In an interview with hockey great Wayne Gretzky, a persistent reporter kept looking to find some way of explaining what it was about the way Gretzky plays the game that makes him excel so far beyond the rest. Finally, after making a few of the standard replies to such questions, Gretzky added that in following the play around the ice rink he never g’es to where the puck is, but rather, he skates to where he thinks the puck will be.
That image sprang to mind after three days of booth-hopping and bits of conversation in the corridors of this year’s National Association of Television Program Executives convention in New Orleans, where speculation over what will be the next hot craze is something of a sport in itself.
Those who came to NATPE expecting to find a clear answer to this question must have left feeling distinctly denied. There were no real show-stoppers, nor were there any obvious emerging trends particularly, it seemed, in the children’s programming arena. If anything, kids programming feels more crowded and the patterns more difficult to discern than ever.
In part, this is a reflection of the adjustments that are taking place in the syndication market following the mergers and corporate machinations involving major studios and broadcasters, and the subsequent emergence of new broadcast networks. There is less broadcast inventory and a lot more product looking for shelf space.
NATPE has been changed, also, by the fact that the international community has accepted this once mostly American event as a mainstream market. The amount of programming selection is staggering. After walking the floors of New Orleans’ imposing convention center, one gets the impression that just about every conceivable means of attracting kids’ attention has been covered, whether it be game shows, comedy, live-action drama, outdoor adventure or a seemingly limitless catalogue of animation storytelling.
It’s hard not to ponder how tough it must be today to be truly original in the face of such overwhelming choice.
If producers or broadcasters were counting on television science to help bring an element of precision to their decision-making process, that hope was given a cold dash of reality at a panel session that pitted the heavyweights of network and cable television against each other. The liveliest part of the debate was a discussion of how far away the industry still is from having a system that accurately counts the number of eyeballs each television service attracts. One panelist expressed the view that we’re not even close to figuring it out. And that applies only to multichannel in-home viewing, he said. What about all the out-of-home viewing that takes place at work, in dormitories or in other people’s homes a question that has special relevance to those who are trying to keep track of the elusive teen audience.
The challenges are immense, and they only begin with the programming side of the equation. As our report on Toy Fair illustrates, the range of product choice and the creative options available only increase as each new constituency toy maker, licensee, retailer and promotional partner is added to the mix.
Again, the wonder is that anything new can break through, and that there is someone who will identify the next fad before it becomes one. But perhaps the real answer to how that happens lies in the subtext of Gretzky’s self-appraisal. The six-foot, 170-pound forward clearly has no physical advantage. He is not known for a booming shot, nor is he the fastest skater in the league. However, he d’es have one towering advantage over others who play the game an unerring instinct.