Many station owners and managers at the convention next week may not bother to visit the exhibit floor, but they should, simply to pay their respects. It’s technology that just might save them. It has allowed TV stations to produce more news and air more channels at less and less cost and it will soon permit them to broadcast to mobile devices.
When I arrived in Las Vegas in April 1980 to cover my first NAB convention for what was then Broadcasting magazine, I was overwhelmed. The vendors of TV and radio technology were sprawled across the cavernous Las Vegas Convention Center and a good portion of massive parking lot out front. Altogether, their exhibits covered some 200,000 square feet. I was among 20,000 on hand for the show that week.
In two days, I return to Las Vegas for my 35th or 36th NAB. (I might have missed one in 1998 when the magazine and I were migrating from Washington to New York.) And once again, I will be overwhelmed.
The show is five time as big as it was in the waning days of the Carter Administration. More than one million square feet of space in the much larger convention center have been sold to some 1,700 vendors and attendance could exceed 100,000, organizers say.
Like all conventions, the NAB is a meeting spot for addressing industry issues and for doing all kinds of business. For instance, as we reported this week, the Big Four affiliate boards will be meeting with network executives to figure how they are going to make money with TV Everywhere and OTT services.
But make no mistake. The NAB is still primarily about the technology of producing and distributing TV and radio. The only thing that has changed over the years is that the technology is no longer limited to needs of broadcasters. It’s become a market for every video and audio medium, from cable to mobile.
Many station owners and managers may not bother to visit the exhibit floor, but they should, simply to pay their respects. It’s technology that just might save them.
Broadcasters have been fortunate. As their ratings and spot revenue have flattened, they have successfully developed new sources of revenue from political advertising , retransmission consent and digital. That’s kept the margins in range of their traditional levels.
But political can’t keep growing at the pace it has and it is not evenly distributed among stations. Retrans is being offset by the aggressive reverse comp demands of the networks. And digital media and services have not been major contributors to either the top or bottom lines and may never be.
The unsung hero of the broadcast P&L has long been technology, which has allowed TV stations to produce more news and air more channels at less and less cost.
One of the great tech stories of the last few years has been bonded cellular for ENG. The technology has evolved to a point where some stations believe they can now make do with fewer costly microwave trucks, and some believe they can survive without any.
For the past two weeks, our tech editor Phil Kurz has written about automation, first news production and then ingest and master control. Although systems vary in their capability, they all are designed to allow stations to function more reliably at lower operational cost — that is, with fewer people. And to varying degrees, they do.
After decades of replacing people with machines, you might think that there is no way to suck more cost out of TV stations. But you are likely wrong.
Broadcasting is on the verge of another technological revolution — the transition from baseband video to total IP with many functions performed in the cloud. The backrooms of stations are going to look more like computer clean rooms than they already do.
One of the evangelists of the IP movement is Charlie Vogt, the CEO of Imagine Communications. In an interview with him last month, I asked why broadcasters should buy in. He gave three reasons.
“One, the efficiency,” he said. “The cost structure is much less long-term. Two, the ability to ultimately have an end-to-end IP infrastructure is going to allow [broadcasters] to participate in a much more accelerated news development environment. Three, the industry is moving in that direction and the last thing you want to do as a broadcaster is find yourself five years from now, with an old legacy network, with which you can’t compete.”
That’s Vogt’s way of saying, as all vendors inevitably do, it takes money to save (or make) money. It’s sounds like a salesman’s pitch, but experience has shown that in broadcasting it’s mostly been true.
Imagine and the others are not forcing stations to take a leap into IP. They are providing a path that will allow them to get there gradually as their capital budgets and technology replacement cycles allow.
Technology is not always about saving money. Sometimes, as Vogt said, you have to invest in the latest just to remain competitive. That’s what broadcasters did in the 2000s when they went digital and switched to HD.
They incurred tremendous costs with no concrete ROI. But it’s clear now that it was money well spent. I can’t imagine where broadcasting would be today if it were the only TV medium not able to deliver HD. It would not be good place, I know that.
Broadcasters are facing a similar challenge in 2015. The convention center will be filled with vendors pushing tools for producing TV in UltraHD or 4K, heralded as the next big thing in picture and sound quality.
To broadcast 4K, broadcasters will first have to await the adoption of the new ATSC 3.0 broadcast standard and pay to implement it. That would be another big expense.
Now, regular readers know that I believe 3.0 is an investment that all broadcasters have to make, and not because of 4K. In fact, count me as a 4K skeptic. It’s better, but not so much better that folks are going to be compelled to buy 4K sets and demand 4K programming. At NAB, all broadcasters can see it, hear it and judge it for themselves.
The reason to adopt 3.0 is to obtain the ability to target advertising, offer data distribution services and, most of all, broadcast directly to mobile devices.
As I can’t imagine where broadcasting would be without digital and HD today, I can’t imagine where it will be tomorrow without the more powerful 3.0 standard. It truly is the next-generation of broadcasting.
During NAB, many owners and managers will be staying a mile west of the convention center in the swanky Encore/Wynn hotel complex. There, they will attend management sessions, go to the affiliate board meetings and visit law firms, station brokers and other services providers in their hospitality suites.
An intrepid few may venture as far as the meeting rooms in the North Hall of the convention center to attend a management sessions or two or to hear from FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler on Wednesday morning.
But they should all also carve out some time for the exhibit halls, preferably in the company of their chief techs who can lead them through the crowds to see the technology they need to see.
The exhibition can be overwhelming, but also promising and reassuring.
Addendum: A prize of nominal value to the first person who can tell me via email what the big regulatory/technology issue was at the 1980 NAB. And those of you who will be in Vegas next week should stop by our Women in Technology reception (Tuesday, April 14, 6 p.m., Rooms 227-228 of the Convention Center). We will be honoring consulting engineer Cindy Hutter Cavell.