Tough times at NATPE

Syndication gathering headed to Miami

LAS VEGAS — There’s an end-of-an-era feeling to this year’s NATPE confab.

The annual gathering of TV station buyers and programming execs has been in a transitional mode for more than a decade as industry consolidation and a changing business landscape have upended the traditional syndie sales biz that fueled the market and confab mounted by the National Assn. of Television Program Executives.

But the plan to move the gathering next year to Miami’s Fontainebleau Hotel has many longtime attendees feeling that NATPE ’10 is the bookend on an era that began in the mid-1980s with the explosion of the firstrun syndie biz. The move to Miami — which is plastered all over the NATPE signage at the Mandalay Bay hotel — is a recognition that the confab’s best hope for growth is in international sectors, particularly Latin America.The tradeshow floor of this year’s confab has already been much downsized, having been moved to ballrooms rather than the Mandalay Bay convention center space. As the show takes on an increasingly international tilt, the Korean Pavilion is tellingly situated prominently in the center of the floor space.

Notable domestic industry names are few and far between on the floor, and there’s virtually none of the spectacle that made the event so notorious in its heyday. This year, the biggest head-turners were a pair of shapely young women in gold lame bodysuits shopping a show dubbed “Treasure Hunters Roadshow” from indie shingle Entertainment Concepts. And Kinky Friedman, the longtime country-rock artist, was just about the biggest name making an appearance at the show; he was there to tubthump for a weekly live music series, “Texas Roadhouse Live.”

Don Taffner Jr., a longtime NATPE participant whose DLT Entertainment shingle is one of the few established players left on the floor (as opposed to the private suites, where the majors set up shop), said the convention has become much more of a networking outlet than a place to cut deals. But there’s still value in face-to-face schmoozing, Taffner said, praising NATPE prexy Rick Feldman for his effort to make floor space affordable for indies.

“While there is no denying that NATPE has changed dramatically over the years, Rick and his staff should be applauded for keeping exhibition expenses down and making this a cost-effective conference,” Taffner said.

The conference side has been well stocked with industry notables, from honchos such as NBC Universal Television Entertainment chairman Jeff Gaspin, fresh off the Jay Leno-Conan O’Brien war, and Discovery Communications chairman David Zaslav, to sessions with creative heavyweights including the cast of ABC’s “Modern Family,” “House” star Hugh Laurie, creator/exec producer David Shore and exec producer Katie Jacobs, “Cougar Town” creator-exec producer Bill Lawrence and “Law and Order: SVU” exec producer Neal Baer.

But the move to Miami may reduce the number of West Coast-based TV types who make the trek to the gathering. NATPE leaders realize the cross-country move is a gamble, but they’re hoping it will be offset by greater participation from East Coast execs and higher attendance from Europe, in addition to the Latin American sector.

NATPE has pitched its tent in Vegas for the past eight years, and for most of the past two decades it bounced between Sin City and New Orleans. Confab traveled to Miami in 1994, but it took a hit in attendance and there were problems in securing enough hotel rooms. That was when attendance was about 11,600 and growing. (The ’95 confab in Vegas soared to 15,700.) Last year’s gathering, coming at the depth of the economic meltdown, drew about 6,000.

The move away from Vegas was initially prompted because the Mandalay Bay alerted NATPE execs that it was planning a renovation that will make it unavailable for the 2011 gathering. NATPE officials researched a number of other Vegas options and other cities, including San Diego and San Francisco. But Miami proved attractive for several reasons, according to Lionsgate TV prexy Kevin Beggs, who was elected last week to his third term as NATPE chairman.

“The Latino market is expanding, and the hub of that market in America is Miami,” Beggs said. “We’re hoping that between the economic recovery and the fact that there will be a new group of people who might be more inclined to go to Miami, we’ll have renewed energy and an uptick” in attendance.

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