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High-Quality Attendance, Technology at NAB

Back in February, a number of NAB exhibitors were braced for the worst-case scenario: If war erupts in Iraq in March and many customers cancel out of the April convention, the exhibitors would forfeit what they paid for exhibit space and stay home, too.

Fortunately, the worst-case scenario never came to pass. Most NAB buyers stuck to their plans, and so did the vendors.

NAB estimates a final attendance count of 89,000, down from 92,000 last year. But attendees and exhibitors consider that estimate inflated. Many overseas buyers—particularly from Asia—canceled, they said, presumably because of worries about terrorism and SARS.

Floor traffic was good Monday through Wednesday but fell off greatly on Thursday.

Nat Ostroff, president and chairman of Acrodyne Industries, said his three ways to gauge attendance—the wait to eat, park and use the bathroom—all pointed to a smaller crowd. But he and others said those who were there came to buy, not just to kick the tires of ENG trucks.

"The people who are here are here for a reason, and that's good stuff," he said. "The high-quality people are still coming into the booth, but we just don't have people standing in line to talk to us."

Other exhibitors griped about floor traffic but attributed it to poor locations in sprawling exhibit halls. In any event, traffic was good enough that they are optimistic that business will pick up over the rest of the year.

"The war has frozen the business in the U.S. over the last six weeks because stations are focused on covering the war and they're uncertain about the economy," said Tim Thorsteinson, vice president of Thomson Grass Valley. "Positive or negative, uncertainty is always bad for business. But it's our belief that business will come back in the second quarter."

One of the hopes for the many non-transmission manufacturers is that many large TV stations now have their DTV purchases behind them and will begin focusing on other product lines. Sony Vice President of Marketing Alec Shapiro expects several large groups to pick next-generation ENG equipment this year.

Meanwhile, broadcasters had no complaints about the quality of the technology they found in the sprawling exhibit halls. Tapeless ENG formats officially became a trend, and tapeless storage systems came in all sizes, from Thomson Grass Valley's iVDR to Leitch's NeoVR (virtual recorder) card.

Sony exemplified one of the trends among manufacturers: the move to server and non–tape-based products and systems. It was enough to make some declare that tape was dead or at least dying. Sony's Shapiro was not among them, though. He believes that tape and products like Sony's new optical-disc ENG system will coexist for some time.

Thorsteinson agrees. "People will replace tape-based systems with disk-based systems ... although that transition will probably be a lot slower than we think."

Broadcasters and other news techies got to witness the opening round of what's shaping up to be a classic ENG camcorder fight between Sony and Panasonic (see story, p. 4).

And the show's biggest deal was ESPN's. The sports network chose Quantel to supply the storage and editing gear for its new digital facility (see story, p. 42).

This was the first year since 1997 without an NAB exhibit at the Sands Convention Center. Those exhibits were in the Las Vegas Convention Center's massive South Hall, which is awfully big, exhibitors and attendees discovered. Pesa's booth was located halfway down the hall in a space that Pesa's Bob McAlpine considered less than ideal.

"We know we have a half-hour wait before people start meeting us because we're further back in the hall," he says. "But we're blocked from the main road down the center of the hall by drapes and pipes [hiding unsold space], and there is no reason a 2,500-square-foot booth should be behind a row of 10x10 booths."

McAlpine won't be alone in complaining to NAB about back-of-the-hall treatment. One SGI executive says NAB told the company that the back entrance of the hall would provide a steady stream of people. That didn't turn out to be the case, he says.

"Other than the occasional customer complaining they have a long walk, it really hasn't had an impact on our show," said Thomson Grass Valley's Thorsteinson.

On the HDTV front, several companies had developed products that switches between standard-definition and HD. Pinnacle's MediaStream line now has a card standard for making the switch, according to company President Ajay Chopra. In addition, SD data can be scaled up to HD, and HD can be scaled down to SD.

"When we looked at the cost of building the card, we realized it was no extra cost to offer HD," says Chopra. "While we thought about charging more, we realized it would be great to be able to tell broadcasters that, if they made the investment today, they don't have to make an investment in the future."

Avid's Adrenaline also had a similar concept (see story, p. 44).

Among the few new-technology demonstrations was one by Microsoft and Linx Electronics, which showed off DTV mobile reception using 2-VSB technology. The companies received live 720p HDTV picture (with 5.1 sound) and an SD picture via a 9-Mb/s digital signal in a van being driven around Las Vegas.

The video occasionally locked up in weak-signal areas, but Microsoft media architect Kilroy Hughes said use of a diversity antenna would help solve the reception glitch, which occurred six or seven times during each 15-minute demo.

Linx Electronics chief scientist Richard Citta found that, near the Convention Center, the dropout point was a signal-to-noise ratio of 13 dBs whereas, on the road, it was around 11 dBs. "Las Vegas has a 6-mile curtain of steel and windows with reflections coming off it that are tremendous and introduce ghosts," he says.

Ostroff, who is also vice president of new technology for Sinclair Broadcast, was impressed with the demonstration. "It's easy to be super-critical of some dropouts, but what we have in the [8-VSB] standard today means you can't move the truck, period," he says. "We have a system that works 90% of the time vs. one that doesn't work at all. The big question is, are broadcasters prepared to see that mobile reception can be done and then give it up and not do it."