During the first week of January—as hordes of electronics impresarios arrive for the International Consumer Electronics Show every year—the mood is generally influenced by what just happened during the holiday sales season. Although this year’s overall American shopping outlook is grim, most analysts are forecasting a strong appetite for video and other digital equipment.
The Consumer Electronics Association’s own predictions foresee “gifts” of about 14 million flat panel TV sets this season in addition to the HDTV sets and other video equipment being bought for personal use. CEA, which runs CES, is expecting strong sales in other audio-video, mobile and home networking categories, too.
If sales hit those levels, the picture in Las Vegas will be bright during CES, Jan. 7-10. Adding to the visible vitality will be an influx of video behemoths—including Sony Pictures Television and NBC-Universal—which are bringing digital content to exhibit halls that have largely been hardware havens for four decades.
NBC will broadcast some of its network’s shows from CES, while Sony is using CES as a program promotion platform, supplementing the company’s usual visit to Vegas a few weeks hence for the NATPE conference.
“[The] exploding demand for high-quality content, of all kinds, on all platforms, is a key factor driving the unprecedented growth in consumer electronics today,” says Mark Lukasiewicz, vice president, Digital Media for NBC News and one of NBCU’s project leaders at CES. He describes NBC’s presence in the Las Vegas exhibit hall as a showcase for the network’s “rich content” and also as a way “to cover this pivotal industry event for consumer and business audiences on all our platforms.”
At an event promising “20,000 new works on view,” as CEA espouses, that means plenty of things for the marketers’ show and tell.
As CES has become a “big tent” for devices, content and services, the product mix—as well as the attendees’ profiles—reflects the broadening interests of the converging industries. Ostensibly a trade show at which retailers can examine and order the coming year’s inventory, in reality, “buyers” (retailers, distributors and value-added resellers of electronics products) constitute barely 20 percent of the crowd: roughly 32,000 out of the expected 145,000 registered attendees. About 10,000 of the attendees list themselves as content developers, entertainment or software creators—emphasizing the evolving definition of “consumer electronics.”
| CEA expects more than 150,000 attendees at the annual CES Show, Jan. 7-10, in Las Vegas)|
Karen Chupka, CEA’s senior vice president who oversees the gargantuan trade show, emphasizes that the arrival of video content companies like NBC and Sony Pictures—plus advertisers and production companies—reflects “a spirit of looking to cooperate” in distribution via emerging technologies. She cites the trend over recent years as “Hollywood was looking at how to distribute” content in light of the shifting dynamics wrought by technologies such as digital video recording and wireless delivery.
“Now it’s a reality,” Chupka says. “Everyone has dabbled. Now they have some experience under their belts.”
Pointing out that this year’s keynoters include Comcast Chairman/CEO Brian Roberts and Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang, Chupka characterizes the process as “plunging into content,” after “dipping our toes” into the content sector last year. To further underscore her point, Chupka notes that more touring groups from broadcast and cable TV programming and technology companies are visiting CES this year. They are coming to see the big screen and portable devices and facilities that viewers will be using in coming years.
To direct attention to the increasing presence of content providers, a special “Content@CES” pavilion will showcase suppliers that create and distribute content. The cluster of displays and meeting rooms in the Central Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center will include EchoStar, Microsoft, Sony and TV Guide. In addition, at many of CES’s two dozen “TechZones”—each focused on a specific type of CE technology—video content will be among the featured “products” for use on mobile, portable and home networked systems.
407 DAYS AND COUNTING
Despite this inclusive view of the video industry, CES still delivers hefty line-ups of information and products for the traditional TV business. The conference agenda focuses on pressing broadcasting issues—notably the analog TV cutoff—which will be just 407 days away when the crowds gather in Las Vegas. On the show’s opening Monday, two sessions will delve into the DTV coupon subsidy program.
A noon session called “Conversion to Digital TV” will describe the government coupon program and retailer participation. A 1:30 p.m. panel discussion about “Preparing for the Analog Shutoff” will feature executives from NAB, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association and Tony Wilhelm, director of the Consumer Education and Public Information Television Converter Coupon Program at the National Telecommunications & Information Administration, the U.S. Commerce Department agency overseeing the coupon program.
“This will be a different approach than the one we’d been using,” Chupka said. “We’re trying to educate the retail community about the program.”
Among the 170 other sessions—run by CES and 16 independent partner groups—related issues of DTV production and distribution are a mainstream theme. The Digital Hollywood track, for example, includes several sessions about the impact of VOD and DVRs on conventional broadcast patterns. Other Digital Hollywood sessions delve into interactive advertising and creative development.
