NATPE: Smoke but No Fire in Vegas1/19/2007 07:03:00 PM Eastern
Station buyers reacted with a collective shrug to the modest crop of first-run shows brought to market at last week's gathering of the National Association of Television Program Executives (NATPE) in Las Vegas. In the end, the only heat generated at the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Convention Center came from a small room fire Jan. 16 that forced the temporary evacuation of exhibitors from their suites on the fifth and sixth floors.
Nearly 8,000 attendees, up slightly from last year, traveled to Vegas to peruse the wares of the 371 exhibitors on hand. But rather than roll the dice on new acquisitions, stations largely stuck with the tried and true.
The mood in Vegas stood in sharp contrast to last year, when CBS Corp. CEO Leslie Moonves and Warner Bros. Chairman Barry Meyer announced their plan to launch The CW network. The news, delivered bombshell-style as the convention was getting under way, set off a wave of panic buying that gave syndicators the upper hand.
But the low-key arrivals of Moonves and Meyer last week typified the malaise that left stations walking away from new first-run deals—or at least taking their time in making decisions. By the end of the week, only one of the five new shows in play—Sony Pictures Television's (SPT) all-barter court entry Judge David Young—left NATPE with a green light after it reached close to 85% coverage.
Consequently, CBS Television Distribution (CTD), which controls most of the top 10 syndicated shows, benefited by writing a huge volume of first-day business for existing programs and extending clearances for top performers Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune to 2012. CTD even renewed newcomer The Rachael Ray Show until 2010 in a large chunk of the country.
“I can honestly say that, in one day [Jan. 16], we did more business than any NATPE I've ever attended,” says John Nogawski, a 20-year veteran of the convention who is now co-president/COO of CTD, which comprises the recently merged King World and CBS Paramount domestic syndication wings.
CTD made deals with every major station group and boosted NATPE percentages and multiple show runs to new highs for almost every one of its shows, including its huge library of evergreen classics.
“This year, I think NATPE did set some sort of artificial deadline for us,” Nogawski says. “Coupled with the lack of opportunities for new programming, it reinforced for stations their desire to keep their franchises.”
John Weiser, president of SPT's domestic distribution wing, says he also had stations “lined up three and four deep” to see him, for cable and library fare as well as first-run product.
But others lamented the general climate of risk aversion fueled by the poor performance of first-run rookies this season. With stations more inclined to extend the runs of proven programming, syndicators have little appetite for launching projects without the assurance of good clearances and deals that will insulate them from the inevitable losses early on.
And yet, some executives say, this painful period could be good for the business in the long run. Going forward, syndicators and station groups may forge new partnerships to develop programming and reach better deals.
Indeed, stations' reluctance to commit to new fall shows helped turn this NATPE into a nail-biter for large and small programmers alike.
Warner Bros Domestic Television Distribution (WBDTD) negotiated down to the wire with Fox Television Stations over its long-anticipated magazine project based on AOL's popular TMZ.com Website. WBDTD finally announced a deal Jan. 15, the day before the convention began, but no further clearances were announced by last Thursday.
WBDTD had to walk away from Celebrity Jury, in which Westchester County (N.Y.) District Attorney and on-air legal analyst Jeanine Pirro would preside over cases before turning them over to such vintage stars as Charo and Corbin Bernsen to adjudicate.
LOOKING BEYOND THE TRADITIONAL RANKS
Many of the attendees came from outside the traditional studio and station ranks, including independent producers and new media—constituencies that NATPE President Rick Feldman has courted as the organization moves to evolve with a changing business. Among the smaller syndicators shopping new projects were Program Partners and October Moon Television.
Program Partners and the William Morris Agency arrived the Sunday prior to the convention with a computer presentation and Merv Griffin, creator of Wheel and Jeopardy!, to pitch Let's Play Crosswords. Program Partners' Ritch Colbert and Josh Raphaelson say they have generated a good deal of interest in the game show and hope to have some clearance announcements in the next few weeks.
Unable to get clearances in the top three markets, they are selling Griffin's show to stations in other markets for cash. The hope is to gain clearances and enough momentum to penetrate New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, allowing them to add barter to the mix.
October Moon, meanwhile, rolled out Bunim-Murray's comedy game Laugh Off to fill a void of off-network sitcoms, but there was no word on whether it was able to gain any traction.
A station program executive from a top-20 market, who asked not to be identified, says he is reluctant to commit daily shelf space to strip projects from anyone other than the six major distributors. And that, he says, has created “creative gridlock.”
He also speculated that Twentieth Television's Morning Show With Mike & Juliet, which came into the convention at 45% clearance on the Fox-owned stations and left with 60%-65%, has the best chance of succeeding among this year's small first-run crop. But others expect it could face a tough uphill battle competing against Live With Regis and Kelly in many markets.
NBC Universal's (NBCU) new talker with Jerry Springer muscle Steve Wilkos came to NATPE with more than 50% coverage from Tribune Broadcasting and Sinclair Broadcast Group. On Jan. 18, NBCU was near 60% coverage but did not release specifics on new stations.
Springer Executive Producer Richard Dominick will executive-produce the Wilkos show and describes it as the “anti-Dr. Phil,” with the “tough but compassionate” ex-cop getting in the faces of assorted lowlifes while comforting the aggrieved.
Tribune's Wilkos deal left SPT freshman Greg Behrendt without any top-market clearances. SPT declined to comment on speculation that the NBC group is eyeing Behrendt to fill the hole left by the cancellation of Megan Mullally. If NBC passes, with nowhere else to go in the big markets, SPT may have to pull the plug despite having reached 65% clearance elsewhere.
The other new first-run project, Twentieth's game Temptation, went from 24%—representing the Fox duopoly stations in the major markets—to 35%-40% coverage at NATPE.
INTEREST FROM NEW MEDIA
With stations less responsive, syndicators have stepped up their efforts to sell their content elsewhere. Internet providers are showing more interest than mobile suppliers, but few have opened their checkbooks.
Syndicators, stations and advertisers also appear poised to partner on revenue-generating Websites in coming months. Nogawski wouldn't comment on talk that CTD is close to announcing such a venture.
They are also looking at more-traditional ways of boosting revenue. Sony, for instance, is expected to lift ratings for its court shows by selling Young, which will be double-run in most markets, to advertisers in combination with its Judge Maria Lopez and veteran Judge Hatchett.
The three- to five-year license-renewal deals have also helped studios' bottom lines. By guaranteeing production of their shows over long time spans, the deals have enabled programmers to prevent shows' stars from coming back to the bargaining table every year or two and, as one studio executive says, trying to “hold them up for more money.”