Last summer, leaders of the National Association of Television Programming Executives met to decide the fate of the show it holds every January. It didn't look good.
"It was really dicey," said President and CEO Bruce Johansen. "We looked at every option, including the most dire: not doing it at all. It could have been such a disaster."
But what motivated Johansen and the board was a simple and staggering realization: Had NATPE canceled, it would have been out $8 million in revenue and faced multimillion dollar lawsuits from the city of New Orleans and hotels that had set aside rooms for the confab guests.
NATPE dodged that bullet, staging a downsized convention in the Big Easy last week. Now its problem is what happens next. At the show, Johansen officially announced that, after a decade at the NATPE helm, he's leaving sometime this year after a replacement is found.
The next chief will have to redefine the organization.
It's a show for syndicators, for independent producers, for advertisers, for foreign buyers and sellers, for TV stations and, Johansen says, for cable networks. The problem is whether it can satisfy any of those constituencies sufficiently or find a focus. It's the press that keeps on calling NATPE a syndication conference, Johansen has complained; he thinks it has gone way beyond that. The association calls itself "the alliance of media content professionals."
Johansen, who made $540,000 in the year ended March 31, 2001, according to the IRS filing, seems to sense that NATPE is chasing a market in flux: "The cheese moved, and we moved with it," he said, alluding to the hit self-help book about adapting to change." It will keep moving, and we'll go wherever that damn cheese goes."
Next year, to satisfy syndicators, NATPE makes its permanent convention home in Las Vegas.
Not surprisingly, though, on the floor of this last New Orleans NATPE, there was a sort of institutional melancholy for the days past when NATPE was an extraordinary carnival of excess and a place where a syndicator could announce a new talk show on Monday and use the buzz to ratchet up clearances to a "firm go" by Wednesday.
The fall of NATPE is an example of the consolidation of the business. Its decline is in large part because of station consolidation, the fin-syn rules, and even the collapse of dotcoms. For the past three years, the show operated on a negative cash flow. Attendance fell from about 14,000 in 2001 to 9,600 in 2002 and maybe 7,000 last week. In 2000, when the show became a magnet for Web startups, the show's attendance swelled to nearly 18,000. "Thank God that happened," Johansen said. "It gave us a reserve for those rough years."
NATPE last week announced a committee to find Johansen's replacement, chaired by Lew Klein, a co-founder of NATPE. Other members are Peggy Kelly, senior vice president, global client services, at Universal McCann, New York, who is also NATPE's new chairperson; Tony Vinciquerra, NATPE's outgoing chairperson and president and CEO of Fox Networks Group, who got much credit for persuading major station groups to attend this year's show; Lifetime President Carole Black; Emerson Coleman, vice president of programming for Hearst-Argyle; Dick Lippin, chairman of the Lippin Group public-relations firm; Mickey Gardner, NATPE's Washington counsel; and Dennis Williamson, senior corporate vice president of Belo Corp.
They have their work cut out for them. The major studios' in-house organization, the Syndicated National Television Association, plans its own, first-time-ever conference in New York next month that will serve as a kind of syndicated upfront for advertisers. The advertising industry made deals at NATPE in greater numbers in the past than they have recently, and addressing that will be a major NATPE initiative.
"To be frank, some people who aren't here might have come to NATPE had it not been for SNTA," said Kelly. As an ad executive, she said, she was still able to plan overall ad strategies easier at NATPE than she thinks SNTA will facilitate.
Johansen, 63, spent at least the past three years persuading major studios to show up and stay on the floor. Like anchor tenants in a mall, they were the big draw, but some wondered why they should essentially deliver customers to their smaller competitors.
In October 2001, by which point six syndicators had said they would leave the floor for their own hotel sites for the 2002 show, Johansen labeled them "nothing more than parasites. ... They're siphoning off the efforts we're doing"
By the eve of NATPE 2002, Warner Bros. Domestic Television President Dick Robertson said Warner Bros. could stage its own show: "I don't think it's really necessary that NATPE be involved."
Nothing was much the same after that. In 2002, the convention floor was a ghost town with key chains. Johansen said last week that the association was aware of market forces that would have reduced the show even if the exhibition-space squabble hadn't occurred. "We did see what was happening but didn't see it happening as quickly as it did. ... And this is a ship you just can't turn around so quickly."
The new, right-sized NATPE, Johansen feels, would be heavier on the conference side, lighter on the exhibition. In fact, he says, it is that now, and, while this is a "transition year," no one expects that NATPE will get much bigger than it is now.
That's good enough, maybe. "We had all the major players here this year, every major group on the buyer and seller side," Johansen said. "We had10 people who make the decisions, instead of 40,000 general managers walking around collecting [giveaway trinkets at booths.]"
In the wake of Johansen's decision not to renew his contract, some of the reaction to his departure was laudatory. "He did a terrific job. He actually helped build a market that was maybe starting to stagnate," said NBC Enterprises President Ed Wilson.
In fact, although NBC Enterprises was in a hotel suite like other studios in New Orleans, Wilson said he would consider returning to the main exhibition hall next year, when NATPE's conference moves to the Venetian Hotel and Sands Convention Center.
Johansen and Warner Bros.' Robertson profess to be good friends—just disagreeing about how NATPE needs to work for the biggest players.
"You'd probably be hard pressed to find a bigger Bruce Johansen fan than me," Robertson said. "His leadership has been extraordinary, and I mean it. But the business has radically
changed. That's not his fault. I used to come here, and we'd make 200 sales. Now it's more like 25 or 30." Still, he says, he recognizes that the industry needs to meet. "You put a bunch of people together and stuff happens." Warner Bros., he says, will be in Las Vegas next year.
Johansen says he will stay on as long as necessary to find a new chief for NATPE. "There are a number of people who are eminently qualified to do the job," he said, but he denied that there is already a roster of favorites. "Honest to God, there is nobody on any list." He said the future will see a "leaner, meaner NATPE, but it is a leaner, meaner industry."
As for Johansen himself, there's another world out there. He just bought a home in Palm Springs, Calif., and owns a home in France. He is an abstract painter good enough that people have offered to buy his work, although he has never sold it. "I never intended to stick around for 10 years," he said last week. "You don't have to keep doing the same thing all your life." Leaving, he said, "is healthy for me, and it's healthy for NATPE."