Technologies will proliferate at broadcast show

This won’t be your father’s NAB. The show floor at the annual National Assn. of Broadcasters confab in Las Vegas (April 18-23) is sure to raise some eyebrows this year, with vidgame and content players seeping in among the more traditional broadcast and production hardware exhibitors.

Software giant Electronic Arts will be the first-ever large gaming company to show its wares at NAB (see adjoining story). MGM also will be there, touting ThisTV, its new programming service offering 4,000 movie titles and 10,000 TV episodes for broadcast stations’ supplemental digital channels. Plus, lots of new platforms such as mobile television will be much in evidence.

“NAB is evolving,” says Dennis Wharton, exec vice president of media relations. “When we got back from the show last year, we started kicking around ideas on how to attract new audiences.”

But in fact, Wharton adds, NAB has been on an evolutionary curve since the early 1990s. At that time, he says, the show organizers made a conscious decision to open up the broadcast focus to other technologies, including cable, telco and satellite platforms.

“Visionaries in the broadcast business helped convince NAB to expand the show beyond the traditional broadcast business,” he says. “We did that with the hope that it expose broadcasters to all kinds of new things. Obviously, the decision was the right one if you look at the scale and scope of the show.”

Attendance at NAB stood at 104,000 last year; fully 25% of the showgoers came from outside the U.S. And the large traditional broadcast suppliers such as Sony, Panasonic and Harris have considered their NAB exhibits a necessary cost of doing business. In recent years they’ve been joined by players from peripheral fields, including, most notably, Apple.

But today’s tight economy has been a factor in some companies’ decisions to pull out of the show. Apple and Avid vanished last year. This year, Quantel bowed out.

But in a notable and exceptional reversal of the trend, Avid is returning to the NAB hall this year, signaling that the show still matters for exhibitors.

“We’ve learned that there were very important reasons to be on the floor,” says Avid exec VP/general manager Kirk Arnold. “Our customers use the chance to engage with us directly, and we can … introduce ourselves to the next generation of media practitioners.

“The industry is going through a massive change, and in that change is opportunity,” she continues. “We see an enormous amount of long-term opportunity for our customers in new models of distribution, new models in the newsroom. We’re very conscious about the short-term pressure, but we have a long-term commitment.”

The phenomenon Arnold describes as short-term pressure also translates to fewer attendees. How much attendance will drop this year is an open question. Wharton, who notes the show dipped by 25% in the wake of 9/11 and has been building back since then, scoffs at rumors that preregistration is 40% lower than last year’s. “Not even close,” he says, but acknowledges that “it’ll be hard to hold the numbers we’ve had in the last few years. Realistically speaking in this economy, we’ll be down. It all depends on how much on-site registration we get.”

Just as Avid execs see good reasons to attend NAB, so do many attendees like Terence Curren, prexy of editing boutique Alpha Dogs Editorial in Burbank. Curren has been going to the show since the 1980s, and he’s going again this year. “It’s close, easy and inexpensive,” he says.

Curren doesn’t expect to see anything new from the big companies, since he hears the news or even sees the products from local vendors or beta programs. But that’s not why he goes.

“It’s mainly the networking,” says Curren, who attends an annual lunch with a group of post boutique executives from all over the country.

“And I’m interested in the smaller exhibitors,” he continues. “It’s the little guys, the companies too small to advertise. You walk around and see some product that’s really neat.”

He’s also interested in what he might glean about the future. “We’re looking for where we’re going to fit in the post-production chain,” he says. “And where we can be a value-added vendor. Everybody is trying to figure that out, from the biggest studios to individual editors. Will broadcast TV be gone? What will we be doing in five or 10 years?”

While nobody knows the answer to that, Jimmy Schaeffler, chair of the Carmel Group research firm, has some encouraging words: “Despite all the challenging, these broadcasters retain remarkable assets — local connections, huge content libraries, relatively deep pockets and legacies and an unrivaled relationship with advertisers.”

How everyone in the value chain maintains and evolves those assets is a conversation that will take place in Las Vegas, assuring — at least for 2009 — NAB’s continued relevance.

TIP SHEET

What: National Assn. of Broadcasters Convention

When: April 18-23

Where: Las Vegas Convention Center

Website: nab.org

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