Broadcasters confab sees mobile, self-programming viewers

During a recent trip to Taiwan, I was struck by the fact that virtually every taxi had a live TV connection on the dashboard. For someone unfamiliar with the streets of Taipei, perhaps the only thing that could make getting around more harrowing was thinking the driver might be watching CNN International instead of the road.

If mobile car TV feels like another step into a media world once reserved for science fiction, it’s hardly a novelty. For the umpteenth time, the just-wrapped NAB convention in Las Vegas featured astounding demonstrations of new technology and carried warnings that TV life as we know it — rooted in networks, cable hookups and what-not — is about to change dramatically.

How dramatically? Forget YouTube. Think MyTube, times the number of people with media access.

“It’s likely that people will have only one channel, and it will be their own channel,” said Jack Perry, CEO of media tech company Syncbak, at one of the panels. “The future’s pretty clear. We’re going to have personalized television.”

Of course, the future’s not all that clear. The sky might be falling, but despite past pronouncements, it’s doing so in herky-jerky fashion — and at times slow motion. Even those who have a pretty good grasp on “how” the world is going to change become fuzzier if you press them regarding “when.”

According to the NAB show paper, the convention itself sees 2012 as a “transformative year — one that cements the show’s transition from an over-the-air broadcast-centric show to one that’s shining a spotlight on the entire professional media industry.”

If the confab did cement anything, it’s a strong sense the Internet isn’t going to be just the dominant force in content distribution but, as Qualcomm exec VP/prexy of global market development Margaret (Peggy) Johnson described it, “a carry-along experience,” consisting of media that’s highly personalized, always with you and available in real time.

The main problem, from a business perspective, is consumers, who want what they want, when and where they want it. As Electus founder and former NBC Entertainment prez Ben Silverman colorfully said at NAB’s Disruptive Media Conference (which sounds like something a Bond villain would mastermind), “Even if broadcast is king, consumer is God.”

Alas, consumer also remains a capricious God, without much consideration about copyright protection, spectrum concerns or other thorny details relating to how content generators get paid. And unfortunately, without compensation, those providers have less incentive to invest in the high-quality content people covet on multiple platforms.

Speaking of traditional broadcasters, Sinclair Broadcast Group’s VP of advanced technology, Mark Aitken, said they “ought to have the pants scared off of them.”

That isn’t to say broadcasters (including Aitken) are willing to say they’re becoming obsolete; rather, they’re emphasizing how they can adapt to fast-shifting technology and, if not own the future, still be a major part of it. “Radio and television can remain indispensable media, even in a world of digital dashboards, tablets and smartphones,” NAB president Gordon Smith said reassuringly in his keynote address.

On the plus side for broadcasters, determining what transpires next is “highly political,” as one panelist noted during a discussion about TV’s future, and broadcasters have historically exercised plenty of clout with lawmakers.

Until it becomes clear whose interests and whose technology will prevail, it’s fair to say the NAB convention’s teeming exhibit floor contains some device that will shape our future reality, “Terminator”-like, and a lot of others that look interesting but will go down in history as very expensive toys.

We just don’t know for certain which is which, and even some of the tech guys demonstrating products didn’t sound — to borrow a Vegas metaphor — like they’d be eager to lay down any sizable personal wagers on it.

The lack of a clear blueprint for the anticipated media transformation explains why everyone is hedging bets and trying to be as multifaceted as possible. But sooner or later the question of “when” will be answered, and we’ll have a better idea who the winners and also-rans are.

In the broadest sense, it’s exciting. Yet depending on one’s tolerance for uncertainty, pants are, for now, optional.

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