CES taps TV’s inner geek

NATPE's nice, but tech turmoil brings many tube toppers to Vegas in January

What: 2007 International Consumer Electronics Show
Where: Sands Expo and Convention Center/Venetian, Las Vegas
When: Jan. 8-11
Keynoters: Michael Dell, Bill Gates, Robert Iger, Leslie Moonves, Gary Shapiro, Ed Zander

Traditionally, at the start of a new year, TV toppers have girded themselves for the North American Television Program Executives convention, held each January in Las Vegas.

But these days, with the digital revolution transforming their business, top TV execs are venturing into the desert a week or so earlier.

Once the domain of gadget geeks, the Consumer Electronics Show has evolved into a must-see confab for small screen execs and talent.

In fact, the event has morphed into a bit of a glamour event, with Robin Williams, Tom Cruise, Ellen DeGeneres and Tom Hanks making appearances last year.

In an era of video iPods, TiVo and Slingboxes, tube denizens want to make sure they’re in sync with the manufacturers of consumer tech.

“Every single media company realizes that the success or failure of our businesses will be determined by how well we adapt to what’s happening with new media and technology,” says CBS Corp. supremo Leslie Moonves. “If you’re not totally aware of what’s happening in technology and the new kinds of delivery systems, you’re going to go the way of the dinosaurs.”

Returning to CES this year, Moonves is scheduled to deliver a keynote speech Tuesday, while Disney’s Bob Iger will speak to delegates today. If history is any guide, these speeches will probably make news.

Last year, for example, Moonves used CES to announce the Eye’s partnership with Google Video to sell series online.

“The audience at CES is one we want to speak to,” Moonves says. “The dollars that are available on digital (platforms) are going to grow substantially.”

News Corp.’s Peter Chernin also made headlines last year by announcing plans to shorten the window between theatrical and homevideo releases of films. Fox and DirecTV also unveiled a new on-demand service to let consumers pay to watch shows before they debuted on TV.

Chernin will be back at the conference this year, even though he’s not scheduled to make a formal presentation.

In additon to Chernin, Andrew G. Setos, president of engineering for the Fox Group, says he and many of his News Corp. peers will definitely be at CES. The show, he says, gives creative execs the chance to figure out how to shape their content for new media.

“There’s a huge shift in how creative works are being made available to people,” Setos explains. Execs “need to talk to the people who are creating all these things. You have to get familiar with them.”

NBC Universal, which has made much of the importance of new technologies as part of its NBC 2.0 initiative, is also sending a high-level delegation to CES. Prexy of digital media Beth Comstock and Jeff Gaspin, prexy of NBC U Cable and digital content, will lead the charge.

Digital delivery of film and TV content will continue to be a major theme at CES. While Apple doesn’t attend the show, its upcoming release of iTV — a device that makes it easier to view Web content on a traditional television — is sure to be a hot topic in Vegas.

“We’re headed for a universe where you’re going to be able to get content wherever you want it, whenever you want it,” Moonves says.

And while business concerns are obviously top of mind for Hollywood execs always anxious to open up new revenue streams, Setos says CES is important because it gives creative types a chance to see how technology impacts the way consumers soak up their entertainment.

“There are all sorts of questions, like whether a two-hour movie intended to be seen on a 200-foot screen works on a 2-inch screen,” he says.

Setos says the business can’t repeat the mistakes of the past, when new technologies were intially shunned by Hollywood due to nothing more than fear. “Decades ago, when television became a big force, the motion picture industry stonewalled it as a competitor,” he says. “That was dumb. They should’ve embraced it. We’re in the creative business. We have to rock and roll with whatever medium there is.”

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