Economic Realities Make NAB 2009 Unlike Any Other

By Carl Lindemann

The dark clouds above and ahead for the economy are likely to make NAB 2009 a memorable show. Attendees will most likely spend as much time discussing the new economic realities with fellow professionals as they will checking out new products. For others, the 2009 show may be memorable for another reason: skipping it will end a decades-long streak of booking a flight to Vegas. Others have fought for the budget to go and others are even footing the bill out of their own pocket.

“I expect we’ll have a somewhat diminished presence [at NAB 2009],” says Michael Doback, VP of engineering for Scripps Broadcast TV station group, who has registered for the show and plans on attending. “It’s a dynamic situation, and we’re still evaluating it. We’ll see if things look better in April.”

NAB attendance is just one sign that points to the challenges ahead for broadcast engineering. Ken Aagaard, EVP of Operations, Engineering & Production Services, CBS Sports, says the downturn’s timing is terrible.

“It’s a double whammy for broadcasters,” he explains. “The technology and the distribution model were changing very quickly. “Then the bottom fell out of the revenue base. This was a real blow to us.”

As difficult as things may be, Aagaard will be on the lookout at the show for something that will give him an edge. “What we’re looking for is not the next big thing; it’s the next great small thing. We’ve found you can get quality video from lower-cost, smaller cameras. That’s going to be very important. [At the show, we’ll] look at all of the usual suspects, and some unusual ones, too.”

Chris Brown, NAB EVP for conventions and business operations, says preregistrations have been encouraging but are leveling off. “We’re about 5% behind last year’s pace,” he says of current registrations. “If we maintain that level, we will be pretty happy. This will be tough. [Companies] that may have sent 10 [people] before are now sending five. And exhibitors are cutting personnel.”

According to Brown, attendance peaked at NAB 2007 at 110,000. This followed the previous high-water mark of 115,000 in 2001 at the height of the dotcom boom. The dotcom bust, combined with the 9/11 terrorist attacks, brought a low of 88,000 in 2003.

“We had been on a nice, steady climb for four years coming off the previous recession, with 5%-7% growth year-to-year,” Brown says.

Last year, attendance dipped to 104,000. Now Brown is beating the bushes to slow erosion, with some notable successes, such the NBC affiliate board’s scheduling its meeting for the show.

The other front in this battle is working closely with long-time exhibitors in distress. Notable names opting out of this year’s show include Quantel and, as it did last year, Apple. Brown expects exhibitor floor space to shrink modestly, to be just a few percentage points down from last year. Not surprisingly, he believes companies that focus on cost-efficiency, such as IT vendors or those with low-cost HD equipment, will be busy.

Technologies that deliver savings with a speedy ROI will be a winning ticket at NAB 2009.

Ardell Hill, Media General Broadcast SVP, Broadcast Operations, is hungry for belt-tightening technology. What’s on his shopping list? “Tools that allow us to share resources and content between markets,” he says. “Technology that allows you to maximize efficiencies from the move to file-based platforms.”

Del Parks, Sinclair Broadcast VP of engineering and operations, will also be searching for savings. “We’re not looking to make any major purchases,” he says. “We just want to see what the state of the art is in terms of features and function. Anything that creates operational efficiency will catch my eye.”

And then there is the need to finish the DTV transition.

“The next wave of expenses is HD control rooms and newsrooms to originate in HD,” says Parks. “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/director of engineering for owned stations, ABC owned-and-operated TV Station Group, the downturn has changed the rules of the game. “We’ve made changes in order to protect our competitive position,” he says. “Now the economy is such that we are as concerned about having to pay for staying competitive.”

At NAB 2009, he will focus buying choices on maintenance. Eight of 10 ABC stations are doing local HD production, and the other two will have to wait until the markets pick up. “Our budget is not what it has been in the past,” he says. “It will be used to solve specific issues rather than to make a group-wide investment in any initiative.”

Upgrades to aging infrastructure will take a piece of tight budgets. For example, CRT monitors are on the way out and have to be replaced with flat-panels.

“CRTs have gone away,” says Joe Snelson, Meredith Broadcasting VP/director of engineering, adding, “I’ll be looking to find displays that can come close to that gold standard.” His NAB shopping list includes a CRT-quality flat-panel monitor for less than $10,000, a price akin to the predecessor units.

Despite the struggle to maintain the core business, the possibilities for delivering sports, news, weather, and other content to mobile devices will be on the minds of many at NAB 2009. A bounty of up to $2 billion in ad dollars is up for grabs, and broadcasters are eager to tap into this new revenue stream.

“Our primary reason for attending NAB this year 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 and things that have an immediate ROI.”

Says Sterling Davis, Cox Broadcasting VP of engineering, “There is a lot of excitement in broadcasting about mobile TV, and many [non-broadcast] companies want to get into the market.” He notes that the successful showing for the new medium at CES in January has positioned NAB 2009 to drive momentum.

Despite the draw of opportunity, though, the downturn dictates. Davis will be at NAB this year but his engineers aren’t as Cox Broadcasting decided in third quarter 2008 to slash its travel budget.

“It’s not just trade shows, and it’s not just engineering,” he says. “It’s also sales rallies, meetings. They’re all out of the budget.”

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