Final fade

As a young broadcast engineer I was encouraged to join SMPTE because it represented the American face of television engineering to us very remote guys in Europe. Developments in the U.S. showed us many of the industry's future directions, and the SMPTE Journal showed us the technology in raw detail.

I lost touch - and my membership - during a prolonged spell in Nigeria. When I rejoined, the organization had changed profoundly.

The great thing about SMPTE was its focus on technology and the spread of ideas. The Journal was accurate and timely. More importantly, the conferences were meetings of like-minded individuals who openly talked about that technology. Real demonstrations of technology were encouraged. Spring NAB was the place to show new products, closely followed by a European debut at Montreux, but SMPTE was the place to show the "maybe" technologies that were being worked on.

Then some bright spark got the idea that exhibitions could make money for SMPTE, that they could even challenge NAB. But these exhibitions had strange rules. Imagine asking vendors to pay top dollar for a small space in an expensive venue for three or four days, to bring their best equipment and the company's best people - but under no circumstances to sell anything. Don't even bring a price list. It made for a surreal, schizophrenic world - a non-trade show where vendors were expected to exhibit for love of technology, but the society profited handsomely. You might call it a dot-org facade over a dot-com bottom line.

Of course the benefits of corporate membership are enormous. You even get a lovely pennant to hang at your booth at conferences and the incredible gift of a free hyperlink from SMPTE to your website. Of course, in practice, most manufacturers and the others who have sustaining membership feel that it is a form of institutional blackmail - one of those things that you feel you have to do so that your customers know you are still around. If you feel you need to put yourself even further ahead of the pack, you can always mail more dollars to become a "Sponsor" or even more for a "Bronze," a "Silver" or, my gosh, a "Gold" Sustaining Membership. The membership dues used to be related to revenues, but now they are just related to the status you feel you need to buy, or are persuaded to buy.

Today, the exhibitions have been diluted by competing shows. (Ever tried to attend both the SMPTE and AES Conferences?) SMPTE's hold on standards is also a lot more muted than it used to be. Standards today evolve less from technology discussions than from a small group giving industry blessing to a commercial product's mode of operation. Originally being on a standards committee meant plowing through mountains of desperate detail, proving that each aspect of a standard was being evolved with almost religious perfection.

The Journal, too, has seen much better days. Its published papers (which any of the industry movers have already seen) are typically 10 to 12 months old. It reports on SMPTE Section Meetings that occurred two to four months prior - meetings, incidentally, that seem more often than not like commercial presentations.

So what value is there in SMPTE for an engineer living in a remote community? Obviously not the Journal, the standards or the exhibitions. But as a journalist as well as an engineer, I've found the conferences important in and of themselves. They still echo the organization's glory days, where no technological topic was too sacred to be discussed. Where ideas, not politics, still ruled.

Membership in any society or group has to have obvious benefits for those that are going to be actively involved. And SMPTE at its best has always been the membership. There are people who are Fellows and Life Fellows in SMPTE for whom I have a very high regard indeed. In many cases I wish I had a fraction of their abilities, their vision, their political acumen and their staying power.

The negatives, though, have finally come to outweigh the benefits, and I've had to conclude that SMPTE is no longer the organization for me. I won't easily or willingly travel more than 200 miles for a section meeting which may be little more than a commercial. My copy of the Journal has been going the way of the Sunday newspaper after a quick flick-through. Although others pay for my annual dues, I no longer "have" to be a member for political reasons.

So I hereby quit the Society. It's been an interesting trip, but there's a lot to be said for not sticking around for the final fade.