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NAB hopes to buck the odds

For all the questions facing the broadcast-equipment industry, the one that seems to be the hottest has little to do with DTV, consolidation or centralcasting. The question is: How many attendees will be at the NAB conference this year?

Given the woes of the industry's other trade shows, exhibitors and broadcasters would not be surprised if the NAB is significantly smaller than last year's. The convention is slated for April 6-11 in Las Vegas.

"If there's a 10% drop in attendance, I'll think that's a victory," says Chyron Vice President Rich Hajdu. "We certainly expect at least that, although there is no scientific reason for that."

Official NAB numbers put last year's attendance at more than 113,000, but exhibitors (whose estimates are based on the number of people who get their card swiped compared with previous years) and taxi drivers (who judge attendance by driving up and down the strip) put the actual figure somewhere around 90,000.

NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton counters that the NAB numbers are real. "We have the accurate list in terms of who registered so I would take our numbers over the guesses on the part of taxi drivers," he says.

The numbers game could become a bone of contention. For example, one marketing executive at a major NAB exhibitor believes that the 113,000 number was so far off from his company's estimates that he discredits any future estimates.

NAB makes no predictions on how many will attend the show next month. "We have conservative estimates given what has happened with the advertising economy and the travel issues," says Wharton. "The good news is, we've been getting some good feedback from some of our general managers who plan to send more people than they anticipated because of the bump they've gotten in the ad rebound the last month or two."

The exhibit itself will likely be smaller. Last year, exhibit space hit 950,000 square feet for 1,400 exhibitors. This year's total currently stands at 835,000 square feet for 1,350 exhibitors, with less than a month before the doors open.

NAB's uncertainty about the convention is reflected in its budget for fiscal 2003, which starts April 1. That budget calls for a 7% reduction in revenue, to $54.4 million, principally because of an expected shortfall in convention receipts.

Despite Wharton's optimism, attendance by station executives may be down. The Television Bureau of Advertising has held its annual marketing conference during NAB for the past 10 years. This year, however, TVB will hold the conference in New York on March 26, although it will stage one panel session at NAB. The upshot is that TV-station general managers and sales managers have one less reason to attend NAB.

Helping to offset that loss of attendees will be the Radio-Television News Directors Association's annual convention. In January, RTNDA accepted an offer to merge its annual convention with the NAB's, canceling the convention planned for Long Beach, Calif., next September. RTNDA was forced to cancel last year's convention in Nashville, Tenn., because it was to have started the day after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. NAB and RTNDA will be together for at least five years.

Because of the quick scramble to incorporate the news directors' show, the RTNDA exhibit will be in the Las Vegas Hilton (next year, it will be in the convention center along with NAB). About 40% to 60% of RTNDA's exhibitors also exhibit at NAB, and some of those have opted for a smaller RTNDA presence. Others, like CNN Newsource, will pass on both. CNN, however, will be exhibiting.

The RTNDA conference will also have fewer sessions, about 36 plus two general sessions and the Paul White Dinner. RTNDA President Barbara Cochran says the reduced number of offerings reflects not only the quick turnaround in preparing for the conference but also the recognition that RTNDA attendees will be attracted to NAB sessions.

Those sessions become more important as technology talked about for years becomes reality. NAB's chief engineer Lynn Claudy says, "We have quite an emphasis on implementation and the practical aspects of operating in a digital world. I think everyone will take something they can use in their day job and not just have an intellectual exercise."