From Hopalong Cassidy protecting the beleaguered folks of Canyon City from rustlers and train robbers to a young man who thinks he’s in love with a robot that’s actually a girl, 5,000 television executives visiting Miami Beach this week got a peek at shows that might be flickering across their screens soon.
The National Association of Television Program Executives (NATPE) on Thursday was wrapping up its annual convention of frenzied deal-making among TV bosses from 32 countries.
“It’s been really good this year, just a big festival of deals,” said NATPE President J.P. Bommel. “And people are coming from everywhere. Last night I was talking to producers from Turkey, and they were going to a meeting with companies from Latin America. “How great is it to have Turkey and Latin America making a deal in Miami?”
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From its origins in 1963, when the NATPE convention existed mostly as a vehicle for TV stations to buy “Jeopardy” or “Gilligan’s Island” reruns to air outside its prime-time hours, it has grown into an international bazaar where shows zip around not only across international borders but technological platforms.
“We used to come to these things and talk about two things, free TV and pay TV, as people called cable back then,” said Cesar Diaz, head of the convention sales force for the British distribution company DRG. Now we talk about OTT [over the top, industry jargon for devices like Roku and Apple TV that deliver streaming video to televisions], satellite, video on demand. Everything has grown in complexity.”
And, perhaps, menace. Among the most-bandied-about words at the convention was FANG, industry jargon for the newly powerful video-streaming companies like Facebook, Apple TV, Amazon, Netflix and Google.
Any comparison between them and the sharpened tooth of a ravenous wolf or bloodsucking bat is entirely intentional. With their vast numbers of subscribers and huge programming war chests, the FANG companies threaten to batter the television industry and remake programming.
Netflix, with 109 million subscribers, will spend $7.5 billion this year on programming. Amazon just spent $250 million on a single show, a series based on the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Checks that size attract major talent: Shonda Rhimes, producer of megahit ABC shows like “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal,” recently jumped ship for Netflix. For $1 million apiece, Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston just signed to do a series for the new Apple TV, which many TV executives think will ultimately be their deadliest competitor of all.
Facebook, during NATPE, announced plans to produce three TV shows for its site, including one hosted by the popular outdoor adventurer Bear Grylls. Hulu, not yet part of the FANG wolfpack but coming on strong, last year was the first streaming service to produce a show that won an Emmy for best drama with “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
“People are worried about the FANG companies and their new shows,” said Adam Jacobson, editor of Radio & Television Business Report, a prominent industry publication. “But nobody dares to breathe a word about what really might be coming. One of the main things keeping television relevant in the digital age is live programming like sports.
“But what happens if, when the current NFL television deal expires in 2022, somebody like Netflix or Apple TV outbids television for the rights? That will change everything.”
NATPE’s Bommel said there’s another side to the coin. “These new companies will all need content,” he said. “And that’s what producers do — they create content, they tell stories. ...Ultimately, what I think you’ll see is everybody working together.”
The storytellers were out in force at NATPE, chasing deals for their shows. Among the hottest prospects from overseas: a telenovela from Brazil’s Globo network called “Edge of Desire,” about people abandoning their established lives to live out their dreams, not always very successfully. Biggest selling point: It averaged a whopping 45 million viewers a night in Brazil.
Another overseas show with lots of buzz is “Stiletto Vendettas” from the Turkish company Eccho Rights, in which three successful women are confronted by a childhood friend they pranked so badly that they had all thought she killed herself.
“Having the Turks at NATPE for the first time in a big way is a huge step forward,” said Bommel. “Their shows travel well, and they’re one of the largest television producers in the world outside the United States.”
Some other foreign-made shows may face more of an uphill struggle. China’s JiangSu Broadcasting Corp., one of 10 Chinese media companies selling their wares at NATPE, has high hopes for selling the format of “The Amazing Magicians,” a competition among international teams of conjurors.
But the reception has been cool among buyers from the United States, where television magic shows have never done big business. “We understand the doubts,” said Qin Xiaoming, the company’s deputy director of international distribution. “It’s very hard to demonstrate magic on TV. But the show has done well for us.”
Then there’s “Don’t Tell The Bride,” from the British company DRG. In it, each week a young couple get $20,000 to carry out their dream wedding, but with a biiiiig catch: Only the groom knows about the money, and he has to do all the planning and preparation himself, in secret.
Judging from the dialogue in the highlight reel DRG was showing (“You’ve absolutely broken my heart,” screams one ex-prospective bride) and even the theme music (that squee! squee! squee! from the shower scene in “Psycho” recurred a lot), “Don’t Tell The Bride” is a bit short on happy endings.
“It may seem, um, odd,” conceded DRG representative Diaz. “But it’s been very popular in the United Kingdom.” For 12 seasons, not that anyone’s counting; and at NATPE, negotiations to add Brazil to the list were looking good this week.
South Korea’s “I Am Not A Robot,” the show about a guy who can’t distinguish between between a cyborg and a real woman, may seem to face considerable cultural obstacles in the feminist-conscious U.S. marketplace.
On the other hand, consider that you may already be watching Korean TV without knowing it — the ABC hit drama “The Good Doctor,” about the struggles of a brilliant young doctor who also happens to be autistic, is copied almost word for word from a South Korean show of the same name.
Then again, who needs robots or any other newfangled menace? Stephen Rogers was at NATPE peddling shows that, if they were people, would already be collecting Social Security. His wares included such dawn-of-TV Westerns as “Cisco Kid” (1950-56) “Hopalong Cassidy” (1952-54) and “The Rifleman” (1958-1963).
And all those “Real Housewives” shows had better watch out; Rogers even has the only seven episodes known to still exist of the original reality-show divas, “Queen For A Day.”
“I’m doing pretty well here,” said Rogers, CEO of Peter Rodgers Organization, a distribution founded by his father decades ago. “There’s always a market for shows that have built a brand. You get all these flashy new shows with all the buzz, but a year later they’re gone and nobody remembers their names. But ‘The Rifleman,’ everybody knows what this is. A network doesn’t have to spend a fortune promoting it.”