BY SARA ALESSI
IT seems the age-old adage is true — history really does repeat itself. Many of the issues that made headlines at NATPE in years past are still making news today. At the advent of NATPE’s 50th birthday (though NATPE was established in 1963, its first trade show wasn’t held until 1979) VideoAge decided to take a look back at our coverage of the event over the past 32 years (since VideoAge was founded in 1981). What we discovered might give those who have attended NATPE over the years a sense of déjà vu.
NATPE opening night party
The floor versus suites conundrum was as much an issue in the past as it is now. The same is true for the question of whether enough attention is paid to the international contingent, and then there’s the ongoing debate regarding the number of seminars/conferences at NATPE, which VideoAge has for years maintained is detrimental to the business of buying and selling content since it reduces the amount of floor traffic.
Let’s take a look back at some of the highlights (and lowlights) of NATPE through the years.
During the ’80s, when oversized sweatshirts and skin-tight leggings were all the rage in the U.S., NATPE was held in Las Vegas, New Orleans and even Houston, and the international TV contingent was struggling to make itself known in the U.S. In 1983, VideoAge reported that there were differing opinions about whether NATPE was solely for domestic business, or whether it was an appropriate place for international business to take hold. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the international contingent was expected to be smaller that year. Also in 1983, the conference design allowed for four days of screenings and reserved the last two days for workshops, discussions and awards, leading some to complain that the “conference workshops and award ceremonies interfered with the real business of buying and selling.” Some syndicators even talked about holding a separate convention for screenings, or withdrawing from the convention format altogether to screen product for stations individually instead.
By 1986 and 1987, the focus had shifted to the high costs in New Orleans, where NATPE was held. In a preview article for the 1987 edition titled, “NATPE Convention to New Orleans Again: Problems, Solutions and Expectations,” VideoAge noted that on top of expensive hotels and restaurant menus, a nine percent sales tax on all goods would also empty wallets.
Despite grumblings about the high costs, NATPE took aim at helping the international contingent feel more at home, and VideoAge reported in a 1987 article titled, “NATPE changes its domestic image for a more int’l profile,” that although the market “remain[ed] a mainly domestic affair, it [was] attracting more and more broadcasters and distributors from other continents.” According to Sunbow’s Fred Cohen at the time, “NATPE is really NATPE International and it’s attracting more and more overseas programming people who come over not only to see what new productions are available, but to introduce their product into the marketplace.” So, it should come as no surprise that attendance figures rose, as “the amount of floor space occupied…increased.”
“The tremendous growth of Spanish-language programming [was] reflected at NATPE by the first session ever to be translated simultaneously into Spanish,” VideoAge reported in our 1988 article, “NATPE Stresses Quality Programs.” Additionally, the conference program included more activities geared toward international attendees than in years past.
NATPE faced a downward spiral in 1990, as indicated by our 1989 preview titled, “NATPE Sings Blues In New Orleans.” The theme of the market that year was “Challenges of the next decade,” and, as VideoAge reported, “storm clouds [could] be seen gathering on the horizon.” One attendee complained about the domestic seminars held at the event, which he deemed unsuitable for international visitors. Additionally, NATPE implemented various restrictions on the exhibition floor, banning food, live demonstrations and caricatures from TV shows, which effectively “took the show out of show business.” We recapped the 1990 event with the headline: “NATPE’s Darkest Hour Passes Into History.” To exacerbate the problem, it wasn’t a great time for the syndication business, which we billed as the “bread and butter of NATPE.”
In 1989, VideoAge also previewed the upcoming 1990 NATPE with an article written by then-president Phil Corvo titled, “NATPE’s New Intl Accent,” in which Corvo stated that NATPE International was increasing its role in international program marketing, and had set aside two mornings for international attendees to visit booths without domestic buyers present. They also arranged an international reception for foreign buyers, and European registration paced ahead of the previous event.
But not everyone was satisfied that enough was being done for the international contingent. In our 1990 article, “Pardon My Indifference: But This Is NATPE!,” VideoAge highlighted the sense that foreign TV executives were being “treated like the plague by domestic U.S. syndicators.” As we reported, “The problem is the syndicators on the floor are there to do domestic business. They aren’t there to do international wheeling and dealing. So the international buyers get lost in the shuffle.”
As a response, NATPE tried to bring more attention to international buyers. Thus, they sent out brochures on the nuts and bolts of the convention that were printed in French, German, Spanish and Italian, and the NATPE International Service Center was prepared to help foreign buyers and sellers. It marked the first time a united Germany and The Association of French Program Producers exhibited. Then-president Phil Corvo assured everyone that NATPE was making an effort to become the premier world marketplace for the buying and selling of TV programs.
In 1990, VideoAge posed the question: “Is NATPE A Good Market?” The main concerns were budget considerations (namely that the market was too expensive) and international attendance, though many attendees acknowledged that progress had been made.
The push to “beef up [NATPE’s] international effort” continued in 1992, when “global programming finance, technology and co-production topics [were] featured at the 1992 NATPE international seminar, under the banner On A Clear Day, You Can See 2000: International Television in the ’90s.” NATPE’s then-seminar coordinator, Joe Barbarino, acknowledged that “making NATPE attractive to an international crowd has been an ongoing effort.” It seemed syndicators were beginning to understand the value of the international market, and by 1995, the international contingents from Latin America, Canada and Europe were increasing, but of the more than 400 exhibitors, only 44 (11 percent) were from outside the U.S.
However, the 1992 convention also brought about grumblings regarding the “expected higher costs for NATPE ’93 [in San Francisco].” According to unofficial estimates, the costs were projected to be 50 percent higher than in New Orleans.
