RBR/TVBR observation: Reflections on Las Vegas 2009


It may be the worst of times when it comes to the economy in general and advertising spending in particular, but the 2009 NAB Show was not a pity party. Expectations were so low going in that the turnout and atmosphere in Las Vegas were pretty good. There is reason to hope for better days ahead.

Not that we ever ran into anybody who said “Business is great! We’re having our best year ever.” Far from it. But there was a clear understanding by broadcasters that their company is not alone in being hard pressed, that broadcasting is not alone in being a hard-pressed industry and that the best approach is to focus on doing business the best you can and invest very, very carefully for future growth.

To that end, there was great excitement among television station owners about the potential revenues from mobile DTV. This is not a far-off fantasy anymore. The consumer electronics companies are manufacturing receivers and many more models will be coming into the market very soon. Chip production in ramping up and consumer demand is certain to be high, even in this tough economy.

For TV stations, adding mobile DTV is a relatively small capital expense compared to what they just went through to convert from analog to digital for their main broadcasting signal. Content rights still have to be negotiated with the networks, but mobile DTV also opens up a whole new world where cable networks and other content providers not currently a part of broadcast television will be wanting to partner with TV stations owners to deliver content to mobile devices. And, of course, locally produced news, weather, traffic and sports reports can be put out on a station’s mobile channel(s) just as soon as the equipment is in place to transmit. It shouldn’t take long to recoup an investment of less than $200,000.

Radio isn’t on the cusp of any new technological advance of that magnitude, but the business also isn’t dead or dying. Radio is the most local of local media and stations are still producing healthy cash-flow by figuring out more and more ways to connect local businesses to local audiences. That’s not just with spots, but via the Internet and with mobile marketing. Cell phones are now ubiquitous and radio stations need to be connecting with their listeners, particularly the young demos, via texting and audio/video streaming to those ever-present phones. At more than one NAB Show session we were reminded that local stations have some of the strongest brands in their markets and the Internet, cell phones and other mobile devices just offer new platforms to expand those brands. And that applies to both radio and TV stations.

Back to the technology issue, there was incremental advancement for radio on display in Las Vegas. Until now, cell phones that included FM receiver chips required the use of the headphone wires as the FM antenna. But there are now two models – the Nokia 5030 and Motorola ROKR EM35 – with the FM antenna designed into the circuit board. Thus, consumers are able to use Bluetooth wireless headsets or Bluetooth-enable speakers to listen to radio on those cell phone. Look for more models to incorporate that design feature. And there’s still reason to hope that the wireless telephone industry will embrace FM receiver capability as the cheapest and most effective way to meet federal government demands for them to come up with a viable emergency notification system.

HD Radio may be old hat by now, but incremental improvement is still important. At long last, chips are much, much smaller and aren’t such power hogs. Thus, iBiquity’s booth at the NAB Show had on display a tiny – so tiny, we noted, that it would be easy to lose – AM/FM analog/digital HD Radio receiver. One that would fit in the palm of you hand with room to spare. HD Radio is, slowly but surely, becoming ubiquitous, with more and more receiver models on the market and automakers gradually incorporating them into the OEM product line.

Despite a star-studded lineup, attendance was down this year for the NAB Show. And by star-studded we’re talking Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart, Kelsey Grammer and Vin Scully. So, those of you who weren’t there really missed out. Given the state of the economy, it was expected that the turnout would be down sharply, so the folks at NAB were pretty proud to post the attendance figure of 83,842. Yes, that was far from the 105,259 at the 2008 show, but nicely topped fears we’d heard expressed before the show that the count would be 80K or below.

We talked with quite a few vendors who said the exhibit floor activity surpassed their expectations. Granted, those expectations were pretty low as they headed to Las Vegas. One vendor said there was “a sigh of relief” on Monday when people actually showed up on the floor in good numbers and began visiting booths. What we heard repeated over and over was that while the number of attendees was down, as everyone had expected, the quality was up. People whose companies were paying to send them to Las Vegas were there for a reason. They knew what they were looking to buy and they had money to spend on it.

So, we can report with assurance that Radio ain’t dead, Television ain’t dead, the Vendors to radio and TV ain’t dead and the NAB Show ain’t dead. For that matter, the US economy ain’t dead, although it is pretty sick at the moment. This too shall pass.

—Jack Messmer, Executive Editor, RBR/TVBR