Diff’rent strokes for NATPE folks

Distrib defections draw debate on costs and vision for confab

As debate escalates about the no-shows at the Las Vegas Convention Center, one thing is certain: NATPE 2002 will be unlike any before it.

Six powerhouse domestic distributors, which traditionally set up elaborate booths, have opted not to exhibit on the floor of the convention center during the big TV gathering Jan. 21-24.

Their flight has some worrying that the death knell is sounding for the annual market. Others, particularly NATPE prexy-CEO Bruce Johansen, pshaw such notions.

And the differences of opinion have inspired a spate of name-calling. Johansen says they’re being “short-sighted.” One syndie exec calls them “babies.”

The distributors say it’s a matter of economics.

“This was part of a strategic decision we made based on the cost benefit analysis for our company. I think that when the rhetoric gets elevated to the point of people sniping at other people’s decisions, it really doesn’t serve anybody’s purpose,” says Bob Raleigh, prexy of Carsey-Werner-Mandabach Distribution, which decided in spring to move to the Venetian.

The company’s international force will have a small exhib presence on the NATPE floor. “To castigate a group simply because they are reacting to the realities of the marketplace I think is wrong — just like I think it’s wrong to say NATPE is ineffectual.”

It’s the kind of debate being had all over the world, as trade shows and markets of all kinds struggle to retain participation in the face of consolidation and economic downturn.

And when it comes to NATPE, the gloves are off in a long-brewing tension.

In spring, Warner Bros. Domestic TV Distribution said it booked hospitality suites at the Venetian Hotel on the Vegas Strip in lieu of its usual anchor exhibit on the floor of the National Assn. of TV Program Execs confab.

Last week brought new defections, meaning six big domestic distribs will be on the Strip. Following WB off the floor were Paramount Domestic TV, King World Prods., Buena Vista TV and Universal Worldwide TV in addition to Carsey-Werner-Mandabach.

They’ll still participate in the convention, but the tough economic climate, they say, makes it impossible to justify the kind of spending that goes into the booths.

For years many NATPE exhibitors have questioned the cost-effectiveness of hauling staff and resources to the confab, saying they make too few deals and forge too few relationships to justify the expense.

“The distributors on the exhibition floor are one aspect of the show — an important aspect, but one aspect,” Johansen says. “We are disheartened and disappointed, but this does not mean the demise of NATPE. We’re not getting the rug pulled out from under us.”

Johansen adds that he expects attendance by station and advertising execs to hold steady and that international exhibitors continue to increase their exhib space. Participation by new-media companies, not surprisingly, is not growing as much as was expected a few years ago.

“We would like to change (the distributors’) minds, and have spent the summer trying to do it,” Johansen says. “Unfortunately, some of the deep-pocketed studios chose not to support us in the best way they could.”

“There has been tremendous financial support given by domestic distributors over the years. When that support moves off campus, if you will, it’s evident. Obviously, it has to impact NATPE’s bottom line. And that’s not the intent,” Raleigh says.

He adds that NATPE has done a “magnificent” job of diversifying its constituency to include advertising, the international marketplace and new media, whereas it previously primarily focused on domestic programming.

“What perhaps needed to happen prior to this is a more equitable distribution of this financial responsibility to these other constituencies.”

Station rep Garnett Losak, VP-director of programming for Petry Media Corp. and a NATPE board member says that conventiongoers will be forced to schlep between the convention center and the Venetian — not walking distance. “It’s just going to make an already exhausting day more exhausting. It’s at best an inconvenience.”

Stations, she says, will want to be at both places. Sure, six distribs will be off-site, but many big-draw companies will be on the NATPE floor. That list includes Columbia TriStar TV Distribution, Tribune Entertainment, Twentieth Television, Studios USA Domestic TV and NBC Enterprises, as well as FremantleMedia, MGM, MTV, Discovery, Lions Gate and Alliance Atlantis.

And all NATPE-related events are skedded to take place within the convention center. (In the past, some engagements were held in the adjacent Hilton Hotel.)

Johansen says the exhibition floor also is being reconfigured to be more convenient. The displays are being consolidated into one exhibition hall at the convention center. Last year it was split between two.

“Ad agency people are coming, and there will be station buyers there, making it worth our while. It’s all about controlling cost. I don’t think bigger is necessarily better with the booths,” says one syndicator who will be exhibiting. “So we’ll go, control costs, and be concerned with seeing as many clients as we can.”

“The companies staying on the floor have a lot of smart people working for them,” Losak says. “They know how to use the conference. Without some of the competition for places to go on the floor, they will capitalize.”

Raleigh, who plans to be selling a firstrun project at NATPE as well as to be making deals on library product, says: “There’s agreement by everyone involved that there are fewer stations making the trek, fewer programming decisions being made, and fewer sales being made just because you’re at the convention. We would be totally irresponsible as execs in this industry if we didn’t respond to that.”

As part of his plan for NATPE, Raleigh says he will have some of his sales staff on the road. “That’s where a lot of our customers are during that week.”

Cost seems to be the deciding factor in the defections. But there’s a wide variety of opinions on how much money goes into big NATPE booths — often upward of $1.5 million for the grandest.

Johansen and others suggest scaling back instead of bailing out.

“To those guys who spend $1.5 million, I say spend $750,000,” Losak says. “I have a sense that a very, very adequate presence can be bought for a lot less than $1.5 million.”

The distributors who have moved off the floor likely will save one-third to one-half ore more of that amount.

That’s taking into account the costs of the hospitality suites, food and even transportation between the convention center and the Venetian during NATPE.

It’s tough to describe the companies’ hotel presence, since the syndicators and hotel offer few details. Most have simply said they will provide comfortable, inviting atmospheres in suites.

The Venetian’s third floor is devoted to hospitality suites, which are like “big, beautiful living rooms,” says Lauren Larsen, the hotel’s national sales manager for the trade show division.

The hotel also features an 85,000-square-foot ballroom. But Larsen says that room will not be made available to companies involved in NATPE. The syndie firms have secured only sleeping and/or hospitality suites, she says.

The Venetian, on the Vegas Strip, has experience accommodating conventiongoers, as it is attached to the Sands Expo Convention Center.

Regardless of where NATPE-goers make their deals in January, the show will go on for years to come, Johansen says.

“NATPE is the only place we get all the divergent aspects of the business in one place every year,” he says. “To not do that would be a huge disservice to everyone involved.”

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