With a wave of slashed budgets washing across the television industry due to the current economic downturn, many broadcast network and station engineers are expected to skip their annual pilgrimage to the National Association of Broadcasters' annual convention this April. Those broadcasters that are attending are closely monitoring their costs.
CBS has cancelled its annual engineering breakfast, where it typically discussed technology plans with chief engineers from local affiliates. And the network itself, like other major broadcast networks and station groups, is sending fewer people to canvass the floor and participate in industry meetings.
"I think NAB is going to be downsized," said Sinclair VP of engineering and operations Del Parks, who is still going to the show. "In our industry, for the next few years, everybody is going to be very cautious about how they spend money. It's a different world out there."
In that vein, one top broadcast engineer who said he still planned to attend the show isn't booking through NAB's central reservations site, which recently slashed hotel prices, but was instead keeping his eye on hotel deals through Priceline.com and Travelocity. A $52 special at the Circus Circus had already caught his eye.
Pete Sockett, chief engineer for CBS affiliate WRAL Raleigh, is attending NAB, but doesn't expect to be joined by many of his friends across the industry.
"There are not a lot of them going," he said.
Sockett still hadn't heard officially from CBS about the cancelled breakfast when interviewed late Thursday afternoon. But he hadn't yet received an invitation, which CBS had typically distributed by late January in prior years.
"If I find out there isn't one, I wouldn't be surprised," said Sockett.
Cox Broadcasting sent 11 engineers from its TV station group and 20 from its radio division last year, said VP of engineering Sterling Davis. But only 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). That's because of travel restrictions imposed on all businesses within parent company Cox Enterprises.
"I may meet with a vendor, but my floor time during a normal NAB is minimal," said Davis. "I suspect I'm not going to be a very good substitute for the engineers from all the radio and TV stations."
Storage vendor BitCentral is expecting "very light attendance," said CEO Fred Fourcher, but will nonetheless have both a booth on the floor and a hotel suite to meet with customers. Fourcher said his company is planning on getting a smaller table in its suite for meetings, "as I don't see those entourages being as big this year."
Chyron COO Kevin Prince expects that NAB attendance could be down as much as 25%, though he hopes he's proven wrong, as traveling to meet with customers who skip the show is expensive. "It makes life very difficult, because the people who don't come, we have to visit," said Prince.
Harris is prepared to serve non-attendees through a "virtual NAB" that will see it push live video from its booth, including key workflow demonstrations, to its Website. And other vendors say they are bringing less people to the show, taking a smaller booth or otherwise reducing their overall show expenses.
"We assume there will be scores of people that travel restriction will not allow them to go to Las Vegas," said Harris vice president Brian Cabeceiras. "We take this as a fun challenge, how to bring the NAB experience to them.
If NAB does see a significant decline in attendance in 2009, it certainly wouldn't be alone among industry trade shows. The Consumer Electronics Show in January suffered a 20% dip, with an estimated attendance of around 110,000 compared to the 141,150 who attended the 2008 CES. And the NATPE syndication show, held later that month in Las Vegas, saw attendance fall some 14% to 6,000 registrants, a drop of nearly 1,000 from last year.
Joe Facchini, product marketing director for Panasonic, expects that NAB's attendance will be down, but not dramatically so, perhaps 5-10%. Facchini says CES, which attracts many local dealers as well as tech-savvy consumers, is "not as strategic" as NAB is for its constituents. Moreover, he estimates that U.S. broadcasters only make up 20% of the total audience, as NAB has diversified its attendance base to include Hollywood, new media and cable executives, as well as a large number of international broadcasters.
"The name of the show is a misnomer," said Facchini.
He may well be right. According to NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton, only 17 percent of NAB Show attendance last year was made up of broadcasters. Another 4% of attendees identified their primary occupation as "cable TV," and 3% were "satellite" related. Wharton noted that the affiliate boards for Fox, ABC, CBS and NBC have all committed to meet at NAB, as well as the board of the Television Advertising Bureau, a sign that the show continues to draw key decision-makers from the station business.
While big exhibitors like Cisco and Quantel won't be on the floor this year, NAB has signed up 70 new exhibitors including Electronic Arts, Philips 3D Solutions and 3ality Digital. Wharton said that some 20% of NAB's 1500-1600 exhibitors turn over each year, "which is part of the normal business cycle of companies." He added that Cisco will still have a presence at the show through sponsoring two information sessions and signage.
Being on the show floor itself may not be as important as it used to be, as few broadcasters say they actually go to NAB to make buying decisions. Most say they are looking instead at larger technology trends in the industry and the strategic direction of their vendors.
"We don't use NAB as a tool to make decisions," said 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."
WRAL's Sockett agreed, and said he attends NAB as much for its engineering conference and other technology sessions as he does for the exhibition.
"I really look at NAB for learning," said Sockett. "I go to the papers as much as I hit the floor, trying to keep ahead of the curve. I always come home, saying I had no idea about such and such [technology]."