Many years ago, the National Association of Television Program Executives Conference (aka NATPE) was the pinnacle of overindulgence. Outlets like Warner Bros., Sony Pictures Television and the former Paramount and KingWorld would compete to have the biggest booths and the most lavish parties. I remember the endless food and booze, and entertainment from the likes of Elton John and Steely Dan. It was huge.
Back then, the point of the annual gathering was for television stations to acquire product from distributors of syndicated programming. Station executives would be wined and dined while being pitched a potpourri of different types of original shows (including talk, game, magazine and court). Getting a buzz was synonymous with making a deal, I guess. But time and deteriorating budgets have taken their toll, and the NATPE of today – year 54 -- is a far more subdued marketplace where the focus has shifted to new media and technology. Some station execs still surface (more for reunion purposes than to do actual business). And some producer wannabes (often wearing lime green or purple jackets for some reason) still walk the floor looking for a deal.
And because old habits are hard to break, I will be there, too.
When I first attended NATPE in 1987, there were four first-run strips (translation: original programming airing Monday to Friday) that dominated the landscape: "Wheel of Fortune," "Jeopardy," "Oprah" and "Entertainment Tonight." Three of the four are still on the air (it would have been all four had "Oprah" not called it quits in 2011), and they are indicative of a part of the media business that seems oddly impervious to change. While I personally see merit in this unprecedented stability, not everyone looks at it that way. Let me explain.
Traditionally, the shelf life for a successful primetime network series is normally anywhere from five to eight years (excluding, perhaps, anything produced by "Law & Order" creator Dick Wolf or a CBS crime solver). But a successful show in syndication like the "Live" franchise in the morning, "Ellen DeGeneres," "Jerry Springer," "Access Hollywood," "Extra," "Family Feud," and so many others can last for decades. On the positive side, durability means you know exactly who your audience is. But it also limits the available time periods for new programming. And that alone can make the entire landscape seem stale.
In an age of DVRs, mobile devices, streaming services and other inducements to have-it-your-way viewing, an estimated 97% of the audience in daytime still watches most of the programming live — for a number of reasons, not least of which is the ephemeral nature of the shows themselves. You can miss an episode of your favorite talk, game or court show without losing the plot. And magazine shows like "Entertainment Tonight" and "Extra" are instantly out of date if you don’t catch them live.
Being in this bubble means daytime syndication programming is not competing with digital platforms like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon. And this could be considered a boon, because the overall ratings at present are consistent minus the added competition. You won’t find that anywhere else. But the "seasoned" women, the target in daytime syndication, are not necessarily the audience the advertisers seek. And they certainly are not among the more tech-savvy viewers. Dedicated fans of veteran ABC soaps "All My Children" and "One Life to Live," for example, raised hell when those shows were canceled, but seemed unable — or unwilling — to track them down when they were briefly revived online. For this reason alone I imagine syndication will never be anything more than just a supplemental strategy for advertisers.
On the content side, syndication can be attractive for a personality looking for a long-term gig. While finding the next "Ellen" or "Dr. Phil" is difficult given the glut of veterans hogging the landscape, Harry Connick Jr. is one of the new hopefuls in talk for 2016-17. "Harry," his upcoming daytime talker from NBCUniversal, potentially joins "Ice & Coco" from Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution hosted by rapper/actor Ice-T and his wife Coco Austin; and "T.D. Jakes" from Tegna Media and Debmar-Mercury, hosted by the pastor and author. The latter two were already test run.
Court in daytime, meanwhile, could feature the return of judges Joe Brown (in "True Verdict with Judge Joe Brown" from Allied Media Partners) and Glenda Hatchett (in "The Verdict with Judge Hatchett" from Bryon Allen’s Entertainment Studios). And talk of reviving game shows "Love Connection," "Make Me Laugh" and "He Said She Said" means that emphasis on revivals is a universal media strategy. No one is exempt from that.
As I walk the NATPE floor hoping to avoid those colorful producer wannabes, it will undoubtedly feel once again as if time has stood still, much as it has in daytime syndication. Whether anyone is really better off, I don’t know.