Organizers of the Western Show and the NATPE convention are at a loss, literally. No matter what they do, the conventions shrink in size and importance. Fewer want to exhibit; fewer want to attend.
Blame it on consolidation. I've covered a lot of Western Shows and NATPEs, and they have been mostly about distribution.
At NATPE, never-say-die syndicators chased maybe-say-yes TV station executives. At the Western Show, a bunch of networks vied for the attention of cable operators with the power to decide which networks would get carried (and prosper) and which would not.
With all those buyers and sellers, the conventions were important as places where serious business was done, though often to a rock beat and over a giant shrimp. The parties at both were the stuff of legend.
But consolidation has ruined the fun. In the wake of all the mergers and acquisitions of the past decade, there are fewer looking for distribution, fewer offering distribution. Most syndicators are now affiliated through ownership with major station groups. They don't have to cut deals with too many other large groups to get their shows on the road.
The same goes in cable. The power to make carriage decisions is concentrated in a few MSO executives. Programmers can visit them in St. Louis, Philadelphia, Atlanta or Coudersport. They don't have to go to Anaheim, as tempting as another ride on Space Mountain may be. In some cases, networks and operators are working for the same boss. All they need is interoffice mail to close the deal.
So, what are the conventions to do?
NATPE Chairman Jon Mandel wants to transform his convention into a place where a variety of TV programmers— syndicators, cable networks and stations—present their best to the advertising community. Mandel's pitch: Make NATPE a marketplace of TV time-programmers on one side, advertisers on the other.
The association has already begun the process. Recognizing that station clearance wasn't enough to justify the show, NATPE started attracting advertisers. That Mandel, a top executive at a leading media-buying firm, is chairman is testimony to the strategy.
But Mandel suggests that NATPE needs to do more. It needs to bring cable and TV stations into the tent. I'd go one step beyond and get the broadcast networks to play, too.
Here's the idea: Turn the broadcast networks' upfront week in mid May into an annual confab of all TV programmers and advertisers. It could be organized around the Big Five programming companies: Disney, Viacom, NBC, AOL Time Warner and News Corp. Last year, each of these companies took a morning or afternoon to showcase its broadcast network programming at glitzy places like Carnegie Hall. Next year, each could showcase everything it has to offer advertisers.
Viacom fills a large hall with advertisers, ad agencies and media buyers. But instead of just presenting CBS's fall schedule, it also showcases what's new in syndication from Paramount and King World and the latest from cable networks MTV, VH-1, Nickelodeon, TNN and CMT.
During the week, time could be set aside for programmers not affiliated with the Big Five. Let's call it Independents Day. USA Networks, Discovery, Carsey-Werner and the like would get their shot.
It would save money. Programmers would avoid attending multiple conventions. The participants could share a hall, or two, for their presentations. And they could stop the endless spring series of ineffective press conferences and receptions that now passes for cable upfront.
Bringing this off would not be easy. NATPE or whoever else takes up this cause would have to achieve a consensus not only among the Big Five but also among other associations that would be or could be affected: NAB, NCTA, California Cable Television Association, TVB and CAB.
But think about it. TVNY— TV Week in New York—would become what the TV industry needs: a gathering of the entire industry for selling, buying, personal networking and some New York-style partying. It would be great for the industry, great for the city.