RTNDA@NAB

Is This The Future Of Conventions In The Digital Era?
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After September 11, the broadcast industry organization that looked like it had the most to lose was the Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA). Slated to open on September 12, its 56th annual conference was almost immediately cancelled when the terror attacks hit, putting it at risk of losing millions of dollars in potential revenue. Although RTNDA President Barbara Cochran assured members in a letter released shortly after the cancellation that her organization was "...confident that RTNDA will survive and continue its vital work on behalf of the entire industry," many news directors and other industry players were not so optimistic. This year may hold new hope for those who doubt the future viability of the RTNDA. The organization has inked a deal to hold its annual convention in concert with NAB2002 in Las Vegas for the next five years. The partnership, dubbed "RTNDA@NAB," will not only give the RTNDA a chance to hold its annual convention earlier than September 2002, but also will give attendees the added cost benefit of participating in two shows for the price of one. As for the NAB, it sees the relationship as an improvement upon its already prestigious slate of programs and exhibitions. Still, some critics worry that by doubling up with the NAB, the RTNDA will lose the unique character and identity that attendees have come to know over the years.

When September 11 hit, the RTNDA was already setting up for its annual convention in Nashville. Suddenly, the news directors who had already arrived in Nashville had to hightail it back to their stations to handle the bombardment of news related to the attacks. Due to a moratorium on air travel that week, some of them were stuck for days in the city. Conversely, anyone trying to get to the convention also had great difficulty. In light of these circumstances, the RTNDA chose to cancel the conference.

As the organization relies on the revenues from the show for half of its annual budget, its cancellation posed a major financial risk. The budgeted gross revenue for the 2001 convention was $2 million. Although the organization had insurance against such a catastrophe, it was unsure as to whether it would be able to recoup all of its losses.

Fortunately, according to Cochran, RTNDA's insurance covered the show's losses in full. The next step for the organization was to decide whether to hold the next show a full two years later, in 2002, or try and find a way to have it sooner. The former was the least desirable option. "The RTNDA's never had to cancel a convention before. In our 50 plus-year history, we've never had to wait two years for a convention," said Dave Busiek, news director of KCCI-TV, a CBS affiliate in Des Moines, IA and chairman of the RTNDA. With that in mind, the RTNDA approached the NAB about holding the two shows in concert. The NAB was very receptive to the idea. "RTNDA came to us with a proposal to have their show during our convention," said Dennis Wharton, senior vice president of Communications for the NAB. "We sat down with them and walked things through, and agreed that this would be a fabulous fit for the NAB convention."

RTNDA2002 will be held in the Las Vegas Hilton, which is adjacent and physically connected to the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC), one of NAB's main exhibit venues in Las Vegas. According to Wharton, attendees of the RTNDA will be within a two- to three-minute walk from the LVCCâs north hall. Those who register for either convention will be able to attend both shows and participate in all related activities.

Both the RTNDA and NAB see their partnership as coming at the right time, in the right place. "A lot of trade associations in our business are looking for partners for their conventions, and to me, NAB was the most logical and the best choice for us to partner up with," said Busiek. "They are closest to what we do, they are the most prestigious, and their show in Las Vegas is the most prestigious of them all. I think it made a lot of sense to do it from that standpoint." Wharton was similarly optimistic about the partnership. He said it would only add to the NAB convention's draw. "We think there are going to be a number of high profile news folks out here for our event, and it's all part of making the NAB convention bigger and better than ever," he said. Busiek added that holding the two shows in concert would facilitate collaboration between different employees of the same television stations. "The timing of it [the partnership]," he said, "puts it in a better time frame for news directors and general managers and chief engineers to walk the exhibition floor together and make decisions on capital purchases." Cochran expanded on his theme, noting, "We realized that station groups and individual stations are trying to be very cost-effective...and we thought that this gave a station the opportunity to send their general manager and their chief engineer and their news director to the same event. So they could each have their individual meetings, but they could also do things together. We thought that would be a more efficient use of everybody's travel dollars.ä

Cochran's comments touched upon a major trend that is shaking up both the broadcast industry and the convention business in general÷consolidation. As individual broadcasters increasingly become swallowed up by larger station groups, there is less and less of a market for shows such as the RTNDA and NATPE. Whereas ten years ago, there were many more independently-owned television stations in this country (and therefore many more news directors able to make decisions for their own station rather then being beholden to a larger station group owner), now the independent station has become an endangered species. The RTNDA picked up on this trend early. Said Cochran, "We thought that, as we looked at the future for conventions, we could see the industry was consolidating and the convention business was consolidating."

The RTNDA's move is a preemptive strike against a tough economic situation for which, especially in the broadcast sector, many experts do not see a silver lining anytime soon.

But even with the strength of the NAB behind it, RTNDA2002 may hit some roadblocks. One news director who has been attending the show for several years, Al Carl of WAAY-TV, an ABC affiliate in Huntsville, AL, said he wasn't able to go this year because of cutbacks in his station group. He said that he had gotten a general indication that not a lot of news directors were planning to attend the show. "I know that the ABC regional office in Atlanta canvassed all of the news directors in the southeast region [of the U.S.]...and I don't know the specific numbers, but it was just the feeling that I got from the woman doing the canvassing÷when I told her that I wasn't going because it was no longer in my budget÷she said, ÎWell, I'm hearing a lot of that.'" Carl also felt that attendance would be down because of the show's timing. "You plan on it being in September, and moving it up that many months makes it difficult to squeeze into other activities that the station has already planned."

Although Skip Valet, news director at WKMG-TV, a CBS affiliate in Orlando, FL, will also not be attending the show due to fiduciary issues, he felt the RTNDA made the right move. "I think that it's an idea that makes a lot of sense and whose time has come. You're talking about very similar groups of station management. To me, it makes sense to combine those events."

Thatâs the message the NAB and RTNDA are hoping potential attendees will latch onto, especially in the face of fears that the partnership will alter the unique character of RTNDA drastically. ãI see the logic behind it,ä noted Carl about the collaboration, ãbecause like every other organization theyâre [the RTNDA] looking to save expenses and streamline. But on the other side, I think the RTNDAâs likely to lose some of its identity by melding with the NAB.ä

Although Cochran acknowledged the potential for change, she said that ultimately, the shows would be still be separate, distinct entities. "Everything changes," she said. "The convention has been an evolving entity ever since it was created --and so we did partner with NAB for the radio show in the mid-90s. A lot of people liked that, and we also learned some lessons from that which we are applying to this collaboration.ä Cochran wanted it to be known however, that attendees of this year's convention should expect the same kinds of events and exhibits they are used to seeing at past shows. "We're going to be offering the same schedule of programs and the same tracks for different participants as we have in the past, and we think that anybody who attends will feel they are getting the full RTNDA program with the added value of being able to take part in the NAB exhibition and NAB events as well."