The International Conference on Consumer Electronics, which starts just as the formal CES trade show ends, is an annual intensive look at research and development of next-generation CE products, organized by the IEEE Consumer Electronics Society. On Jan. 11, the conference will feature a session on DTV inference issues from Charles S. Rhodes, a Life Fellow of IEEE, who also pens TV Technology’s monthly “Digital TV” column Detailed information about all the conferences is available at cesweb.org/attendees/conferences/partners.asp
While the conferences and lectures offer forecasts and insights about industry direction, the excitement of CES always comes down to advance glimpses of the “next cool things.” Overall, more than 2,700 exhibitors will occupy about 1.8 million square feet of space at the Las Vegas Convention Center and the Sands Expo Center, the equivalent of 30 football fields—about the same size as last year.
Predictably, vendors are guarding their biggest product launches until just before the show opens. But a few companies are offering advance peeks at the directions they are heading.
For example, several vendors will show products that combine features and capabilities. LG Electronics is expanding its HDTV product line up with a number of multi-feature devices. Its 42-inch “Full HD” 1080p two-way interactive digital cable-ready OCAP LCD HDTV (model 42LG51) integrates OpenCable application platforms, thus allowing access to premium cable content and features without a set-top box.
LG claims its 52-inch 1080p “Full HD” LCD HDTV is the world’s first such unit with an integrated 802.11 wireless system, thus avoiding “unsightly wiring.” Its latest 32-inch LCD HDTV has an integrated DVD player with invisible speakers.
Although there is no advance word on the next spurt in the LCD size wars, tradition suggests that someone will try to expand beyond the 108-inch HDTV monitors that sprouted up last year.
With the analog cutoff looming, DTV set makers will be accelerating their push of products, including lower-cost Chinese-made video monitors.
TV set manufacturers are already jockeying for market dominance as the DTV stakes grow stronger. For example, Sharp, which has seen its market share fall from 17 percent to 10 percent during the past couple years, is expected to accelerate its marketing. Other set-makers are likely to be similarly aggressive as they seek sales amidst increasing consumer awareness of the DTV transition.
Zenith (LG), Samsung, RCA (Thomson) and Philips (Magnavox) are expected, among others, to demonstrate their analog-to-digital set-top converter boxes, although there is no advance indication yet at press time about their pricing or distribution plans.
CEREMONY & INNOVATION
In addition to the endless exhibit halls, the CES universe includes dozens of piggy-backed events. For the second consecutive year, the Technology & Engineering Emmy Awards, sponsored by the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, will be handed out at a Monday night ceremony for Science & Technology achievements in television (broadcast, cable and satellite distribution) and Advanced Media Technology (interactive television, gaming technology, Internet, cell phones, private networks and personal media players).
For Chupka, who is running her 19th CES, much of the event’s excitement stems from the expansion and the “battle of the living room.” Chupka, who recently won the 2007 International Association of Exhibitions and Events’ (IAEE) Outstanding Achievement in Industry Leadership award for managing one of the world’s largest trade shows, reflects that, “When I came in, all this was about the future. Now it has happened. It’s fun to see how thoughts that were just ideas have now actually taken shape.”
The other highlight is a new track of sessions about technology in developing countries, to be keynoted by Nicholas Negroponte, the founder/former director of the MediaLab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Negroponte is currently leading an initiative to provide low-cost laptop computers to third-world children. Other speakers on the program will examine wired and wireless concepts to expand sustainable, environmental-friendly technology into emerging markets.
“We all understand how (technology) betters our lives, but we don’t necessarily understand how it can improve life somewhere else,” Chupka says. She cites the ability of solar cells to bring digital services to African villages—and notes that such innovations can work their way back into the energy-challenged eco-systems of well developed markets.
CEA expects about 27,000 international visitors, representing 110 countries. In particular, CEA is funding the travel for technology ministers from several countries so they can see the latest developments and meet with global suppliers in Las Vegas.
Even with this global reach, CES’s continuing spectacle involves the expanding array of technology for use at home and on the road. Among this year’s keynoters is General Motors Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner; his presence illustrates the growing role of telematics and mobile technology for video as well as audio. Other keynotes include Microsoft CEO Bill Gates in what may be his final appearance before he “retires” from Microsoft for philanthropic endeavors; Toshihiro Sakamoto, president of Panasonic AVC Networks Company; and Paul Otellini, president and CEO of Intel Corp.
The mix of international speakers and attendees is a reminder, Chupka says, that “It’s not just a U.S. market, it’s a global market. It’s a show that attracts people from around the world.”