NATPE 2010 Coverage

Photo by Todd Ehlers

NATPE 2010 Day One: “It’s the content, stupid!”

There is no better place to get a snapshot of the state of the industry than at the NATPE conference, the largest conference of content production in the world. Though the conference is held in a city that prides itself on its “what happens here stays here” mantra, the spirit of NATPE is more than ever about the sharing of knowledge and collaborative relationships of content producers, advertisers, distributors, and designers.  As Lew Klein, President of the NATPE Educational Foundation, said it: “what happens here must go out.”

Monday kicked off the conference with a remarkable range of speakers, starting with an inspiring keynote address by David Zaslav, president and CEO of Discovery Communications. Zaslav, who oversees operations of content that goes out to no less than 173 countries and 1.5 billion subscribers conveyed his intimate knowledge of every single show produced on all 100+ networks in Discovery Communications’ arsenal. Zaslav attributed Discovery’s success to programming excellence and brand clarity.

While tight-lipped about the programming plans for OWN (Oprah Winfrey’s Network) he made it clear that the “live your best life” Oprah brand had no precedent in the cable world. Oprah will be a strong presence on the network and will be hands-on in shaping the network’s voice and personality.

His firm belief in the importance of stellar content prompts Discovery to seek the best creatives  in the industry, including Steven Spielberg who was recently contracted to produce a project for Science channel about the rebuilding of the World Trade Center.

In this context Zaslav submitted four major trends for 2010:

  1. quality content as key to growth, no matter what the platform
  2. the TV set staying at the center of how people consume content. Discovery Networks launched seven HD channels recently, and are looking at the new HD tier of consumers as crucial for growth
  3. social media and consumer experts having to be reckoned with and offering viral opportunities for publicity and growth
  4. international distribution with global programming models and programs that fit within a potential export equation

Zaslav’s sentiment that we worry too much about platform and not enough about the quality of content was echoed in other sessions throughout the day. Much on everyone’s mind is the threat of free content, and how to maintain a profitable business model within a world of freely shared media.

Shelly Palmer, host of MediaBytes, and author of incisive books on the Television industry was quick to point out that our measures of success (Nielsen ratings) are pre-historic tools in the context of new technologies.  Web analytics and Social Media analytic tools that are available for free provide much more compelling tools for assessing success.

For Palmer, the importance of social media is key to earning trust over one’s circle of influence and prosumers. The economic equation goes back to the basic principle of supply and demand. If a commodity is scarce, it holds more value. If it is abundant, its value drops significantly. So what is one to do with the plethora of networks moving bits of content across a crowded media landscape? The key to establishing value to those bits of content has to do with consumer loyalty. In other words, the number of “hits” a website might be getting is far less relevant than knowing whether the audience returns to the site and how often.

Networks that have long been used to the notion of “one to many” communication (talking at the audience) have had a tough time understanding the new communication paradigms of “many to one” and “many to many.” Palmer sees a vital need for networks to communicate differently with their audience and to heighten their media literacy, by learning how to use tools, such as Twitter, in a way that is effective, and goes beyond generating ambient noise.

Other insightful addresses included that of Bill Lawrence, creator and executive producer for Scrubs and Cougar Town, who offered that one of the keys to writing good content is to make it true and authentic. Audiences have a keen eye for the “fraudulent” so authenticity is key. This can become a challenge when writing from a female perspective for example.

Lawrence also stressed that on a personal level, he finds that the exploration of friendship, of people who care about each other, is key to good sitcom writing, with M*A*S*H* at the head of this storytelling model. In his eyes, “the death of the sitcom has been greatly exaggerated…”

NATPE 2010 Day Two: Of Conan, iPads and addressability

There were a lot of themes, projections and questions in today’s NATPE sessions. The day opened with a candid conversation with House’s Hugh Laurie, David Shore and Katie Jacobs. In a congenial and witty tone, all three pointed to synergy of the team, character authenticity and quality of execution as key to the show’s global success.

These themes were echoed by this year’s Brandon Tarkitoff Legacy Award recipients, Judge Judy Sheindlin, David Kelley, Irwin Gotlieb, and Jeff Gaspin.  Sheindlin spoke of nurturing one’s gifts and craft and resisting the desire for interference in others’ works. David Kelley discussed the problems facing the new business model for television.

While most have a tendency to see the shifting landscape of television as a platform, and monetary issue, Kelley, discussed the challenges of producing character driven content today by opposition to what the model was like when there were three broadcast networks. Though, the majority of his work has been produced for the broadcast networks, he acknowledged that cable is opening the door to shows like Mad Men and Dexter, shows that would have been unthinkable just a few years back.

Irwin Gotlieb, a legendary advertising and media executive and CEO of Group M, covered a lot of ground, from the release of the iPad, to 3D technology, to the upcoming advertising trends. Apple’s release of the iPad will be a first big step towards the technological prototypes that offer larger screen real estate and application convergence, but Gotlieb also cited prototypes of tri-fold LED technology that promises much lighter products and better quality imaging.

Gotlieb’s sense of 3D television technology is that it has its place in gaming, and to some extent in sports. The question becomes, what does the 3rd dimension add to the narrative and to what extent is it needed?

He defined the primary challenge facing the industry to day as stemming the revenue erosion until that decline in revenue can be reversed. Essential to addressing current economic shortfalls is to put aside adversarial relationships between content owners and infrastructure managers.  “It’s time to put the greed aside.”

He identified the major issues for the upcoming year as:

  1. the early deployment of addressability in television advertising
  2. the economy and the pressures on government to manage it well
  3. the need to attract better talent

Much anticipated was Jeff Gaspin’s appearance amidst the recent NBC/Late Night controversy. Gaspin who was promoted to Chairman of NBC Universal Television Entertainment this past July, was quick to point to the pressures of responsibility towards his affiliates and insisted that the goal was to keep both Conan O’Brian and Jay Leno in the late night schedule.

He acknowledged that the network’s brand has been tarnished by the controversy, something the moderator seemed to feel the urge to return to throughout the discussion. This tabloid-like fixation left little time to explore Gaspin’s success with USA Network, Bravo, Oxygen and SyFy. Also missing from the discussion was GE’s joint venture with NBC Universal and Comcast, a move that will be significant for all future broadcast business models.


Addressability was on everyone’s mind in the marketing and advertising sectors. Simply put, the notion of addressability is one, for example, wherein Fancy Feast commercials would be shown on the television screens of those of us who have felines in the house. This not a revolutionary idea: this has existed on the web for quite some time via cookies and also in direct mail marketing models. Interactive technology for television will bring that same practice to the living room, but it may take some time for consumers to get over the creepiness of it all, and the implied loss of privacy.

Other trends will include increase in product placement driven shows (à la Biggest Loser) and branded content. The primary challenge behind branded content remains its lack of measurability: what are the benchmarks that will provide advertisers with measurable success outcomes?

This past year, MSN, OgilvyEntertainment and Reveilled co-produced a series of 50 webisodes for Grape Nuts cereal. The “Guy’s Manual” campaign was created on the notion that men could be provided with playful tips on solving problems in their lives (via Grape Nuts). As more experiments of this type surface, it will be fascinating to watch how consumers react to this type of material.

And perhaps the answer lies with future generations, born to digital technology, and unaware of their analog ancestors. But the stakes are high. After all, this new generation is one that is adamantly opposed to paying for quality content, and openly rips media while at the same time is enamored with buying virtual gifts on Facebook in the form of lattes and cupcakes. In other words, this is a generation that pays for things that do not exist.

Marketing to them will prove to be challenging.