CES Returns to Being a ‘TV Show,’ Albeit Virtual

CES 2021
(Image credit: CES)

WASHINGTON—The International CES electronics extravaganza historically held in Las Vegas in early January, was once a “TV show”—that is, a massive annual exposition and convention to showcase the latest, greatest television receivers and consumer video equipment.

This year, the “All-Digital CES 2021” is a pandemic-induced virtual exhibit and conference taking place Jan. 11–14, (with a month of “reruns”). Registration opened on Dec. 3 (three months later than usual and after this issue went to press), and the Consumer Technology Association, which produces CES, is initially predicting that up to 150,000 people will tunein—approaching the 180,000-attendee range of recent years.

Although the number of exhibitors has dropped (about 1,500 vs. 4,500 last year), CES 2021 will maintain its exhaustive range of categories—from advanced TV, audio and gaming systems to automotive, health/wellness, smart cities and artificial intelligence.

TV technology will still be a major feature—although skeptics are already wondering how 8K, NextGen TV, HDR and foldable/flexible displays will play out in the current virtual setting.


Karen Chupka, CTA’s executive vice president for CES, explained that the show’s structure involves exhibitors, whose virtual booths will offer a variety of “activations,” as she calls the types of presence: a digital listing, short-form videos, brochureware and product images to showcase their devices and services plus a chat component. The ersatz showoor will have links to companies’ microsites, where the exhibitors can offer in-depth demonstrations or private conversations. There are also longer-form “activations,” which include open presentations.

CES will use an array of Microsoft strategic cloud platform tools (Microsoft Azure, Microsoft Teams and Microsoft Power Platform) to deliver the exhibitor showcase, media events, conference programming and networking events.

“Microsoft has the bandwidth to handle as much as necessary,” Chupka said, referring to peak online attendance loads. CTA will do advance credential checking to limit the show to bona fide industry participants who will have access to the Microsoft secure platform. She explained that CTA chose Microsoft’s Teams because of its scalability: Capable of connecting with ve or six people or several hundred people at one time. The association has not disclosed how much it is paying Microsoft, a member, to operate the technology for All-Digital CES.

CTA planned to release a full exhibitor list in early December when it revealed other registration and conference details; several major video exhibitors have already confirmed their intent to participate, including LG Electronics, Samsung and Sony.

Chupka expects some large exhibitors—which run many shows annually—will want to use their own platforms once visitors pass through the CES portal into the individual booths.

Reflecting on the decision to go all digital, Chupka said, “At rst we were planning for both live and digital.” But, she continued, by July CTA recognized that it would have to be “totally virtually” so “we had to rethink formats.”


The TV show prototype starts with the “CES Live” anchor desk at a studio in Microsoft’s Redmond, Wash., headquarters. Two anchor teams of broadcast professionals will offer continual updates during the extended show hours of 7 a.m. to 9 pm. ET each day. They’ll talk about “what’s new and hot” at the exhibits and conference sessions and “talk through the complexity,” Chupka said, using “story lines we’ll select” dynamically, with the assistance of CTA media partners.

The setup also uses AI to “help people find what they’re looking for,” Chupka said. “Going beyond the usual directory of keywords, the AI software will enable convention-goers to set up appointments with each other and then nd a virtual place for a face-to-face conversation.”

Attendees will be able to begin scheduling appointments for specific booths and with individual colleagues by mid-December.

“We want to use technology to produce the serendipity you’d get while walking through the show oor—to encounter things based on your areas of interest, to see what’s important to you,” Chupka explained. CTA’s goal is to “make things you’re interested in easier to find.

“We expect to have a digital arm to anything we’re doing,” she added, noting that CTA expects to learn lessons from the all-digital 2021 show that it will be able to use in the future.


Brian Markwalter, senior vice president, research & standards for CTA, expects that, “every TV maker will have 8K” on display. During CES, CTA will present its new sales forecasts, and Markwalter hinted that it will show 8K is starting “moderate growth now that the technology is fully available in the supply chain.” TV sets featuring advanced HDR technology will also be on display.

The CTA outlook also foresees “TVs with newer HDMI features, higher frame rates and gaming-specific modes.” He expects more exhibits on advancing technologies such as micro LEDs and foldable/flexible screens.

“We expect strong representation from Central Hall stalwarts,” Markwalter said, referring to the Las Vegas Convention Center venue where the major TV/electronics makers traditionally show their wares.

As for demonstrating features of 8K and other advanced display technology, Markwalter anticipates that exhibitors will use the same kinds of creativity they’ve demonstrated in TV commercials for 4K. “There are ways to explain the differences between HD, 4K and 8K,” he said.

