A turnaround, watershed show

Recent NAB conventions have been the equivalent of a race for the Triple Crown: fast, furious and full of enough adrenaline that, even before the show, attendees and exhibitors knew it would be an exhausting run.

Not so for NAB 2002. In the weeks leading up to the show, everyone seemed curious about what they would find in Las Vegas. Would it have the excitement of a run for the roses or the dry appeal of a harness race on a Tuesday afternoon? By show's end, the convention managed to keep out of the glue factory and finished up as the racing equivalent of a nice night out at the track for most exhibitors.

The mood of the show was sober compared with 2000, when the industry was drunk on new-media excesses. New media's presence overall was fairly limited, particularly at the North and newly opened South Halls. The halls had an old-school feel, dominated by transmitters, cameras, lenses, and production and editing tools. And, while there was a heavy presence of networking topologies that take advantage of new-media stepchildren like Ethernet and file-transfer protocols, those tools were often in applications to help old-media products like cameras and VTRs operate more efficiently.

Chyron Vice President Rich Hajdu, for example, said his company's Dual Streamer product saw interest from broadcasters as an off-air monitoring system. "The hype is gone," he added. "Before the show, we didn't know what to expect. But the people who are here are serious."

Serious may mean that the old maxim of "quantity vs. quality" fit the show and that the lower attendance (expected to clock in around 95,000) can be at least rationalized as acceptable. But more-serious buyers didn't necessarily translate into an influx of business.

One major manufacturing executive said the networks were buying but station groups were a mixed bag. He expected sales momentum from the show to last into the early summer but drop off after June or July.

Dave Netz, vice president, marketing and planning for Encoda Systems, reported that the traffic at his company's booth was about the same as last year's and American broadcasters who visited the booth said their revenues for the fall quarters were improving.

"Everyone has been through a crunch and hard time, but people aren't pessimistic," he said. "We have too many groups that are doing new initiatives that are trying to control expenses, and we try to work with them on that."

The idea of "working" with potential customers popped up time and again in discussions with manufacturers.

"We have to do a lot more to make a sale," said Hajdu. "It might mean creative financing, throwing in training, whatever. If things get good again, people may buy more, but the way they buy has changed forever. Engineers who used to only be concerned with features and specifications are now concerned with return on investment."

For John Shike, Snell & Wilcox vice president, marketing, Americas, business bouncing back is a bit of a strong metaphor, but he does think people are getting back into buying.

"There was a point when people had to sit down and do a master reset of what projects to move forward with and put on hold," he said. "Now that that's done, they know what they want to do." Archiving and ingest were two Snell & Wilcox product areas that attracted strong interest at the show, as did HD upconversion and production switchers.

On the production side, one of the hot topics continued to be 24p, with Panasonic rounding out its 24p line with a small DV-based camcorder and Sony touting an electronic-cinema future as bright as Las Vegas skies. The format also opens up more business for companies that have designed 24p post-production devices. For example, Sony President and COO Kunitake Ando expects more than half of all movies to be shot on digital by 2005, and he plans to push Sony Pictures very hard to join the movement.

Said Shike, whose company has been involved with the post-production of formats like 24p, "The 24p format is allowing video companies and NAB as a show to embrace digital cinema and the film world. A lot of us have been involved there because we did post-production, but now what we're doing here is going further and providing tools that can be used through the process, like 24p in all of our switchers."

Sony's booth was the star of the 500,000 square feet of exhibit space in the South Hall. Alec Shapiro, vice president, marketing communications, Sony Broadcast and Professional Co., said traffic was stronger by far than expected. "It's good that we have everything consolidated into one area versus multiple exhibits [we've had in years past]."

There was plenty of room at the South Hall—space that next year will be taken up by exhibitors from the Sands, which will no longer be a venue. Some exhibitors long established at the Sands have already moved to the Las Vegas Convention Center. And some of those remaining at the Sands found things somewhat off-center.

"The center of gravity seems to have shifted to the LVCC," said Matrox spokesperson Maria Koukopoulos. "People really seem to be juggling to get out here."

