Television News: Version 2.0

Within days of NBC Universal's recent announcement that it would eliminate 700 jobs in its broadcast operations, a "Career Fair" for job seekers was held at NAB New York, an expo and series of conferences billed as an East Coast "content creation" show.

If that's confusing, you'd better wake up and smell the future.

Not only is the television industry going through a period of swift, certain and permanent change, but with that change has come a remarkable level of denial by many of those being left behind. In the treacherous quicksand of today's media environment, what's left unsaid is often more important than what's said. Actions, most certainly, speak louder than words.

For fear of rocking someone's boat, most insiders with a vested interest in traditional broadcasting parse their comments to add a comforting sheen of vagueness. That is until the lid blows off and we get that occasional flicker of candor. During coverage of the budget cut story, a couple of rare gems came from NBC executives. Like when Steve Capus, president of NBC News, told a reporter that alternative digital media has set off a "tsunami--either you drown or you ride the wave."

What wasn't said on the record was reported by The Wall Street Journal, which finally let this aging cat out of the bag: NBC "sees limited growth potential in the news business."

Wow, now that's really news--only perhaps to those who still have jobs and continue to claim all is just fine in the television news business.

Jeff Zucker, NBC's chief executive, tried to assure the anxious that NBC is not leaving the news business by adding another little grain of enlightenment: "The growth in news is in different places... it's online, it's on wireless."


So let me get this straight. TV news (at NBC) is not going away, it's just moving from TV to other platforms. And it's not leaving quietly, but being swept away by "a tsunami" requiring a rather large surfboard.

That's not such comforting language to non-surfer terrestrial broadcasters who have spent decades minting money and riding the status quo. At least they had a long, advanced warning.

Within days of the NBC announcement, there was no better place to see where TV news was heading than a stroll through NAB New York.

If an NAB show were ever "not about broadcasting," that was certainly the case at this event in late October. To the outside observer, it looked as if the venerable broadcast trade organization was hedging it bets on the future by taking a taste of the new media expo business.

Even in a full page ad promoting the upcoming NAB2007 in Las Vegas, NAB never used the word "broadcasting." NAB, the ad said, is now the "world's largest electronic media show" that deals with "digital convergence to podcasting to technologies you've only dreamt about."

Gosh, does broadcasting's chief lobbying organization know something it's not telling its own members?

Reminds me of how Kentucky Fried Chicken evolved into "KFC," so the no longer trendy word "fried" was lost in the branding translation. Sly trick, but it works in a culture where collective memory can be stamped out in a matter of weeks.

Oh well, who knows the real motives of the suits in the executive suites? We judge by the actions, which were visible. All one had to do is walk the exhibit floor of NAB New York to see the emerging landscape of new media players.

As one who remembers when RCA and Ampex were the major NAB vendors, it's now a brave new world of technology. Companies like Apple and Avid joined with Panasonic and JVC in New York to promote remarkably affordable new HD production and post-production systems.

When I say affordable, forget the bank loans and long-term leasing deals of the past. Located a few feet away on the expo floor were a new breed of sales companies like Tekserve and B&H Photo. They combine professional products with in-house training. At these vendors, both excellent, one can charge an entire studio on a credit card.

Just as important as the accessibility of the production tools themselves are the companies making it easy to bypass traditional television distribution. One, like WhiteBlox, sold a service at the expo that allows anyone to create a private label network for global live broadcasting.

As for jobs, an estimated 300 of the lost ones at NBC were attributed to news--the old "film at eleven" kind, as in Version 1.0. With Version 2.0, the game changes. With new platforms comes new people.

That's why, at NAB New York, certification courses were offered in Apple Final Cut Pro and Avid Xpress Pro video editing software. And that's why there were sessions that included "Generating Revenue from Sports and Convergence," "Thriving in An On-Demand News World," and "Monetizing, Marketing and Selling Your Podcast."

A lot is happening at once, but one clear trend is that a new generation of multimedia-savvy young people are beginning to reshape the news business. It's hard to argue this is not good.

Behind the tsunami, of course, is the Internet, a medium well suited for constantly changing news updates. Now that the Net is video-ready, this new frontier is exploding with creative fervor.

It's the best of times, or the worst of times, depending on which side of the fence you're on. Perhaps Bob Dylan put it best, "That he not busy being born is busy dying."

Frank Beacham

Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.