Closing the Digital Gap in Las Vegas

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Las Vegas— Six years ago in this space, I characterized that week's National Association of Broadcasters convention as two events that were "two miles and 50 years apart."

It was a reflection of the separate venues here: One that concentrated on traditional one-way, one-channel, ad-supported broadcasting, the other which showcased new media and interactive technologies. The "suits" who congregated at the former rarely intermingled with the "ponytails" at the latter.

Thanks to additions to the main Las Vegas convention hall, the physical gap has been reduced to a few hundred yards of walking distance between the building's "old" and "new" wings. And some cross-breeding was apparent at last week's NAB convention, although the flow headed predominantly toward the interactive and new-media sector.

Most tellingly, the traditional "broadcasting" exhibitors were lured into the brave new world of the convention's new South Hall. Apple Computer Corp., IBM Corp., Motorola Inc., Scientific-Atlanta Inc., Concurrent Computer Corp. and SeaChange International Inc. were among those who favored this corner.

If location is indeed everything, then real estate and crowds directed the industry. Of course, the convention long ago ceased to be a TV-and-radio-only event. Digital Cinema was a featured program track this year — with a consensus that it's still somewhere in the future. The streaming-media niche was also relegated to a corner, although Real Networks Inc. and others have found a place in the revamped Internet environment.

Datacasting saw new life, thanks to the much-touted, Microsoft Corp.-backed mobile DTV demo with LINX Electronics and SpectraRep.

Hauppauge Computer Works Inc., manufacturer of a card for DTV-in-the-PC, told me quietly that a national consumer-electronics retailer will incorporate its components into a $100 DTV set-top decoder, set for a September debut. That's one way to use those millions of high-definition monitors that are going into homes without a companion ATSC tuner.

Leaving the 'B' out

Significantly, for several years the convention's organizer hasn't used its full name to brand the event. The B in NAB could mean "brain surgeons" or "bullfighters."

Some of the new-media attendees wonder why there are exhibits of transmitters, audio switchers and cameras in the "other" hall. Of course, this year more multimedia types ventured into the "old" area, checking out lower-priced video production equipment.

Beyond the exhibits was the more fundamental issue of media activity in a time of shock-and-awe transition. The FCC's ownership deliberations were top of mind for broadcast station owners. Meanwhile the value of DTV — not just the cost, but the payback opportunities — haunted them.

At a session on DTV revenues, Michael DeClue of Clear Channel Television described the datacasting ventures his company has pursued at its stations in Cincinnati and other markets. Sam Metheny of WRAL/DTV Plus in Raleigh, N.C., offered similar limited examples.

Nonetheless, the fact that broadcasters are venturing into the enterprise sectors — seeking business customers for local over-the-air data broadband service — changes the competitive landscape.

iBlast, the data-delivery service from a consortium of TV-station owners, demonstrated its "Game Silo" video game downloading service, which uses broadcast digital spectrum. The service, aimed at PCs — or, possibly, the storage capacity of XBox consoles — is subscription-based, and was demoed by Microsoft.

New format fights

As all these digital business visions bubbled up, the competitive juices were obvious. In the next-generation compression scheme, MPEG-4 is hot. iVast and Envivio are at the forefront of the Moving Picture Experts Group technologists, each offering an incompatible approach to video compression for broadcast and streaming media.

Meanwhile, Microsoft has already declared victory for its incompatible Windows Media 9 technology. And advocates of H.264, the overarching standard for all these formats, showcased various iterations.

What makes the NAB's diversity appealing is the deluge of disruptive technologies. Technology has always rearranged broadcasting, but services are burying the old while offering no clear path toward the new.

At an ITV session, Nielsen's David Harkness stipulated that Internet-connected digital video recorders would reshape the nature of advertising. Executives from Starz Encore Group LLC, Gemstar-TV Guide International Inc. and ad agencies nodded in agreement about technologies rearranging several industries.

Meanwhile, back in the "old media" building, NAB officials were fighting familiar battles over retransmission policies and the digital-tuner mandate — certainly important issues to all concerned. But in many ways not as vital to the reconstituted media landscape as the technological incursions several hundred yards to the south.

The dual battlegrounds of regulation and technology are a strong reminder that the fight ahead still requires one to wear comfortable shoes — not just to hustle between the NAB's Vegas venues, but for other media-tech matters as well.

Not coincidentally, FCC commissioner Kathleen Abernathy also mentioned the need for comfortable shoes.

Just be careful where you step.

Contributing curmudgeon Gary Arlen mans the I-way patrol for Broadband Week.

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