Post yourself in the middle of the exhibit floor at the NCTA convention, and you will eventually have a chance to say hello to just about every senior and middle manager in cable TV—from chairman/CEO on down.
Stand in the middle of the exhibit floor of the National Association of Broadcasters convention, and you may never see a broadcaster. OK, that's an exaggeration. You'll see some broadcasters, but mostly engineering types, and they will be overwhelmingly outnumbered by non-broadcasters—video and audio technicians for corporations, the government and post-production houses and, of course, the exhibitors themselves, who are running around trying to find out what the competition is doing.
Despite a drop in attendance last week, the NAB convention is a monster, drawing more than 100,000 people and 1,700 exhibitors and dumping $30 million a year into NAB's coffers. It's a credit to Eddie Fritts and the rest of the NAB planners and organizers.
But as a place for broadcasters to come together and plot their common future, the show is something of a bust. Broadcasters—the U.S. variety—find themselves a minority at their own convention.
On the TV side, the convention simply lacks critical mass. First, the network bosses don't go to the show. No Bob Wright. No Mel Karmazin or Leslie Moonves. No Steve Bornstein. No Brian Mulligan. What's more, because of the current nasty state of network-affiliate and network-NAB relations, the networks didn't send the underbosses and limited the number of engineers this year. The only top network executives we spied were Alex Wallau of ABC and David Hill of Fox Sports.
Second, the station managers are increasingly scarce. With more buying decisions being made at HQ and budgets tight, group executives are telling their GMs to stay home.
The same goes for NATPE. When I first started attending that convention regularly in the early 1990s after years of going just to NAB, I felt I had discovered the real gathering of broadcast TV pooh-bahs. Just about everybody you bumped into in elevators or cab lines sported a name tag with call letters—GMs, station managers, even program directors. And because the networks held affiliate meetings, the network chieftains were often in town. I remember chatting with Rupert Murdoch during the break in one Fox meeting.
But over the past few years, NATPE has gradually faded as a broadcasting get-together. For the same reasons they don't get invited to NAB, the station managers don't get invited to NATPE anymore. The networks no longer host meetings. Now syndicators are scaling back in the face of shrinking broadcaster attendance.
To its credit, NATPE is trying to reinvent itself as a place for foreign broadcasters to shop for U.S. programs and for syndicators to showcase their new products for advertisers. NATPE may come back strong, but probably not as a forum for U.S. broadcasters.
OK, so broadcasters don't come together in one place anymore. Is that a problem? Yes. There is the practical aspect, of course. TV broadcasting's future is uncertain. If it's going to keep pace with all the competition out there, broadcasters from every market and all segments of the business—networks, groups and stations—must find their common causes and rally around them. Just getting everybody in the same room might relax network-affiliate tensions.
But there is another reason that may not show up immediately on the balance sheet. Broadcasters talk a good case of community in lobbying for government favors. But it's hard to walk the walk of a shared sense of localism, service and common purpose without an annual gathering of the tribes.
Either NAB or NATPE is the place to meet. Everybody in the TV broadcasting business ought to set aside differences for a few days each year and just show up. And stations groups ought to loosen up on the T&E a little so that station managers get in on the action.
NCTA would like to make the kind of dough NAB does from its convention exhibition. But would it give up its annual gathering of the clan—the entire clan—for all of NAB's millions? I'll tell you what. I'll post myself in the middle of the NCTA exhibit floor next month and ask Dan Somers and Joe Collins and Chuck Dolan and John Rigas. Cable's powers that be—they'll be along shortly.
Jessell may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 212-337-6964.