Special Report on NATPE: Standing alone in the world of mergers

NATPE has come a long way since it opened 35 years ago with 71 attendees. Last year, close to 17,000 people came to New Orleans from around the world, making NATPE arguably the largest stop on the fast-paced international television market...
January 1, 1998

NATPE has come a long way since it opened 35 years ago with 71 attendees. Last year, close to 17,000 people came to New Orleans from around the world, making NATPE arguably the largest stop on the fast-paced international television market circuit. KidScreen’s special report on NATPE looks at how the once mostly American television market has grown with the expanding television industry to represent a truly global perspective, including, especially in recent years, a greater Latin American presence.

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The mega-mergers between broadcast outlets, distributors and producers over the last few years have meant that large segments of the U.S. television market are virtually sewn up. Companies venturing out on their own face greater challenges today than ever before. We questioned executives from several independent producers to see how they are faring. We also included one formerly independent company to see how post-buyout life compares.

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*What is it like to be an independent?

Clož van den Berg, director of children’s and family programming, Alliance International TV: NATPE as a market is a fantastic opportunity for independent companies to meet with a broad range of partners, not just buyers and sellers but producers, too, and to find out what’s going on in the U.S. market. It’s a chance for us to meet new clients, make new contacts.

David Ferguson, vice president, CINAR Europe: I’ve never known otherwise. These days, the large majors have vertical integration-they do it all themselves. But, for us, there’s no change. It’s always been tough for independents. The only change is that the American market just got harder.

Cinar never depended too heavily on one market, although, of course, it’s a shame when a whole market suddenly dwindles to nothing. The biggest problem is choosing production participants. Independents depending on the networks for financing suddenly have to get into co-production.

Andy Heyward, president, DIC Entertainment: (Editor’s note: DIC Entertainment was an independent company until Capital Cities/ABC, Inc. acquired a majority stake in 1993. In 1996, Capital Cities/ABC (now known as ABC, Inc.) was acquired by The Walt Disney Company.)

We act like an independent, but there’s an entrepreneurial aspect that we don’t have as much anymore-the worry about finances. Our financing is in place. But we are independent regarding where we can sell. We have three Monday through Friday, first-run strips this season: The Wacky World of Tex Avery, sponsored by General Mills, Extreme Dinosaurs with Bohbot and Mummies Alive! with Claster.

Carol Kirschner, senior vice president, creative affairs, Medialab: [NATPE is] tough, very tough. . . . It’s almost impossible for an independent to get a show sold without the backing of a major. Because Medialab is in a unique position with its [motion animation] components, buyers have a reason to pay attention. The majors have the money to invest in talent, which is what sells a show. There are only three real buyers now [in the U.S.]. If you can make a deal with them, then it’s great; if you can’t, it’s impossible.

C.J. Kettler, president, Sunbow: As an independent we are highly responsive. That’s an edge-you can change on a dime. So much of getting out there as an independent is in forging co-productions. We’ve been doing it for years. Picking your partners is very important.

*How would you define an independent?

van den Berg: A company that is independent is able to represent a number of products, not tied to just one studio. They are able to have a slate of a number of different products rather than having one in-house style.

Ferguson: An independent is somebody who commissions their own work.

Kirschner: I look at it from a straight financial, business point of view: Is this a company that is not connected to a major player? Is it a company that does development and financing themselves?

Kettler: As a purist, an independent is unaffiliated with a network-a privately held company. An independent does not have an equity relationship with a studio or distribution outlet.

*Independents are locked out when majors have their own broadcasting outlets. Where can you go to distribute product?

van den Berg: The market changes so greatly. Every day, new stations come in. . . . There’s competition in every market, but there are lots of different avenues, not just one territory. Of course, the U.S. market is a bit of a different story, but there’s syndication [to go to] in the U.S.

Heyward: We work closely with Buena Vista International distribution, which has our exclusive distribution overseas. They have very strong Disney product-one that’s tried and true and not subject to the trends and fads and is associated with the highest quality.

It was understood when we made the deal that [with that exclusivity] there would be influence and an ongoing dialogue with them so that we could contour our lineup to ensure that the schedule we do would be the most competitive.

Kirschner: If a company has a unique voice and visual style, it has [a better chance] of succeeding. Independents have to find stuff that will break out. The things that you can sell to cable are much more outrageous than what would sell at CBS.

If you’re talking about kids, there’s a finite number of places where you can sell anything. Many buyers have a clear-cut brand. You have to be clear what that brand is regardless of who you are. It’s easier if you know that Disney [will pick it up]. Otherwise, it’s pretty daunting-the idea that there could be no place to sell it. It’s not a market for the faint hearted or the easily discouraged.

Kettler: We are very well positioned domestically, and that absolutely helps, but you couldn’t rely on that [U.S. market solely]. If we had, it would have been a tough year.

The international markets haven’t had this many Americans in the past. I guess they’ve woken up to the fact that domestic sales aren’t enough, but for some, it may be too late to change. Many independents that are having a hard time are accustomed to making the U.S. the biggest chunk [of their business], with international being gravy. Those days are over.

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