NATPE: Parallels between early syndication, digital arenas

As with original online content today, syndicators took big risks

It was the emerging platform of the “Mad Men” era. Its growth fueled innovations in programming and advertising that helped ease the stranglehold the Big Three networks had on the national TV biz at the time.

As a cross-section of TV and digital bizzers convene in Miami for the 50th annual NATPE confab, which opens today, there are notable parallels between the contempo content marketplace and the landscape in May 1964 when 71 people, most of them TV station managers, gathered at the New York Hilton.

With the biz hunting for ways to make money and make shows for Internet and broadband platforms — the theme of this year’s confab is “Beyond Disruption” — there are lessons to be learned from how the early NATPE crowd built firstrun syndication and barter advertising into multibillion-dollar businesses.

For starters, they took big swings. To launch “Entertainment Tonight” in 1981, Paramount gave its 100-plus station affiliates 10-foot satellite dishes in order for the studio to take the bold step of delivering episodes day and date.

People said they were crazy to take on that cost, recalls Rich Frank, who headed Par’s TV wing at the time. “We had to teach our salesmen how to talk about satellite dishes,” Frank recalled with a laugh, “but the show is still on the air.”

A generation later, Frank and his partners in the Prospect Park shingle are gambling again with plans to relaunch in April the former ABC soap operas “All My Children” and “One Life to Live” as original online series. He sees the established serials as the perfect vehicles for proving that made-for-Internet programming can draw the kind of regular viewership that advertisers prize in TV.

“You can get 30 million people to watch a YouTube video of a frog on a skateboard, but they don’t come back again. That’s tough to monetize,” Frank said. “Now you’re seeing people like us starting channels where people will come back again because the (programming) is good enough to get them to come back.”

Back when the National Assn. of Television Program Executives was formed, a few months after the Beatles rocked “The Ed Sullivan Show,” there were big opportunities on the horizon thanks to the growth of a vast new distribution channel: UHF TV stations.

The FCC gave those stations a big boost in 1962 by mandating that the tuners in new TV sets receive the UHF band of channels (14-69). That raised the visibility of many independent outlets that didn’t broadcast with the same power and reach as network affiliates and other channels on the VHF band (2-13).

As of mid-2012, per the FCC, there were 1,029 commercial UHF TV stations and 358 commercial VHF outlets in the U.S. On the non-commercial side, the growth of UHF also coincided with the rise of PBS as a national service.

As more UHF stations came online in the 1970s and ’80s, they were desperate for programming, which opened doors for wily entrepreneurs and the majors alike. But fledging operations often had a hard time paying upfront cash for programs and movie packages.

A number of smaller independent distribs began the practice of offering programs in exchange for as much as half of the blurb time in those shows — hence the term “barter advertising.”

Once a distributor had collected enough advertising time from stations around the country, those spots could be sold to national advertisers. Industry vets cited Dick Robertson’s Telepictures, Al Masini’s TeleRep and Stanley Moger’s SFM Holiday Network as forerunners in this area.

“It became a way to finance shows for independents that didn’t have a lot of money to spend in daytime,” Frank said. “It changed the way that business was done.”

The growth of the firstrun syndie biz, spurred by colorful characters like Roger and Michael King of King World Prods., expanded the palette of TV programming with everything from the sublime (“The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “Star Trek: The Next Generation”) to the ridiculous (“Jerry Springer Show,” “Baywatch”).

At its peak in the 1990s, the NATPE conference was a pivotal sales market. But the advent of Fox and later the WB Network and UPN put the breaks on the firstrun biz outside of daytime hours. The consolidation among station groups during the past two decades also changed the nature of syndie sales, making NATPE less vital as a nexus of buyers and sellers.

This year, the confab is overrun with digital players ranging from heavyweights such as YouTube and Machinima to Aereo and other fledgling ventures. More than 40% of the confab’s speakers come from the digital realm.

The upstarts’ interest in rubbing shoulders with old-school TV types is telling, according to Dick Lippin, whose Lippin Group praisery has repped NATPE for the past 25 years.

“What you’re seeing as the world of new media focuses more on the need for great content, they’re being more respectful of traditional media,” Lippin said. “A lot of the characteristics of how the (syndication) business was built still apply today. You can’t just say ‘Forget everything you learned in TV.’ People are realizing that there’s a lot that both worlds need to learn from each other.”

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