NATPE more issue-oriented this year

Wild confab yields to more sedate gathering

As the National Assn. of Television Program Executives prepares to gather in Las Vegas Jan. 28 for its annual confab, the raison d’etre for attending feels more in flux than ever before.

Now, NATPE — seeing itself faced with a declining syndication biz but a burgeoning program distribution system — strives to find its relevance by tapping into the many ways programs are being shown and how programming can be monetized.

It’s not like the old days, when NATPE had been a once-a-year traditional stop where Hollywood syndicators and local stations brokered deals to bring Dr. Phils and Oprahs to the daytime TV world. The times when one could walk the convention floor and have lunch prepared by Emeril Lagasse or take his or her picture with a “Baywatch” babe are long gone.

It’s all business now, and a changing one at that.

“We’ve created an environment where people can meet and greet, and buy and sell,” says NATPE president-CEO Rick Feldman, who has quickly reacted to the changing TV landscape since taking over the org in 2003. “We are not old media vs. new media. Everything is digital.”

“I do not think the conference has been about selling programming for a long time,” adds Ken Werner, Warner Bros. president of domestic television distribution. “What it should be about is discussing issues broadcasters have a common interest in.”

That being said, the Hollywood majors arriving at the Mandalay Bay Hotel are still very much about selling syndie programming the traditional way. Most sellers remain on the convention floor, while a few have headed to the suites. But for the first time, some heavyweights aren’t coming at all.

Sony is bypassing NATPE this year, choosing instead to set up shop at the monstrous Consumer Electronics Show, which took place earlier in the month. The studio decided to put its efforts into CES, instead

of NATPE, to show off its high-tech equipment and how it can be best utilized in changing technological times.

Despite Sony’s defection, Feldman sees the two conventions as entirely distinct animals and feels each provides unique opportunities for those looking to shop their wares. He visualizes NATPE as a place for business dealing and CES more for window shopping.

“I might be pollyannaish, but CES is totally different,” he reasons. “We are more focused, where people talk and have meetings, not looking at large-screen things.”

CBS Television Distribution is another no-show, despite sales of new daytime strip “The Doctors,” which already has 93% clearance. The show will feature the physicians who have appeared on “Dr. Phil” over the years to discuss medical issues of the day — such as weight loss, drug addiction and healthy lifestyle choices.

The studio’s international side, run by Armando Nunez Jr., will settle in on the floor. Nunez says NATPE remains important because it’s an opportunity to meet face to face with the global buyers who are purchasing programming on a year-round basis.

“The way we view NATPE is that it is one of those places where part of the process takes place,” Nunez explains. “As long as our clients go, we should be there.”

Despite the defection of a few, most of the other majors will be arriving in full force. Warner Bros. Domestic, which was situated in the suites last year, returns to the floor, along with the company’s international division.

“Clients say they are interested in convenience and a businesslike atmosphere,” Werner says. “The decision (to return to the floor) was not driven by expense. Rather, we wanted to accommodate our customers and be supportive of an organization dedicated to supplying programming to stations.”

Coming off last year’s biggest hit with “TMZ,” Warner Bros. returns with “Bonnie Hunt,” a chatshow starring the film and TV actress (“Cheaper by the Dozen,” “Life With Bonnie”).

Hunt has been on Warner’s radar for a while, and Werner says the time is right for her to give it a go.

“Telepictures Prods. have been chasing her to do a daytime talkshow for the last four years,” Werner says. “At one point she wanted to do latenight, but from a programming point of view, we all thought her areas of interest and personality lent themselves much better to a daytime audience.”

NBC Universal arrives with the primetime hit gameshow “Deal or No Deal,” produced by Endemol. Unlike other shows that sometimes change hosts when going into syndication, Howie Mandel will remain in charge of the “open the case” festivities.

The ongoing strike by the Writers Guild of America is affecting NATPE in peripheral ways: not so much in which programs are being sold and distributed, but in who’s coming to the show. NATPE organizers say attendance is on par with last year, but they admit that about half of the attendees register at the last minute or onsite — and those numbers could be down.

NBC Universal topper Jeff Zucker will be the confab’s keynote speaker, delivering his state of the business address Jan. 29.

National Assn. of Television Program Executives 2008 exhibition and conference
When: Jan. 28-31
Where: Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas
Web: natpe.org