Budget Crunch Squeezes NAB

Like CES and NATPE, travel cutbacks affecting numbers

With slashed budgets across the broadcast industry, many network and station engineers are expected to skip their annual pilgrimage to the National Association of Broadcasters convention this April.

Those attending are closely monitoring their costs. CBS has cancelled its engineering breakfast, where it typically discussed technology plans with chief engineers from local affiliates. And the network is sending fewer people to canvass the floor and participate in industry meetings.

Pete Sockett, chief engineer for CBS affiliate WRAL Raleigh, will be there, but doesn't expect to see many industry colleagues. “There are not a lot of them going,” he says.

Cox Broadcasting sent 11 engineers from its TV group and 20 from its radio division last year. But only VP of Engineering Sterling Davis is making the trip this year, mainly to participate in meetings by industry associations such as the Association for Maximum Service Television (MSTV), the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) and the Open Mobile Video Coalition (OMVC). Travel restrictions have been imposed on all businesses within parent company Cox Enterprises.

Chyron COO Kevin Prince expects NAB attendance to be down as much as 25%, though he hopes he's proved wrong, as traveling to meet with customers is expensive. “It makes life very difficult, because the people who don't come, we have to visit,” he says.

If NAB does see a significant decline in attendance, it wouldn't be alone. The Consumer Electronics Show in January suffered a 20% dip, with an estimated attendance of around 110,000 compared to the 141,150 who came to the 2008 CES. And the NATPE convention, held later that month, saw attendance fall 14% to 6,000 registrants, a drop of nearly 1,000 from 2008.

NAB has diversified its attendance base to include Hollywood, new-media and cable executives, as well as a large number of international broadcasters, which may insulate it somewhat from the current pain in the station business.

According to NAB, broadcasters made up only 17% of attendees last year. Another 4% identified their primary occupation as “cable TV,” and 3% were listed under “satellite.” However, the affiliate boards for Fox, ABC, CBS and NBC have all committed to meet at NAB along with the board of the Television Advertising Bureau, which proves that NAB still draws key broadcast decision-makers, according to association spokesman Dennis Wharton.

While big exhibitors like Cisco and Quantel won't be on the floor this year, NAB has signed 70 new exhibitors including Electronic Arts, Philips 3D Solutions and 3ality Digital. But being on the show floor may not be as important as it used to be, as few broadcasters go to NAB to make buying decisions. Most are looking at larger technology trends and the strategic direction of their vendors.

“We don't use NAB as a tool to make decisions,” says Cox's Davis. “Some groups may use it differently. We just look at it to see what's what, and see if things fit into the trajectory we're already on.”