NAB times are a-changin'

NAB2006 is over. Most of us are back home nursing sore feet and trying to get back to a normal sleep pattern. The show was memorable for the reasonable temperatures, nice breeze and the least crowded show floors seen for a while. There were just more than 105, 000 official NAB badges issued, but that is not reality.

The NAB show is different these days. The 1500-plus exhibitors were concentrated in the Upper and Lower South Halls with the Central Hall looking spacious and only half of the North Hall in use — the days when it was difficult to find space in that focused audio and radio hall are over.

The industry has changed in a way that many of the larger box vendors do not understand and have not accepted. Solutions are moving from the dedicated, often elegant, black box to solutions focusing on what you can do with the software component. This is changing the kind of audience who attends the show. I would love to look at the breakdown of show visitors' occupations — something NAB is not going to let anyone outside the organization see — because I would bet that more than 75 percent of the non-exhibitors are not directly connected with broadcasting.

NAB itself has also changed. The reins were changed last December with the departure of Eddie Fritts and his replacement by David Rehr, a longtime player within the Washington D.C. Beltway, whose last gig was as CEO of the National Beer Wholesalers Association (NBWA). Hopefully, by now, he is used to losing that W in his employer's acronym.

I am the last person to suggest that someone who promoted beer distribution is any less qualified to represent mom and pop radio and TV stations. A good CEO can probably drop into any industry slot and do well, unburdened with the past history of that business. I do wonder, however, why the NBWA Political Action Committee (PAC), which disbursed money every election cycle (isn't disbursed a lovely version of “paid off with contributions”), needed so many political favors. But Rehr's main qualification for the NAB position was that with the NBWA PAC, he increased payouts from $400,000 to nearly $3 million every election.

The choice of a professional lobbyist for the NAB position is a clear indicator of where and how the organization believes it can achieve its members' targets.

What are those targets? The word broadcasting does not mean terrestrial transmission to NAB any more. It wants to: · have the power to rein in satellite operators; · make cable systems carry every kind of programming it wants to send them; and · increase the number and type of distribution channels and platforms that can be used.

The organization also wants to send politicians the message of how important local content is — something that has already all but completely disappeared from radio and is declining rapidly in television.

I do agree, at least partially, with a comment that Rehr made in an interview: “The idea that you can walk into a Best Buy or Circuit City today and be sold a TV that will be obsolete in three years, without any warning to the consumer, is a travesty.” Why limit it to Best Buy and Circuit City?

The new CEO also wants to ensure that the transition to digital broadcasting is smooth — meaning both digital TV and HD radio — and I'm sure he really understands all the issues associated with the latter. This ranks right up there with Intel High Definition Audio.

One of the things that NAB should be seriously talking about to its members is how much longer terrestrial broadcasting can be allowed to continue in countries where the RF spectrum can be so much more efficiently used. I love RF, but how can we continue to justify the amounts of power that are consumed, often 24/7, for signals that are not being used by the vast majority?

Paul McGoldrick is an industry consultant based on the West Coast.