we used to know it no longer exists.

Of course, syndicated programming still matters, which is why NATPE still matters. To its credit, the organization has morphed into a 21st century global entity, far more than anything those 60 or so program directors could have envisioned all those years ago.

Whatever happens in the future, programming will remain the essential element, which means there will continue to be an important role for NATPE, though I doubt we will ever get those carnival rides.

Hank Price is a media consultant and leadership coach. He is the author of Leading Local Television, a guide to leadership for television general managers, as well as those who aspire to top leadership. Price spent 30 years managing TV stations for Hearst, CBS and Gannett, including WBBM Chicago and KARE Minneapolis, as well as three other stations. Earlier, he was a consultant for Frank N. Magid Associates. Price also served as senior director of Northwestern University’s Media Management Center and is currently director of leadership development for the School of Journalism and New Media at Ole Miss. He is the author of two other books.


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RustbeltAlumnus2 says:

January 22, 2021 at 9:00 am

I was a NATPE member for ten years but I recall NAT-pee as the way everyone pronounced it, not NAP-tee. Maybe a few folks mispronounced it but that was quite rare in my experience. Even when receiving the big annual award one year, Lucille Ball made fun of the name in her acceptance remarks, joking it sounds like GNAT-pee.


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