But Tandberg Television Director of Marketing Lisa Hobbs found it to her liking. "Even if the Sands was off the beaten path, aggressive marketing yielded good response by turning it into a destination. We expected attendance to be down, so we're very pleased with the good levels of traffic."

JVC's Juan Martinez, national product marketing manager, Digital Video Division, found that customers that once sent 50 people to NAB this year sent just five. "The show did start off slow. It took time for things to percolate. We saw less people but also far fewer tire-kickers."

One area that definitely saw fewer tire-kickers and more buyers was transmission. Ai (formerly Acrodyne) National Sales Manager Mark Polovick said booth traffic was down to 30% of past shows. But he expects sales of almost $30 million, twice what his company has done in past years.

"Eight hundred stations are getting extensions for digital," he said. "Of those, I'd guess that 90% will opt for low power to make basic compliance. But I know of an 18-station group that simply isn't going to comply," he added. "They don't care if they lose the digital license."

Another transmitter maker, Axcera, had slower traffic than last year, when engineers were lined up three to four deep, said Marketing Director Rick Schwartz. "We're spending less time explaining bottom-line features and giving more overviews."

While transmitter and production-gear manufacturers were relatively happy with the show, one audio manufacturer, Digigram President Neil Glassman was concerned about its lack of focus. "The show is too unfocused for other visitors and too spread out for the number of visitors and exhibitors," he said. "This is my 20th NAB and the first I've had time to have lunch on Monday. You can see that things are way down: Restaurants are empty, it's easy to get a cab; I even got a table for breakfast. You can feel there's no frenzy."

There was also a lack of finger-pointing over DTV. Previous NABs have been marked by wrangling over a variety of DTV issues, but this year's show seemed to be marked by a relative calm and sense of unity.

"No one is talking about whether the standard is the right standard anymore," said CEA President and CEO Gary Shapiro. "The issues are how to move forward and how do we make it happen in a way that works for everyone. I don't know if it's that the standard issue is resolved, that we realize it's inevitable or the post-9/11 cooperative bliss that still remains."

ATSC President Mark Richer agreed, saying that the general atmosphere surrounding DTV was much improved over previous NABs. "It's much more positive. Terrestrial digital can and will be successful, and HDTV is definitely the killer application in everybody's mind again."

Broadcasters and electronics suppliers seem to be jointly turning their energies to the third player involved in the DTV transition: cable. "We want to see movement in the other industries," said Shapiro. "The biggest challenge right now is obviously cable, which is a huge bottleneck in so many ways. But, if you see a brick wall, you knock it down, go around it, or pole-vault over it."

Television-receiver maker NxtWave introduced a new chipset family that may actually help the consumer-electronics firm deal with that wall without drastic action. The integrated circuits can handle 8-VSB and 64 or 256 QAM signals on a single chip. The 2005 family comprises three chips, each with slightly different capabilities.

Said NxtWave Director of Worldwide Marketing Mike Gittings: "Our vision was that, if you buy a TV today, you never look to see if your set is compatible with cable; it's a no-brainer. We see the same thing happening going forward in the U.S."

All the NxtWave chips allow the TV set to be hooked up to an off-air antenna for over-the-air reception and also to cable for reception of 64 QAM or 256 QAM signals. The differences in the chips concern the handling of encrypted cable content.

It'll be a while before sets with the chips are at retail. The 18- to 24-month development window and alpha sampling of the chips mean it will probably be mid-2004 before they hit store shelves.

"There are still issues on the backend, copy protection, etc., but we think those things will be resolved by the time the rollout is required," said Gittings. "It won't be like the great debate on the terrestrial side."

Whether NAB 2002 signaled the beginning of the post–new-media era remains to be seen. Early indications are that NAB 2003 will have the same sense of sobriety NAB 2002 did, and there's an increasing sense among the larger exhibitors that trade shows, while important, aren't the be-all and end-all they were 10 years ago. Manufacturers may find that, even when things bounce back, they don't need to increase investment in the NAB show.

"Five years ago, we spent a million-plus dollars on an NAB booth," said Hajdu. "We spent under $500,000 on our booth this year. And if everything gets good, we're not going back to a million dollars. I think our customers think the same way."