The CES technology conference program will include sessions on 8K and other new display technology.

Other technologies on the CES exhibit menu include 5G, gaming (fueled by a slew of new consoles) and robotics. Markwalter observed that 5G technology is “hitting its stride and ramping so quickly,” citing more than 170 different 5G phone models available worldwide (although the current number of models available in the U.S. is considerably smaller).

He also pointed out that robotics is taking a big upward leap this year, thanks in part to the pandemic, which has generated more interest in such devices. “We’ll see if anyone leverages that.”


More NextGen TV receivers will be showcased on the virtual CES exhibit area, according to representatives from the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC). Additional manufacturers—as yet unnamed, possibly some of the large Chinese manufacturers—are expected to introduce TV sets for ATSC 3.0, while LG, Samsung and Sony plan to expand their lines.

After hosting their rst ever CES booth showcasing ATSC 3.0 at the 2020 show, the ATSC will return in 2021 with a virtual exhibit. According to ATSC President Madeleine Noland, at presstime the group was still working on details of how Sinclair/ONE Media 3.0, Pearl TV, device makers and other member organizations will present their services and products within the ATSC booth—with links to their own exhibit sites.

In addition to its virtual booth, ATSC will host two webcasts Tuesday, Jan. 12. The 7 p.m and 8 p.m. (ET) time slots were chosen to make the live programs convenient for Asian viewers to tune in, according to Noland. Working titles for the sessions are “What’s Next for NextGen TV” aimed at manufacturers and “Television Gets Better and Better” focusing on what broadcasters are doing with advanced video and audio. The sessions will be available for on-demand playback.

The goal is to “engage with memberships” including global standards organizations so that visitors are aware of the devices coming to market and “the progress we’ve made,” Noland said. “We want to make sure we aggregate and highlight the progress we’ve made and what we expect for NextGen TV in the coming year.”

Noland expects that ATSC’s presentations—which will be hosted independently from the CES agenda—will attract viewers from TV networks, stations and the content creation community seeking a NextGen TV update.

ONE Media 3.0 and Pearl TV have replaced their snazzy NextGen TV demonstration suites at Wynn’s Hotel with virtual exhibits online.

ONE Media 3.0, the Sinclair Broadcasting subsidiary focused on ATSC 3.0, will explore business applications enabled through ATSC 3.0, which is being deployed in every market where Sinclair is transmitting in 3.0, according to ONE Media 3.0 President Mark Aitken. For the virtual CES demonstrations, ONE Media 3.0 has built an online ATSC 3.0 receiver to do “live demonstrations on the net using our application,” Aitken said.

The virtual CES demonstration will also feature radio-related services, hybrid internet microsites and OTT content from Sinclair’s STIRR.com free, ad-supported streaming service.

“We’ve taken our STIRR app and built 3.0 functionality into it,” Aitken said. The company is working on a brand name for the hybrid service, possibly to be unveiled in January.

Pearl TV, the NextGen TV consortium, plans to exhibit an applications framework for additional services including HDR transmissions, some of which have been tested in its model markets, according to Anne Schelle, Pearl TV’s managing director. At CES, Pearl will unveil details about its accelerated outreach to retailers as more TV set makers begin to market NextGen TV receivers. It also is expected to announce additional stations participating in the Pearl TV consortium.

Schelle hinted that Pearl TV will discuss business applications for NextGen TV outside the traditional broadcast realm.

“Automotive is also a big push,” Schelle said, hinting that Pearl TV will announce “new opportunities” with carmakers following what she called the success of pilot programs in Detroit. During CES, Pearl TV will talk to more vendors in connection with the consumer-awareness campaign that the group has been running in selected markets to familiarize viewers with NextGen TV. Schelle also said that more details will be announced about opening Pearl’s applications framework to third-party developers.

Pearl TV’s demonstrations and presentation will remain accessible on demand after the original webcasts.

To register for the 2021 International CES, visit ces.tech.

Gary Arlen

Gary Arlen, a contributor to Broadcasting & Cable, NextTV and TV Tech, is known for his visionary insights into the convergence of media + telecom + content + technology. His perspectives on public/tech policy, marketing and audience measurement have added to the value of his research and analyses of emerging interactive and broadband services. Gary was founder/editor/publisher of Interactivity Report, TeleServices Report and other influential newsletters; he was the long-time “curmudgeon” columnist for Multichannel News as well as a regular contributor to AdMap, Washington Technology and Telecommunications Reports; Gary writes regularly about trends and media/marketing for the Consumer Technology Association's i3 magazine plus several blogs.