Station Groups Look To Fill A NATPE-Sized Hole With Summit

Last week, Fox Television Stations convened station groups and syndicators for a press- and deals-free ideas exchange in Los Angeles. Attendees said it could become an annual event. (Fox Television Stations photo)

The inaugural TV Station and Syndication Strategy Summit, held Jan. 17-18 on the Fox Studios lot in Los Angeles, has drawn positive reviews from attendees and seems likely to become an annual event.

The idea for the summit emerged shortly after the National Association of Television Program Executives (NATPE) filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last October, postponing for the third straight year its annual January conference where distributors met with stations to discuss and sell their syndicated programming.

Fox Television Stations executives organized and hosted the event, hoping to put a focus on the working relationship between syndicated program suppliers and the companies that buy shows from them. Motivating them, in part, was the fact that NATPE’s conference had over the years expanded its audience and agenda to the point at which domestic syndication represented about only 20% of its program and attendance base, according to numerous conference attendees contacted for this story.

The TV Station and Syndication Summit limited attendance to TV program creators and distributors and station groups, and there were no sales pitches, just discussions on how syndicated programmers can become more meaningful to TV stations by producing quality programming at affordable prices. It was more an exchange of ideas than competitors trying to sell and buy programming already created.

Beyond that, discussions addressed how the studios and stations could cooperate more during the development process by sharing ideas about how to create more affordable programming, particularly for smaller stations.

“At this conference, we were talking about how to produce more affordable shows for the stations rather than trying to sell them shows,” says Mort Marcus, co-president of Debmar-Mercury. “We discussed the process.”


Ira Bernstein and Mort Marcus, co-presidents of Debmar-Mercury.

“In order for our business to succeed, we need to change how we see each other and deal with each other and how we come up with solutions together that the syndication industry faces,” says Stephen Brown, EVP of programming and development for Fox First Run and Fox Television Stations.

“We need to examine how we look at our industry and look at issues we have not looked at before,” Brown says. Among them, he says, is the impact of streaming on linear syndication.

“The idea was to hold a conference without all the usual NATPE pomp and trimmings that at NATPE is usually spread over four days or more, and that costs large amounts of money to attend,” says Frank Cicha, EVP, programming at Fox Television Stations. “We stripped away all the tinsel and held a conference without excesses that ran only two days.”

The idea for the summit originally came from Bob Cook, head of distribution and sales, Fox First Run, and both Brown and Cicha, who worked on putting the program together.

The task was a formidable one as the company had only a little over two months to organize everything from the conference program to inviting attendees and making arrangements with hotels near the Fox lot that would accommodate the attendees.

Competitor Cooperation

In the spirit of industry cooperation, Fox officials contacted CBS on the syndication side and Sinclair Broadcast Group on the station group side to work with them in the planning. Steve LoCascio, president of CBS Media Ventures, and Arthur Hasson, head of programming at Sinclair stations, both assisted in putting together various aspects of the summit, Fox officials said.

About 120 studio and station executives attended the inaugural summit and Brown says another unique aspect was that all the attendees, including competing syndicators, ate breakfast and lunch together during each of the two days of the conference. And in some instances, competitors sat with each other.

“We need to be a community that works together going forward,” Brown says. “We’re all on the same ship.”

The first day of the conference included a series of speakers who addressed issues that all the attendees face, like reaching the changing types of viewers, streaming opportunities for syndicators and TV stations, different types of data usage and the possibilities of using digital.

No Media Coverage Permitted

Organizers convened the summit without media coverage to foster a more candid atmosphere. “We really did have some open and frank discussions that we normally can’t have when the press is there,” Brown says.

Cicha adds: “Everyone attending didn’t come to the same unified conclusions during our discussions. There was healthy debate. But that doesn’t mean that moving forward we can’t all work together.”

Attendees Impressed

Greg Conklin, VP of corporate programming at Gray Television, gave the summit high marks. “The speakers were informative and well-received and when you took breaks in between sessions, everyone you wanted to — and needed to — speak with in our business was right there.”

Fox’s Cicha says that was an advantage of having it in one main theater on the Fox lot.

“It was time for us to do something different and this worked,” Conklin says. “Unlike at NATPE, where we were only a small part of the overall attendance, at this conference it was just like all family. We saw people we haven’t seen in a while, even when we were going to NATPE, because it was so spread out with so many people and so many unrelated events at so many locations. This was all the same site.”

Conklin adds, “We need to do things together, moving forward, to talk even with our competitors about solving common problems.”

Debmar-Mercury’s Marcus, who was also a panelist at one of the sessions, says, “I thought it was great. It wasn’t the typical NATPE sales conference. We did on the second day have some syndicator and station meetings but even in those it was more about discussing industry issues rather than trying to sell the stations any programming.”

Ira Bernstein, Debmar-Mercury co-president, stresses that the discussions were about “how do we make the TV stations more comfortable working with us” and “how we can make shows for the stations going forward.”

No Deals Done

While no deals were done during the summit, Sony Pictures Television did announce prior to the opening night cocktail party that it is planning to launch a new 30-minute late night syndicated talk show this fall called Channel Surf with Craig Ferguson.

Ferguson hosted The Late Late Show on CBS from 2005 until 2014.

The new syndicated show is being produced by Whisper North, a division of SPT production company Whisper.

