What really happened at NAB


At an event as gargantuan as the National Association of Broadcasters’ annual convention, you find what you’re looking for.  I was looking for digital technology, mobile and online video distribution and battlefield reports from the policy wars that accompany the emergence of competitive services.

Moreover, you can get a better impression of NAB Show after you leave Las Vegas.  There’s time to reflect on how the pieces fit together, and what seems real after you’re away from the hype and passion (or desperation) of the show floor.

So now, with the perspective of a fortnight, here’s what emerged from my days in and around the NAB Show.

I was not seeking the latest/greatest advances in transmitter technology, workflow management, studio production/post-production – all of which were present in their usual dazzling diversity.  I barely glanced at the plentiful displays of audio/radio equipment, but noticed a growing array of products for “telepresence” – i.e. video conference, both for business use and for production applications.

So what follows is a selective evaluation of my agenda, not a comprehensive review of what was, by all measures, a terrific convention:  93,000 people (or thereabouts, up from 88,000 last year) were in Las Vegas on their own missions.  The sprawling exhibits and private demo suites catered to the attendees’ interests, whether it was broadcasting, post-production or almost any other media-related venture.  .

From a policy wonk perspective, only one word, uttered repeatedly, matters:  “spectrum.”  From FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, who preached the value of the voluntary airwaves auction, to  NAB President Gordon Smith’s  “worry” about “government’s rush or over-reaching” to grab TV spectrum, the debate (more accurately, “battle”) about the airwaves rippled through the convention.  TV licensees were not buying Genachowski’s promise that relinquishing their airwaves would be totally voluntary, and many expressed dismay about the plan to repack – reassign – channels within a community for maximum efficiency.

At a session called “Spectrum: The Air We Breathe,” FCC Media Bureau Chief Bill Lake toughly faced down the criticism of four co-panelists, all of whom represented broadcast groups, lobbyists or TV-centric research). Lake carried the FCC message that 2015 is the target date for auctions to begin – although many sources around the convention acknowledge that 2020 or beyond is a more realistic timetable.  

Lake also insisted that the FCC’s plan goes beyond spectrum planning; it also encompasses “flexible use licensing” and other features.  He stressed that the “marketplace is changing faster than ever,” and that the FCC wants to be ready for new wireless services.

“We want to make that process as painless as possible,” Lake said, adding that the FCC “anticipates very little change in smaller markets.”

Despite such assurances, plus a promise that “the government will pay for station moves,” Lake’s remarks didn’t placate broadcasters on the panel.  Alan Frank of Post-Newsweek Stations bluntly said that the spectrum realignment proposal puts “the whole system at risk” and said that any plan should focus on the impact on stations that don’t take part in the auction.
John Hane, an attorney who represents many TV clients, acknowledged that there may be eventual public value in the FCC plan, but charged that the “FCC either doesn’t understand [the problem for broadcasters]…or has chosen not to focus on it.”

Lake’s response:  “We do not intend to pick winners and losers.” 

As the spectrum debate at that session and elsewhere around the halls continued, it was clear that the issue will drag on.  Economic and societal arguments were trotted out, offering too many variables to be resolved quickly. The takeaway from the dialogues is simple:  a lot of lobbying money, research studies and lawyers’ billable hours are on the agenda for the next few years in the spectrum battle.

Meanwhile, one of the factors in the spectrum debate is the role of mobile TV, or more broadly “mobile video.”  Some broadcasters point to their quick development of a mobile Digital TV (mDTV) standard as an indicator of why they need to retain spectrum for valuable local services, such as mobile emergency warning systems (unveiled at an NAB Show session).

Yet others contend that mobile video – available via wireless broadband circuits – will provide more precisely what audiences want to see.  Think YouTube, Web music video sites and on-demand video apps from countless sources.

Leaving aside the spectrum issues, the development of mobile video is clearly on a roll, even though its path is still murky. At a session (which I moderated) about mobile video, leaders of the two programming consortia laid out their case for broadcaster-controlled mDTV.  Yet despite clearly enunciated views on putting local and national programming onto handsets and other mobile receivers (tablet computers, netbooks, in-car video systems), it is clear that mobile TV is in still in its pre-infancy.  Neither the Mobile Content Venture (headed by NBC and Fox with a dozen other large groups and network members) nor the Mobile 500 Alliances (which includes dozens of broadcast groups) were ready to reveal their revenue models or rollout plans.  They were willing to say that they’ll have programming up and running by year’s end.

However, no one had a ready answer to the question of relationships with the big mobile carriers (AT&T, Sprint, Verizon), all of which subsidize handsets and are, so far, reluctant to put mDTV chips into their smartphones.

Elsewhere on the “alternative” video front, there was plenty of discussion about broadband video delivered to the TV, the so-called “’net-connected” smart TV sets (or via ’net-connected game consoles or other media center devices).  At the Digital Cinema Summit, run by SMPTE, I spoke on a panel looking at “3 big ideas for the next 3 years.” All the panelists acknowledged the growth of broadband video, focusing on the technical capability as broadband systems became able to carry higher-capacity content.  
That led to an inevitable discussion of 3D TV, which remains high on the agenda for many companies.  At a keynote session, movie director-producer James Cameron and his business partner Vince Pace announced their new 3D venture, Cameron-Pace Group, which will build 3D camera systems; its focus will be on accelerating production of 3D show for film, live television, sports and education.

“Broadcast will be the frontier of 3D,” Pace said. Cameron added that until now, 3D telecasts “often lacked the production values” of 2D shows.  He said that the new approach will create a new type of 3D visual literacy, which will let 3D “find an even wider market.”

Amidst such hopeful outlooks, the long-term future of broadcasting seems stable. But there are still a lot of short-term issues to be resolved – and there always will be.

–Gary Arlen is president of Arlen Communications, Bethesda, Maryland; he conducts customized research and analysis of the opportunities in the evolving convergence of media, marketing and technology in the policy and creative ecosystem.  [email protected]