For the 2009 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES), NBC Universal has chosen the theme “Entertainment You Can Touch, Content That Touches You” for its convention floor booth. And after its CES floor space served as a de facto gathering place for many TV execs last year, the official broadcast partner of the world's largest consumer technology trade show is actually upping its footprint at the Jan. 8-11 event in Las Vegas.
But following the unprecedented economic upheaval of the past year, particularly among media and content providers, perhaps a better theme for CES as a whole is “Entertainment You Can't Afford, Unless It Impacts the Bottom Line.” With the economy looking bleak well into 2009, and layoffs and other forms of cost-slashing running rampant, an easy way to give the appearance of being budget-conscious is to pull back on industry events like CES. But NBCU and others will still be presenting at CES, though it remains to be seen how many television industry execs will be attending to see what is on display.
Vivi Zigler, NBCU president of digital entertainment, is the first to admit the world has changed since NBCU made a commitment to go big this year at CES, but she says pulling back is not the right approach. For a company like NBCU, a bad economy and cutbacks at home do not mean it shuts everything down.
“We're wanting to make sure we are not 'heads down' completely,” Zigler says. “We also don't want to cut ourselves off from education from what's out there.”
But many CES attendees are prepared for a more pared-down convention. John Honeycutt, executive VP and chief media technology officer for Discovery Communications, admits that “we have definitely scaled our presence back” for 2009, but a less expansive CES just might make for a more productive experience with better business opportunities. Discovery Communications is filming an episode of its new Science Channel series Brink and a one-hour, standalone special on the convention.
“Quite honestly, CES had gotten a bit out of control over the past few years; the hype and sort of 'battle of the press release' has made it difficult to separate real innovation versus a marketing pitch,” Honeycutt says. “I'm hopeful that this year will be a more focused show, allowing us to see what is viable and practical, and most importantly relevant for our business.”
In addition to NBCU and Discovery, there will be other content companies returning to CES in a big way. Sony Pictures Television, which made a big splash last year alongside its consumer electronics division, is back once again, this time shooting 10 episodes of its syndicated powerhouse Jeopardy! at CES.
Comcast-owned G4 is planning six hours of live coverage, three each on Jan. 8 and 9, as well as 60-second interstitial updates throughout the day. For Neal Tiles, president of G4, coverage of CES is a no-brainer, because it is the latest in a series of live event coverage for the network that has included video-game expo E3 and Comic-Con.
“It is critical; it is one of the tent poles or cornerstones for us,” Tiles says. “Covering live events is a critical application for us; as a network that is dedicated to serving the young male demo, we need to be in the places that are talking about the things they are most interested in.”
For its nonlinear coverage, G4 is leveraging its new-media credentials and expertise to provide up-to-the minute updates. The network will be live-blogging 20 of the largest press conferences and will have round-the-clock updates on its “The Feed” blog. It will also be streaming its own “Best of the Best CES 2009” presentation, which features the coolest gadgets of the show selected by G4.
SHOWCASE FOR THE PEACOCK
Despite its company's economic challenges, NBCU's commitment will be evident in a 9,000-square-foot platform showcasing content from all of the company's television, film and digital news and entertainment divisions. Specials of CNBC's Power Lunch and Closing Bell, and MSNBC's Your Business will air from the company's television broadcast stage and control center, while NBCU talent such as Al Roker and Nancy O'Dell will be making appearances and filing reports.
In addition, NBCU is giving CES attendees the chance to experience interactive kiosks powered by Mediaport, where free content will be available for download by visitors on micro SD cards provided by SanDisk. The booth will also offer a panoramic video experience from The Weather Channel; custom interactive video experiences hosted on Microsoft Surface; and interactive gaming experiences powered by NBC Learn, Sci Fi and USA Network.
NBCU is also diving head-first into the non-linear act with a multimedia lounge co-sponsored with Sharp. Bloggers from NBC News, Sci Fi's DVICE, iVillage and other NBCU digital properties will report in real-time, post their comments to a convention-specific Website called NBCUatCES.com and update its Twitter feed.
As for the show itself, Discovery's Honeycutt says he tends to be surprised by some new technology every year, but expects to see the continued explosion into the marketplace of small-form-factor, high-quality cameras. “I know a lot people are intrigued by the combination of high-resolution DSLRs and the ability to record video,” he says. “I have just picked a new Nikon D90 that is an extremely high-quality digital still camera but also has the ability to record 720p video. It's pretty sweet. We think the potential of bouncing back and forth between still and video is interesting.”
While NBCU's Zigler says she will be at CES to talk to the press about NBCU projects and ventures, she also plans on looking at software management systems, especially systems that control and manage massive video files. Last year, Zigler was impressed by Microsoft's touch-screen flat tables, which were then incorporated into NBCU's news division for use on-air. This December, Zigler got a preview from Cisco on what the company is debuting at the 2009 CES, but is planning on looking for more software management systems. In the past, NBCU was likely to build its own proprietary system, “but in this economy we may not build proprietary,” Zigler admits. “We may buy off-the-shelf.”
Honeycutt also notes that he is interested in seeing Cisco's recently announced network-attached editing tool, but has another informal assignment to take care of in Las Vegas that is sure to be universal among CES attendees: “Additionally, I will have to make the full report to my colleagues on what TV they should buy.”
With Alex Weprin