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Organizers Leave Nothing to Chance As NAB Gathers in Las Vegas

The broadcast industry’s top regulatory, technical and news-programming issues (and untold minor issues as well) will be the focus of the massive annual convention of the National Association of Broadcasters this week in Las Vegas (April 16-21).

It is expected that, by the time the doors at the Las Vegas Convention Center close on Thursday afternoon, more than 100,000 people will have visited the show, whether ambling through the 819,000 square feet of exhibits, sitting in on Radio-Television News Directors Association discussions or attending the myriad of regulatory panels.

The daunting technical-exhibit space dominates the show, but the convention has plenty of aspects important to attendees who wouldn’t know a headend from a head-board. The RTNDA@NAB convention-within-a-convention brings together journalism professionals to consider topics of vital interest to their craft, from reviewing their coverage of the tsunami disaster to pondering how to buttress public (and governmental) regard for journalistic ethics. The RTNDA exhibit space is dwarfed by the tech show, but it gives newsroom pros a chance to touch base with companies that provide music, newsfeeds and set design. The association also arranges for representatives from the FCC and Congress to take questions from broadcasters (who are not known for their timidity in such settings), which is always entertaining and sometimes even enlightening.

Some of the topics batted around in the RTNDA meetings will spill over into the general NAB sessions. Expect rousing discussions on TV stations’ cable-carriage rights, network/affiliate relations and digital TV, as well as the government’s crackdown on broadcast indecency. But the top priority of most attendees will be cornering retiring NAB President Eddie Fritts in order to give him a pat on the back (see schedule at right for Fritts’ much-anticipated face-off with FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, among other expected convention highlights). Fritts is stepping down after more than two decades of leadership in which NAB’s lobbying prowess was revived after having bottomed out in the early 1980s. During the Fritts era, NAB also turned its annual Las Vegas convention into a profit machine. He is likely to receive more than one standing-O over the course of the week.

How to protect confidential sources

A less ecstatic reception is likely to await House Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) and other lawmakers, especially when it comes to Barton’s plan to set a Dec. 31, 2006, “hard” deadline for the analog-TV transmission shut-off. Barton hasn’t backed off the idea, even though broadcasters worry that consumers won’t have bought enough DTV sets by then for all-digital service to be viable. Broadcasters will be counting on other lawmakers to force Barton to retreat, perhaps by delaying the shut-off date to 2008 or 2009.

For TV- and radio-station news directors, a major area of interest at this year’s show is how to protect their newsrooms from prosecutors. As more stations build out their investigative teams, reporters can find themselves struggling to protect the identity of confidential sources. The RTNDA has invited a couple of experts on the subject for a breakfast session on Monday, April 18: Jim Taricani, the WJAR Providence, R.I., investigative reporter who ran afoul of prosecutors over his refusal to divulge his source on a story about local government corruption, and his news director, Betty-Jo Cugini. Taricani, who was convicted in December of contempt of court, was released from house arrest April 9, two months ahead of schedule.

The VNR Dilemma

The RTNDA is taking up another headache increasingly encountered by news directors: how to handle so-called video news releases sent to stations and news services by companies and political organizations pushing particular agendas. (See related story on page 17.) Stations are frequently seduced into using the one-sided clips, blinded by the professional-grade video and audio production values. The RTNDA just released new guidelines to help news directors and producers in evaluating VNRs. On the checklist: Be sure to question whether the station could have obtained the footage or interviews on its own and, if non-editorial video is used, identify the source on-air.

A prime destination for tech-grazing news directors will be the HD broadcast station on the top floor of the convention center’s North Hall. RTNDA and NAB have built a fully functioning HD facility to show how high-def will improve and change the way news footage is acquired and newscasts executed. The station will be equipped with new HDV cameras from Sony and JVC, relatively low-cost cameras that many believe will help spur development of HD newscasts. In addition, a number of vendors of electronic-newsgathering transmission gear, including BMS and JVC, will demonstrate ways to send HD live from the field. The inability to easily clear that hurdle has, so far, impeded the adoption of HD for local and national news. If news directors are persuaded that transmitting in HD live from the field is no longer a hassle, HD news may finally be ready to take off.

Grabbing images as files

Of course, the hundreds of booths at NAB will showcase more than just cutting-edge news technology. Production, post-production, infrastructure and transmission equipment will all be on display in seemingly infinite permutations. One common thread: increasing reliance on information technology and computers. Some products—notably graphics, video servers and post-production gear—have always been heavily based on computing technologies, but a major change this year is that cameras are increasingly IT-centric. Recording formats such as Sony’s XDCAM optical disk, Panasonic’s P2 solid-state camera and Ikegami’s Editcam camcorder all take acquisition into the next realm: grabbing images as files.

While the vast majority of stations likely will not jump into file-based acquisition for at least another couple of years, that is not the point of the NAB show. As technology constantly changes and industry professionals scramble to keep up, this convention in the middle of the desert is about planting seeds and ensuring future survival.