NATPE Finds Syndication Sector Humming As Drew Barrymore, Nick Cannon Follow Kelly Clarkson, Tamron Hall Into The Arena

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The 57th annual NATPE conference — the 10th edition held in Miami — will unfold January 21 to 23 with the syndication business experiencing an upswing.

While ratings are not what they used to be, renewals of major 2019 talk debuts for Kelly Clarkson and Tamron Hall have restored confidence in the sector’s core business model. Newcomers like Drew Barrymore and Nick Cannon are leading a new wave of hopefuls, giving a new shot of energy to NATPE, which some had given up for dead a decade ago. The hangover from expensive wipeouts by Harry Connick Jr., Katie Couric and Arsenio Hall is finally receding.

“After several years of drought, the river is flowing again for syndicators,” Hearst SVP of programming Emerson Coleman told Deadline. “Recently, we would walk the show floor and there wasn’t anything to buy, but this will be a more transactional year at the conference for stations.”

Negotiating timeslots and clearances will be a major focus for many NATPE regulars. Mort Marcus, co-president of Lionsgate’s Debmar-Mercury along with Ira Bernstein, will be in Miami with Cannon’s new talk show and Central Ave, a weekly pop culture show co-produced with Will Packer that will debut this fall on Fox stations. “Some years, the meetings at NATPE can be perfunctory, but this year they’re not,” Marcus said. “Nick Cannon, Drew Barrymore – those are shows the marketplace wants, but it’s tighter out there” in terms of shelf space.

Consolidation in local TV station owners is having a significant effect on talks. In the past year alone, Nexstar closed a $4.1 billion deal to buy Tribune Media and Grey Television put the wraps on a $3.6 billion purchase of Raycom. Nexstar has mushroomed into the No. 1 station group from its start as the owner of a single radio station barely two decades ago. Private-equity firms are also looking to continue the trend, with Tegna seen as the next major M&A candidate.

“As these station groups get larger, the amount of meetings is fewer – but they’re tougher meetings,” said Steve LoCasio, chief operating and financial officer of the CBS Global Distribution Group.

LoCasio is nevertheless decidedly upbeat about Barrymore’s prospects given the host’s qualities and commitment.

Drew Barrymore

“She really wants to do this,” he said. “She has a message she wants to get out there.” Unlike other hosts, he said, Barrymore is known for “growing up in front of America” since childhood roles in E.T. The Extra Terrestrial. While the format of the show has not been firmed up, test versions of the show found the host comfortable with casual conversations, serious topics, cooking segments and interviews with children and celebrities.

Even so, “getting a new show launched is not easy,” LoCasio said, “because the time slots are few and far between. Legacy shows monopolize the best slots.” Roger King, the late syndication pioneer known for launching (with his brother, Michael) meteoric hits like Wheel of Fortune and The Oprah Winfrey Show, was fond of saying he preferred renewing shows to launching them, LoCasio recalled.

In addition to the business dealings, NATPE panels will feature speakers like A+E Networks president Paul Buccieri, Discovery and CuriosityStream founder John Hendricks, Fox station chief Jack Abernethy and ViacomCBS distribution boss Armando Nuñez. The 17th annual Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Awards will honor actress Christine Baranski, WarnerMedia and CNN honcho Jeff Zucker, ABC Entertainment president Karey Burke, Power showrunner Courtney Kemp and NBCUniversal’s Telemundo Global Studios President Marcos Santana.

Frank Cicha, head of programming for Fox Television Stations, will have a full NATPE docket with shows like Central Ave and the Meredith Vieira-hosted game show 25 Words or Less, another notable sophomore renewal.

“There’s been a slow decline in ratings overall,” Cicha conceded. “The only way to combat it is with great programming. A lot of the shows that have come back wouldn’t get renewed if the show is terrible.” As the industry has evolved and technology has driven shifts in viewer habit, he added, some programmers have tried to reverse-engineer hits. “You can look at the economics, but in the end a business model doesn’t make a good show,” he said.

Fox has not been as active a participant as other media companies in the race to build streaming outlets capable of taking audience back from Netflix. But the company recently rolled out Fox Soul, a free, ad-supported streaming service that will feature a blend of locally produced Fox shows and new originals.

“We’re at a critical point,” Cicha said of the distribution landscape. “Bundles are getting smaller and the number of choices is getting bigger.”

Debmar-Mercury’s Marcus will also have that rarest of species to offer stations at NATPE: an off-net sitcom in Schitt’s Creek, which is nearing the end of its original tenure on Pop and testing the syndication waters. Having weathered many shifts in the industry since founding Debmar in 1993, Marcus still sees opportunity for those willing to be flexible. “Streaming services are getting eyeballs, so they are adding eyeballs to the marketplace. The whole marketplace is in flux.” Even so, he added, about 20 million U.S. households “get all of their TV via an antenna. That’s a lot of homes!”

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