Certainly the most interesting part of the 2008 show was the keynote speech by Tim Robbins. But what did we learn from his rant? However funny and interesting it was, it was still a rant. And then it hit us – this is what the next four years are going to be like in Washington.
As noted in the joint RTNDA/NAB session on the 2008 presidential race, all three remaining major candidates are enemies of broadcasters. I got into a debate with one DC lawyer at a cocktail party when I suggested that the safest bet for broadcasters might be Hillary Clinton, since Susan Ness as FCC Chairman would at least be a known quantity who has some understanding of the broadcasting business. The legal beagle didn’t agree, and argued for Barack Obama, since he really hasn’t taken positions openly hostile to broadcasters and might appoint an open-minded chairman. Certainly John McCain has the longest track record of public battling with broadcasters, owing to his period of chairing the Senate Commerce Committee, so the sure thing is that broadcasters will not be winners on November 4th. While I don’t expect Tim Robbins to take a huge pay cut for an appointment to the FCC, his rhetoric, however ill-informed, might well become commonplace at the Commission during the next administration.
Television broadcasters no longer seem to be nervous about the February 17, 2009 digital transition. The die is cast and they are ready to move on to the new world of multi-channel DTV. The hot buzz in Las Vegas was about mobile video. The Open Mobile Video Coalition (OMVC) is confident that the ATSC will finish the mobile DTV standard by year’s end and manufacturers are already champing at the bit to include the new, free, advertiser-supported over-the-air video service in consumer devices. I was skeptical of OMVC President (and Ion Media Networks CEO) Brandon Burgess’ prediction that some devices would hit the market by February, until I saw Motorola VP Kevin Wirick touting a prototype that’s just waiting for the final ATSC standard.
For radio, there was a reduction in price for implementing HD Radio with a joint announcement by four manufacturers, NAB and iBiquity Digital of new “embedded exporter” technology. And there were lots and lots of real world HD Radio receivers on display, not just a handful as in past years, and even prototypes of portable receivers that are supposed to be just a few months away. But radio broadcasters weren’t too excited. The fact is, most of them weren’t even there. Faces we were used to seeing in Las Vegas from major radio groups were conspicuous by their absence – not just Clear Channel, with its super-tight restrictions on spending, but other companies as well. Brokers seemed to be busy, but generally with smaller, privately owned broadcasters looking to pick up desirable properties while the big guys aren’t able to buy. Vendors in the North Hall told us business was so-so for domestic radio, but that there was quite a bit of activity from foreign radio broadcasters. So, it was a good thing that there were 28,310 international attendees, a record high, among the 105,259 folks at the show.
It was great fun to see and hear from Bob Barker, Bob Pittman, Larry Lujack and Cousin Brucie Murrow, among others. I guess it shows my age when I have to wonder if new talents are being nurtured in radio today who will someday be honored as Lujack and Morrow were. Kudos to the Broadcasters Foundation of America, with grants from The Hubbard Broadcasting Foundation and the McCormick Tribune Foundation, for rechristening the Broadcast Pioneer Awards in the name of Ward L. Quaal while the broadcaster who has inspired so many others is still a living legend. Recent hip surgery may have slowed him down, but it was great to see the man who built WGN and Tribune Broadcasting into such an industry leader on stage to congratulate each and every one of this year’s honorees. “Cousin Ward,” as Bruce Murrow called him, inspired a couple of generations of broadcasters. Let us hope we have others today who will be up to the challenge of leading, rather than capitulating.