CES: Where Moguls Meet Gadgets

Next weekend, as many Americans relax, watch the first round of the NFL playoffs and pack away their holiday decorations, a significant chunk of the television industry will instead participate in another annual ritual: hopping on a plane bound for Las Vegas, taking a deep breath and getting ready for four days of absolute frenzy.

What draws them to Sin City in early January is the 2008 Consumer Electronics Show, where consumer electronics manufacturers, network programmers, cable, satellite and telco operators, and Internet companies will gather to explore the latest ways for consumers to access digital entertainment and information.

CES, running Jan. 7 to 10, has become one of two must-do conventions for television technology executives, along with the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) convention held in Las Vegas each April.

The show is forecast to be bigger than ever, with some 2,700 exhibitors, 140,000 attendees and 1.85 million square feet of exhibition space across the Las Vegas Convention Center, Sands Expo, and Hilton and Venetian hotels.

(Comparatively, the Reed Business-owned trade publication Tradeshow Week says last April’s NAB show attracted 1,530 exhibitors and 108,200 attendees, and covered 920,000 square feet.)

CES, run by the Consumer Electronics Association trade group, used to be solely the province of gadget-seekers. But that has steadily changed over the last decade. Broadcast executives started traveling to the show en masse in the late ’90s to see the first high-definition TV sets. Satellite operators DirecTV and EchoStar have used the show to announce the latest set-top hardware and programming packages they will offer at retail, and their cable competitors began attending to take a first look. In recent years, telcos like Verizon and AT&T have followed suit to discuss their own video plans.

Content companies will be making noise on the show floor this year as well. Sony Pictures Television will have a major presence at CES, exhibiting alongside corporate cousin Sony Electronics as it shifts resources away from the National Association of Television Program Executives (NATPE) conference in Vegas later in January, where it will no longer be exhibiting.

SPT president Steve Mosko says that Sony Pictures’ presence at CES, which includes a private customer event on Jan. 7 with appearances by comedians Jerry Seinfeld and Drew Carey, crooner Tony Bennett and syndication stars Alex Trebek and Vanna White, exemplifies the “Sony United” strategy of fully unifying the company’s electronics and content businesses.

As the TV and computer industries have steadily converged and new technologies such as digital video recorders, portable media players and Web video have emerged, content companies have increasingly come to see CES as both an educational experience and a promotional platform for their latest digital initiatives. Some 600 senior-level executives from cable, broadcast and entertainment companies including Discovery, Turner, MTV, HBO, Viacom, Time Warner, Cablevision and The Weather Channel have regularly attended CES for the past few years, says CEA president and CEO Gary Shapiro.

“It’s the three-legged stool,” says Shapiro. “You’ve got the content creators, the pipelines and the technology [companies].”

CEA has seized on this trend by courting programmers, Internet companies and multichannel operators to give keynote addresses, creating a dedicated “Content at CES” pavilion at the Las Vegas Convention Center and hosting the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences’ Technology & Engineering Emmy Awards.

Last year, Disney President and CEO Bob Iger and CBS CEO Leslie Moonves delivered CES keynotes detailing their networks’ broadband initiatives, and this year Brian Roberts, chairman and CEO of the nation’s largest cable operator, Comcast, will speak on Tuesday, Jan. 8. Other 2008 keynoters include Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, who will deliver his traditionally well-attended pre-show keynote on Sunday, Jan. 6; Panasonic President Toshihiro Sakamoto and Intel CEO Paul Otellini, both on Monday, Jan. 7; and General Motors Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner on Tuesday. Also speaking at CES are Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang, on Monday, and FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, who will participate in a one-on-one discussion with Shapiro just minutes after Roberts’ Tuesday morning address.

“I wonder if it will be a rebuttal,” quips Shapiro, alluding to Martin’s recent move to place a cap on cable ownership that, if upheld, will prevent Comcast from growing larger through further acquisitions.

NBC Universal will also be exhibiting at CES for the first time, as what Shapiro describes as the “first-ever official broadcast partner of CES.” NBCU will have a multiplatform exhibit booth to show off its content, and plans to conduct live broadcasts from the CES floor with Al Roker of NBC’s Today, Maria Bartiromo of CNBC and Nancy O’Dell from Access Hollywood. At presstime, there were also tentative plans for Brian Williams to anchor his evening newscast from the show floor for at least one night.

High-definition TVs will probably continue to be the biggest draw on the CES show floor, but a new product category this year—and one of particular interest to broadcasters—will be digital-to-analog converter boxes that will allow old analog TV sets to keep receiving over-the-air signals when analog broadcasts cease after Feb. 17, 2009. The first such converter boxes, which consumers will be able to buy later in 2008 with the help of a $40 government subsidy, will be shown by manufacturers such as LG Electronics and Philips.

Other hot topics at CES 2008 will be CableCARD-enabled TVs, which let cable subscribers access premium programming without a set-top box, broadband video and wireless mobility. Broadcasters are also expected to pay close attention to demonstrations of competing mobile digital TV (DTV) systems from Harris/LG and Samsung/Rohde & Schwarz/Nokia, as the industry is looking to set a technical standard for mobile DTV broadcasting by early 2009.

As always, it will be a busy week, when as Shapiro puts it, “everybody comes and gets together in a very happy, very big tent.”

E-mail comments to glen.dickson@reedbusiness.com