Future Of The Summit

While nothing for certain has been locked, the Fox executives and those execs from the stations and studios who attended this year’s inaugural summit say it will more than likely become a regular January conference, could be held a week later next year and could also be given a new official name.

“I did not come across one station group or distributor attendee who felt we shouldn’t be doing this summit again next year,” Fox’s Cicha says.

Fox’s Jack Abernethy (l) and Frank Cicha with Jennifer Hudson (Fox Television Stations photo)

Cicha adds that some future possibilities include other studios sponsoring it or also holding it on their own lots as a cost-saving method.

Debmar-Mercury’s Marcus said the organizers will have to figure out who will attend going forward outside of the syndicators and stations. But plans would be to open the summit to the smaller distributors who did not attend this year.

Companies represented at the summit included Fox, Sinclair, CBS, NBC, Cox, Nexstar, E.W. Scripps, Tegna, Gray, Hearst, Weigel, Allen Media Group, Sunbeam, American Spirit Media, Mission Broadcasting, Lockwood and Patriot.

On the programming side were Fox First Run Production, CBS Media Ventures, Debmar-Mercury, Sony Pictures Television, MGM Studios, Entertainment Studios, Trifecta Entertainment & Media and PPI Releasing.

What About NATPE?

The TV Station and Syndication Strategy Summit organizers say while they are planning to hold the conference again next January, they do not know how it will fit in with a revived NATPE conference.

Canadian publishing company Brunico Communications recently acquired the assets of NATPE from a bankruptcy court but has not released any details on reviving the annual NATPE January conference in 2024. And while some syndicators on the NATPE board have had some preliminary conversations with Brunico officials, nothing definitive has been discussed.

“We did have conversations with the new NATPE owners about the summit,” says Fox’s Brown. “They told us they hope to restore the NATPE conference, but the stations may believe attending the annual summit would be a better way to use their money.”

Programming Everywhere At NAB Show

Syndicated programming will also be a key topic addressed at a new TVNewsCheck conference to be presented at the NAB Show in Las Vegas.

Programming Everywhere, set for April 15 at the Encore, will tackle TV station groups’ need for more programming with sessions focused on how FAST Channels are forging NextGen TV programming strategies; rethinking genres like games, travel and talk; fresh approaches to the news franchise; syndication’s changing business model and strategies for building a content everywhere business.

“There is a pressing need for broadcasters and program suppliers to put their heads together and have frank, constructive discussions about how they’re going to program more intelligently and efficiently,” said Michael Depp, chief content officer at NewsCheckMedia LLC. “Syndicated program buyers and sellers are a big part of that conversation, but it must also include innovators in news, streaming, digital and marketing as well as content creators.

“Programming Everywhere will foster conversation as well as showcase the programming innovations that are bubbling up in a multimedia world.”

Find more information about Programming Everywhere here.

Comments (2)

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AIMTV says:

January 24, 2023 at 9:41 am

While I didn’t get to officially attend (I’m one of the “smaller syndicators” referenced), I do applaud what must have been a herculean effort put into the conference and certainly the idea behind it. Speaking as a “smaller syndicator,” (I prefer “indie producer” who happens to syndicate my own show) ignored and semi-abused by NATPE for years, I was able to hang around the lobby of the hotel and see clients and friends in the biz. It had a casual, reunion feel to it. But for the future growth of the industry, I feel, “Syndicators” and Broadcasters need to appeal to the tremendous production talent available on other platforms (i.e. digital first). There’s an entire group of producers (not to mention consumers) who have almost no idea that syndication or even broadcast tv exists as a potential outlet. 1) OTA TV needs to be more aggressively promoted to consumers who do not understand the medium (i.e. young audiences who would appreciate that it’s “free” IF they knew the medium existed) 2) Syndication needs to widen its net to include more creative talent in a broader variety of genres. The ditto mentality (court shows, talk shows, etc.) is not helping to grow the medium but may, in fact, be quickening the decline 3) Quality over Quantity – Producing copious amounts of cheap content is nothing to be proud of. As someone once put it years ago, it’s hard for a professional tennis player to play a good game with 70 other amateur players on the court at the same time (not a direct quote). Or as anyone who has a garden knows – where are my farmers at?! , you must weed it regularly for healthy plants to thrive. A healthy syndication ecosystem means giving a broader variety of plants room to grow and thrive while reaching out to a wider, more diverse potential audience. Not simply doing what has always been done and crowding the landscape with shows that are out of date, crammed with too many commercials, and should probably not have made it to air in the first place. In other words, curation. Not just Mon-Friday but the weekends, perhaps especially the weekends (full disclosure, my show airs on the weekend). Change presents an opportunity. This conference is a good example and a step in the right direction, IMHO.

[email protected] says:

January 25, 2023 at 12:23 am

I agree with AIMTV that syndication should have more variety of genres like dating shows I don’t get why syndicators stopped making dating shows and the return of cartoons on the weekends. Weekend syndication is just cheap filler I do like Raw Travel I watch that when WXMI Fox17 airs it at 12PM on Sat when there no sports on at that time. Raw Travel also airs 4AM Sat. Be nice that talk shows & court shows weren’t the only things that all the broadcast stations would air or cheap shows like DBL TEGNA WZZM or The List Scripps Fox17.