JESSELL AT LARGE

NATPE Has A New Lease on Life At 50

After celebrating hitting the half-century mark with its annual convention in Miami, the trade association is on the right track in reviving itself from the low point in its fortunes in 2001. NATPE is an important, if not vital, date on the broadcasting calendar. It's the place where syndicators and their broadcasters get face time and finish up the important deals. Maybe it was the fine weather or that ocean breeze, but no broadcasters or syndicator I spoke with had a negative thing to say about NATPE this year aside from mild logistical gripes. You got the clear impression they would all be back next year and for as long as they had programming to buy or sell. Happy birthday indeed.

I’m learning to love NATPE for what it is — not for what it was or what it could be.

What it is is a great place for sellers and buyers in broadcast syndication to conduct their business. Every syndicator with whom I spoke at the conference this week had a full dance card, filled with broadcasters they needed to see about taking a new show or renewing an old one. Broadcasters, too, told me that they were busy getting deals done.

For me and our programming reporter Kevin Downey, it’s perfect for catching up with the executives to tease out some news or spot programming trends that can be converted to future stories.

That the conference works so well is a function of the venue, the Fontainebleau Resort in Miami Beach. It’s the perfect hub for a conference of NATPE size (5,000 plus). If you hang out in the cavernous grand lobby long enough, everybody you want to see (and some you don’t) will happen by.

And there is plenty of room in the Fontainebleau complex and in the adjacent Eden Roc and Soho Beach House for anybody interested in hosting a suite or a suite of suites.

NATPE organizers have finally tamed the elevator problem. At most times, you could get up the tower suites without having to stand in long lines. (So, why was I hustled into a freight elevator when I visited the Sony folks in their roof top suite on Tuesday afternoon?)

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This year, the weather — a mostly sunny 80 degrees with occasional blustery wind — was good enough to allow much of the business and meeting-and-greeting to be done outdoors, either at the poolside cabanas where CBS, NBCUniversal and Debmar-Mercury set up shop or in the penthouse suites favored by Twentieth and Sony.

Altogether, the Fontainebleau and Miami Beach represent a huge improvement on the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Las Vegas, where NATPE was mired for several years prior to the move east for the 2011 show.

The entire broadcasting industry now understands that NATPE will never again be what it once was — an annual warm-weather (New Orleans was always best) coming together of what seemed to be the entire broadcasting tribe. It peaked during the Internet boom in 2001 with more than 20,000 attendees. I think that was the year Roger King hired Elton John to entertain virtually everybody at the Superdome.

At those events, broadcasters clearly ruled. Nobody could attend and not come away with the conviction that broadcasting was still the beating heart of the television. For all the fuss about cable and satellite, they were still wannabes. Digital video? Still mostly a science experiment.

That NATPE the old timers fondly remember was a victim of industry consolidation, lessening demand for syndicated programming and the two recessions of the 2000s that caused T&E budgets to disappear. Station group discovered that life went on even if they didn’t send all their GMs off to New Orleans or Las Vegas.

Over the past few years, NATPE has settled into its current scope and scale. It’s really three conferences mashed together — the syndication conference I’ve been talking about, a Latin American programming conference and a new media conference. At the wrap-up press conference on Wednesday, NATPE’s new president Rod Perth said that two-fifths of the speakers were from digital companies.

For me and I think the domestic broadcasters in Miami Beach, the Latin American programming and new media conferences are just so much background noise. They are simply not interested in what’s going on in Latin America and they haven’t time for digital panels and speakers that are not speaking directly to their digital needs.

I used to argue that NATPE needed to come up with new ideas for attracting more broadcasters. But now I’m not so sure that it could or should.

As it is, NATPE is an important, if not vital, date on the broadcasting calendar. It’s the place where syndicators and their broadcasters get face time and finish up the important deals. Maybe it was the fine weather or that ocean breeze, but no broadcasters or syndicator I spoke with had a negative thing to say about NATPE this year aside from mild logistical gripes. You got the clear impression they would all be back next year and for as long as they had programming to buy or sell.

I spoke briefly to Perth and he mentioned that he wants to make the show more relevant to broadcasters and bring more into the tent. To do that, he will have to stretch the scope of NATPE beyond programming. He will have to create a program that addresses broadcasters’ particular interests in new media, news or sales.

With the success of its summer Station Summit for creative services directors over the past two years, PromaxBDA has shown that broadcasters will attend a show with a targeted agenda and where real business is done.

And if Perth has ambitions in broadcasting, he had better coordinate them with the other broadcast trade associations, particularly NAB. This year, NATPE once again conflicted with the NAB board meeting, which was taking place 60 miles north at the Four Seasons in Palm Beach. NATPE can’t expect to attract the leaders of the broadcasting industry if they are holed up elsewhere fretting over the FCC incentive auction and ownership rulemaking.

NATPE celebrated its 50th anniversary this year and during that half century it has had its ups and down. And even though it is now one-fourth the size of what it once was, I say it is in one of its ups. It deserves a prominent and permanent place on the broadcast calendar.

Here’s to 50 more.

Harry A. Jessell is editor of TVNewsCheck. He can be contacted at 973-701-1067 or [email protected]. You can read earlier columns here.


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