Richard Linnett Reports from Las Vegas

Lost Audience, Canceled Shows Jolt NATPE Gathering

TV Executives Bemoan Problem-Plagued Industry

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LAS VEGAS ( -- Television executives gathered in record numbers here this week for the National Association of Television Program Executives conference, even as the TV industry reels from a lack of hit programming and a dramatic loss of audiences.

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In the conference's opening session, advertising and TV executives reflected on the industry's problems, including a growing number of canceled syndicated series such as Crossing Over with John Edwards and The Wayne Brady Show and agreed that the traditional model for creating and selling programming is broken and in desperate need of a fix.

Scrapping traditional models
"All of us have been too short-term in our relationships; we have all sinned in this regard," said the CEO of WPP Group's Group M, Irwin Gotlieb, who added that the traditional model of advertisers simply buying time on networks had to give way to "long-term relationships" between marketers and program developers.

Mr. Gotlieb pointed out that in the new, fragmented world of TV, with its hundreds of channels and niche audiences, it's hard to be profitable.

"In a fragmented world you cannot monetize your efforts. It's great to have a good show, but if not enough people come to the party, you will not succeed," he said. "The cost of failure has escalated and the degree of success has fallen off."

Executives seem eager to avoid that fate. The conference, which itself has suffered serious attendance erosion over the past few years, opened on a positive note with a spike in attendees, although NATPE will not put out an official headcount for the event until next week. Nonetheless, some NATPE organizers are estimating that just more than 10,000 people, mostly production company sales teams and TV station ad buyers, showed up ready to do business.

Viewer fatigue
The marketplace, according to other panelists on the opening session, has been dictated to for too long by station group ad buyers wanting to play it safe, ordering formulaic programming that is creating viewer fatigue.

"If you want to [reach] audiences in a fragmented universe, you have to do something different," said Mark Itkin, executive vice president and worldwide head of syndication, cable and nonfiction at the William Morris Agency. Mr. Itkin pointed to Fox Television's The O.C. as an example of programming that's different. "There needs to be more creative flexing."

The broadcast networks have been struggling, and all six -- Walt Disney's ABC; Viacom's CBS and UPN; New Corp.'s Fox; General Electric's NBC; and Time Warner's WB -- saw decreases in their viewing levels this past fall (when new shows debut), particularly among the advertiser-coveted demographic of adults 18 to 49.

52-week schedule
Last week, the president of NBC Entertainment, News and Cable, Jeff Zucker, said his network this year would buck the practice of debuting shows in the fall and instead roll them out after NBC's coverage of the Summer Olympics ends. He also said he is looking to a 52-week-a-year schedule. The announcement has been the buzz of the media world, and some at NATPE said launching new shows all year rather than just in the fall would generate more success stories.

Tony Vinciquerra, president-CEO of Fox Networks Group, pointed out that one of the reasons for the success of The O.C. was because the network rolled out the show in the summer, when it was able to find its young audience. (Fox has taken this approach before, because the network's fall schedule is interrupted by its broadcast of the World Series.)

Janice Marinelli, president of Walt Disney Co.'s Buena Vista TV, predicted that the industry will adopt the 52-week schedule soon. "When we go to the new schedule and when Nielsen's people meters roll out, it will be the end of the sweeps. We will see a lot of change in broadcast TV." ("Sweeps" refers to when local TV market ratings are studied by ad buyers and sellers. The results gauge ad prices for the following year.)

Reality TV's Mark Burnett
In another panel at the conference sponsored by Advertising Age's "Madison & Vine" newsletter, Mark Burnett, who has created runaway reality-show hits such as Survivor and The Apprentice, said he was taking his production model -- partnering with advertisers to fund reality shows -- to the world of scripted programming.

He told a standing-room audience that he was developing two sitcoms with NBC, one that will feature a central character who embodies a brand. "We are trying to pave new roads," he said.

Madison & Vine earlier reported that one of the sitcoms will be based on Mr. Burnett's journey from T-shirt salesman to wildly successful TV producer.

Jeff Gaspin, president of cable network Bravo and executive vice president of NBC programming, said that while programmers want to develop partnerships between advertisers and producers to create programming, there are large obstacles to overcome.

"Ad sales departments [at networks] are most resistant," he said. "When the economy is strong, the sales departments don't want us to hear about these deals, but when the economy is bad, and sales are down, they show some interest."

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