As the economic vise tightens, TV groups are cutting back on the people they send to the annual show. And those who will be roaming Las Vegas will be looking for products that will help increase efficiency and save money. High on the interest lists is mobile TV.
As usual, Sterling Davis, vice president of engineering for Cox Broadcasting, will be in Las Vegas this April at the NAB Show to check out the new gear and get a handle on the latest technology trends.
But don’t expect to see any other Cox engineers.
“We’re not sending anyone to NAB — or anywhere else — this year,” Davis says. “Usually, we send at least one person from every market. But the decision was made in the third quarter. [NAB] never made it into the 2009 budget. It’s not just trade shows and it’s not just engineering. It’s also sales rallies, meetings. They’re all out of the budget.”
Cox is not alone.
With the recession cutting deeply into capEx and T&E budgets, other station groups, networks and TV production companies are reducing the numbers they will send to Las Vegas or are deciding to take a pass altogether. And those that do send people will be looking for products that increase efficiency and save money.
“I expect we’ll have a somewhat diminished presence,” says Michael Doback, vice president, engineering for the Scripps TV stations. “It’s a dynamic situation and we’re still evaluating it. We’ll see if things look better in April.”
Ken Aagaard, executive vice president, operations, engineering and production services, CBS Sports, says the NAB contingent from his shop dropped from around 20 to three last year and will remain the same this year.
“It’s a double whammy for broadcasters because the technology and the distribution model were changing very quickly,” he says. “Then, the bottom fell out of the revenue base. This was a real blow to us.”
Chris Brown, the NAB executive vice president who runs the show, concedes that pre-registration has begun leveling off as the dark economic clouds show no signs of lifting.
“We’re about 5 percent behind last year’s pace,” he says. “If we maintain that level, we will be pretty happy. This will be tough. Where people may have sent 10 before, they’re sending five now. Exhibitors are cutting personnel, too.”
According to Brown, attendance peaked in 2001 at 115,000 at the height of the dotcom boom. But the following bust, combined with 9/11, depressed attendance to 88,000 in 2003.
The show rebounded over the next four years, hitting 110,000 in 2007 before falling off to 104,000 last year as the recession starting taking hold.
Now, Brown is working hard to stem the erosion and posting some successes. Most notably, the entire Fox affiliate group and NBC’s affiliate board have agreed to hold their annual meetings in conjunction with the show.
Brown also says he has been able to prevent any major losses on the exhibit floor. Square footage will be down just a few percentage points from last year, he says.
Brown expects IT vendors selling cost efficiencies will see lots of traffic as will manufacturers unveiling the next-generation of economical HD equipment.
Technologies that deliver savings with a speedy ROI will be winners in Las Vegas, says Ardell Hill, senior vice president, broadcast operations, Media General Broadcast.
Media General needs “tools that allow us to share resources and content between markets … that allow you to maximize efficiencies from the move to file-based platforms,” he says.
Del Parks, Sinclair Broadcast’s vice president of engineering and operations, says that he will also be looking for ways to turn capEx dollars into savings. “We’re not looking to make any major purchases, and just want to see what the state of art is in terms of features and functions. Anything that creates operational efficiency will catch my eye.”
Beyond that, finishing the transition to HD may drive sales.
“The next wave of expenses is HD control rooms and newsrooms to originate in HD,” Parks says. “Many markets do; most don’t. When I go to NAB, I’ll try to identify low-cost options for HD in small markets.”
For Dave Converse, VP and director of engineering for the ABC O&Os, the downturn has changed the rules of the game.
“We’ve made changes in order to protect our competitive position. Now, the economy is such that we are as concerned about having to pay for staying competitive,” he says.
At NAB 2009, Converse says that he will be focused on maintenance. Eight of the 10 ABC stations are now doing local HD production, and the last will have to wait until their markets pick up, he says. When analog gear wears out, it will be replaced with new HD-ready equipment.
“Our budget is not what it has been in the past. It will be used to solve specific issues rather than to make a group-wide investment in any initiative,” Converse says.
Aagaard says he be on the lookout at the show for something that will give him an edge. “I do want to find a neat ‘whizbang’ — something on the fringes that is different and cool that I can help develop. We want unique ideas for major events.”
Upgrades to aging infrastructure will take a piece of the tight budgets. For example, glass Q/C monitors are on the way out and have to be replaced with flat panels.
“CRT’s have gone away, and I’ll be looking to find displays that can come close to that gold standard,” says Joe Snelson, vice president and director of engineering, Meredith Broadcasting.
Snelson’s NAB shopping challenge? Finding a Q/C grade replacement for around the same price — under $10,000.
Despite the struggle to maintain the core business, the potential of mobile TV will be on the minds of many broadcasters at the NAB Show. With what some say is $2 billion in extra ad revenue up for grabs, broadcasters are eager to implement the service.
“Our primary reason for attending [NAB] is that Media General is a big supporter of the Open Mobile Video Coalition,” says Hill.
“We’ll be looking at opportunities for new tools to provide new products/services — mobile, multicast, Internet-oriented, things that offer the opportunity for immediate return,” he adds.
Cox’s Sterling Davis, who has been a leader in readying mobile TV for the marketplace, agrees that mobile TV will be one of the stories of NAB 2009.
“There’s lots of excitement in broadcasting [about mobile TV] and many other companies want to get in — anyone who makes anything with a screen on it,” he says.
This story is the first of a series from the news sharing venture of TVNewsCheck and the Sports Video Group that is providing NAB-related coverage before, during and after the show.