By 1996, VideoAge spotted a new trend at NATPE, reflected in its preview headlined, “NATPE’s Reverse Trends; U.S. Becomes a Minority.” Registration that year ran at 30 percent U.S. and 70 percent international. Additionally, there was a 97 percent increase in cable network participation, a 41 percent increase in broadcast television networks and a 25 percent increase in new media and international companies. We reported that, “International exhibition participation alone increased 21 percent from last year. NATPE’s International Pavilions…are up 25 percent.” Russia and Spain had pavilions for the first time, and there were seminars on both international and domestic television.
This trend continued when in February of 1997, a VideoAge headline reported, “NATPE Loses Domestic Steam, Gains Int’l Status.” That year, there was an overall drop in attendance, which we attributed to the fact that some companies folded and were absorbed into others, and the number of TV station groups had been reduced. But international exhibitors were strong at 242 from 87 countries, compared with 77 countries the year before. In total, 3,265 non-U.S. attendees — an increase of 10 percent over 1996 — went to NATPE.
In 1998, we deemed NATPE crucial to the “expanding ‘gateway’ between Latin America and North America,” bringing to the industry’s attention the fact that Miami also serves as a gateway (a precursor to the move to Miami in 2011).
In the new millennium, VideoAge declared, “NATPE Brings Renewed Hope to Syndication.” Though the 1999 U.S. TV season was rough and syndication was losing strength, we predicted, “As NATPE [drew] closer to fostering more ‘convergence,’ an ever-increasing number of Internet and dotcom companies will begin to make deals with producers to satisfy the wants of their consumers.” There was an upswing in 2001 when then-president of NATPE Bruce Johansen announced that a record 800 advertising executives would attend the market.
Yet in 2002, although there was a strong contingent from Latin America, “The major U.S. domestic distribution companies not only pulled out of NATPE, but also set up a competing market in a hotel-suite format at the Venetian, one of NATPE’s unofficial hotels during the Las Vegas conference.” We reported that, “Domestic divisions of the major U.S. TV companies may not be back for NATPE 2003. Meanwhile, the international arms of the large TV companies will only exhibit in a hotel suite environment (with or without NATPE’s blessing).” It seemed that the non-profit organization could have been on the verge of financial collapse, and we reported that it was “difficult to estimate how long the association could conceivably stay in business at its current rate of yearly expenditures.”
Things were still heading downhill in 2003, the year Rick Feldman — a “savior” but not a “visionary,” as VideoAge has said in the past — was named president and CEO. But VideoAge saw “Signs of Vitality Without [a] Respirator,” as we noted in our headline, and participants were looking forward to a return to Las Vegas the following year.
Vegas proved a good antidote in 2004 when the market showed “definite signs of rejuvenation” and a resurgence in floor traffic. The 2005 market was the “best it’s been in years,” according to our review titled, “Floor Gets Hot, Lifts Backfire, Biz Lights Up.”
On the first day of the 2006 market, the WB and UPN announced that they would become the CW, which brought the focus back to the domestic side. More Internet companies and mobile carriers attended the event than ever before, and there was an over-20 percent increase in Latin American buyers.
By 2007, VideoAge reported that NATPE had transitioned into a one-day affair, and the “question remain[ed] whether new platforms, international buyers and sellers and independent distributors [could] take the place of NATPE’s traditional bread and butter: The syndication business.”
Though the 2008 event was busier than in the recent past because program buyers came to meet with studio reps to iron out plans for the writer’s strike, more and more studios abandoned the convention floor for the suites, and some even sent reps but did not exhibit. This lack of floor presence was exacerbated by the fact that the high number of conferences took people away from the floor.
By 2010, NATPE announced that it would move from Vegas to Miami — a move VideoAge viewed as overdue recognition that NATPE had morphed into an international event. However, Disney did not attend in 2010, and “The outcome wasn’t rosy, but the consensus seem[ed] to be that the market has hit bottom and now has nowhere to go but up.”
Things were looking up in 2011, when NATPE moved to the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, as indicated by our headline, “Miami Market Marked Momentous Moments.” The parties returned (including two pre-parties), and it was evident that the market would be a success before it even began. Yet, despite the upside of being in Miami, many felt a need for more mid-sized companies to exhibit on the floor, since a large number of companies set up shop in suites in the Tresor Tower of the Fontainebleau, making the elevators congested and causing buyers to be late for meetings, or even miss them completely.
The 2012 event marked the last under former president and CEO Rick Feldman, and the new president and CEO, Rod Perth, will have a chance to make his mark at the 2013 event, when NATPE celebrates its 50th anniversary.
According to Perth, “NATPE’s 50th Anniversary is a moment that should be celebrated by everyone in this amazingly vibrant and resilient industry. Our Miami market/conference is the first must-attend event of the year, and our mission is to catalyze the most productive and successful U.S.-based content market and conference. Our theme this year is ‘Beyond Disruption,’ which speaks to the wealth of opportunity that has been created in recent years by technology. By facilitating ongoing conversations among the Hollywood, international, digital, brand and agency communities, NATPE is becoming a critical bridge between content creation and monetization,” he said.
“But,” he added, “it’s not just about how much business will be transacted — with influencers and decision makers from around the world, the opportunities for networking at NATPE are endless and invaluable.
“And finally, any birthday deserves a special celebration, so we are throwing a must-attend 50th Anniversary party for everyone at NATPE on Tuesday evening at the Liv Club,” he said.
Only time will tell what this year — and the next 50 — hold for NATPE, but in the meantime, we’re grabbing our party hats.