By Leah Hochbaum

Although TV executives have complained that most of the markets that were once considered can’t-miss events are now just relics of the industry’s forgotten past, most contend that NATPE, which will have its 44th edition next week in Las Vegas, is still vital to attend.

“I love it,” said Greg Phillips, president, Fireworks International. “It’s the first of the year. Everyone’s enthused to see what’s new after the long holiday season.” But while he’s looking forward to spending some time in Sin City, he does believe that NATPE’s “a week or two too early this year, especially with MIP later than usual.”

Phillips is especially excited about exploring new digital media opportunities at the market. “We just announced a new department to be run by Jonathan Ford,” he said. Ford will be responsible for the licensing of all of Fireworks International’s new and library properties to digital media channels throughout the world, including on-demand, broadband and mobile platforms.

Classic Media is also viewing NATPE as a forum to up its digital ante, having just hired Andrew Perlman as vice president, Digital. According to Doug Schwalbe, executive vice president, Worldwide Distribution at Classic, “We already have channels with MobiTV [a service that essentially turns your phone into a mobile television], which is available on Sprint. We’re now trying to launch a block called Saturday Morning TV, which evokes memories of Saturday morning cartoons for people in their 30s and 40s.” The block will include such animated classics as Mr. Magoo and Rocky and Bullwinkle. “We’re trying to get more into the mobile and broadband world,” said Schwalbe.

Another company coming to NATPE in the hopes of breaking into new platforms is Argentina’s Telefilms. “We consider it very important to learn more about the possible market around VoD and all Internet rights for films,” said Telefilms marketing executive Thelma Pussetto before adding that she hopes her busy schedule will allow her to attend conferences and panels related to those topics during the market. “We don’t want to neglect any area, so in case we expand our interests, we need to start learning about these new ideas.”

E! Networks vp, International Sales, Duccio Donati, is also looking to expand his company’s interests. “Mobile, broadband and VoD are becoming increasingly important both as complimentary and stand-alone businesses,” he said. “We are pursuing these areas aggressively in the United States and therefore have a considerable amount of product that we can make available to those platforms, so I expect we will be closing a considerable number of new deals this year.”

Yet, while many companies are coming out to learn about the roads they haven’t yet taken, some are coming to make sure that the business they’ve always known gets done. “Traditional television is still my main focus because it is still the best medium to reach young viewers en masse,” said Olga Romero, who handles Latin American broadcast sales for Canada-based Cookie Jar Entertainment. Romero and her colleagues will concentrate their efforts on “seeking free-television partners for our newest crop of series,” including Johnny Test, The Doodlebops and Gerald McBoing Boing.

Romero feels that NATPE is still an immensely important market for Cookie Jar. “It remains a great opportunity for us to connect with our clients in Latin America,” she said. “It is also a great bridge between MIPCOM Jr. and MIP-TV that allows business to flourish.”

Classic’s Schwalbe concurred. “For the past 18 months, every market has gotten better and better,” he said. “There’s been real buying activity on the floor and I’m confident that the upsurge will continue at NATPE.”

NATPE is expected to be a good market, even though attendance is expected to be down, and many distributors view the event as “the weakest among the key markets.” But this is another story that VideoAge must verify and, if accurate, report on.