Gordon Smith at NAB Show keynoteNAB president Gordon Smith made a surprising appeal to TV broadcasters at the NAB Show keynote this morning. “The time has come for us to unite in our embrace of new technology,” Smith said, “and to realize the consequences if we don’t.”

I had expected that this NAB keynote address would be similar to those of years past, when speakers extolled the virtues of letting the marketplace work for retransmission consent (meaning that the stations have cable systems over a barrel and should be allowed to continue to take advantage), and that non-broadcast alternatives were inferior and should be fought with whatever means are available. Not this year.

Smith prepped his audience by quoting Winston Churchill, “Tact is the ability to tell someone to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip.” Then rather than rail against Aereo and other threats to TV broadcasters’ second revenue stream, he seemed to suggest that the folks in the room should get out in front of streaming trends.

“For television, our future lies in our willingness to embrace new platforms, and to go where our viewers want to go,” Smith said. “Emerging technology presents a great opportunity for broadcasters to provide viewers with our highly valued content anywhere, on any device, anytime they want it.” Then he started talking about mobile TV, which is getting pushed harder this year. More about that in a later post. You can read a transcript of his prepared remarks here.

Smith was followed by Greg Walden (R-OR), chairman of the US House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology. Walden threw some red meat to the crowd, chastising the slow deliberations or overreach of the FCC. Mentioning the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELA), Walden said he’d have several more hearings and that he’s “not convinced that retransmission consent need reforming”.

After Walden was through, Smith returned to the podium and went off script. Not looking at the teleprompters, Smith told the broadcasters in the room that they need to reach out to their representatives so they’d become as informed as Walden. “Democracy goes to those who get involved,” Smith said.

I’ve said before here that Gordon Smith has been a much better spokesman for the NAB than his predecessor, even when he’s said things I disagree with. Today, he was more than a spokesman; he was a leader.

cherry tart

© Depositphotos.com / Bedolaga

Once upon a time, there was a baker of cherry pies. There were dozens of fresh cherries in each pie, which were very popular with his customers, and his bakery prospered.

Then one day the baker was visited by an accountant, who examined the baker’s finances. “You’re doing well enough,” the accountant said, “but look at what the cost of all those cherries is doing to your bottom line. You could double your profit on each pie sold if you just reduce the cherries by 20%.”

The baker listened to the accountant and followed his instructions. Sure enough, in the first week, his profits doubled. But starting in the second week, his customers noticed the change, and a growing number of pies went unsold. Total profits slid to where they had started, then continued lower.

The baker called the accountant to ask what to do next. “To get those profits back to where they were, I calculate that you’ll need to cut another 30% of cherries from those pies,” the accountant replied. The baker agreed, and again, his profits rebounded for a week before sales slumped even further. These cycles continued until the pies contained almost no cherries, every customer abandoned them, and the baker went out of business.

The moral of this fable is that you can’t grow your business through austerity. As Yogi Berra once put it, “If people don’t want to come out to the ball park, nobody’s gonna stop ’em.”

There are a lot of business people today who don’t understand this. Or perhaps it’s fairer to say that to them any short-term gain is worth losing an unknown percentage of the customer base. In particular, a lot of over-the-air TV stations don’t get it.

The Pew Research Center’s State of the News Media laid it out last month. “The effects of a decade of newsroom cutbacks are real – and the public is taking notice.” Stations are programming larger blocks of news but with a smaller budget, and the resulting filler is driving away viewers. But stations are reacting to these shrinking audiences by, you guessed it, cutting back even further on news budgets.

TV news departments should see the decline of newspapers (another austerity failure) as an opening to ramp up coverage and become the trusted beacons of local journalism. When audiences learn where to turn for the inside scoop on what affects them at home, the ratings they’ll drive should reward any station bold enough to make that investment.

Or all the corporate-thinking news departments will continue to care only about meeting their next quarter’s numbers by trimming a couple more staff members. That’ll work only as well as did for the baker, until there’s no one left to buy what’s left of his pies.

closeup of a court gavel on cash

© Depositphotos.com / Tom Schmucker

This morning, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld a lower court ruling denying a preliminary injunction against Aereo, the streaming service for over-the-air TV.

Two of the three judges found that the TV networks that filed the lawsuit are unlikely to prevail when the case is brought to trial. The third dissented, and I find his reasoning a little twisted.

Recall that, in order to obey copyright laws that each viewer access his own physical TV antenna to stream over-the-air channels, Aereo installed large banks of dime-sized antennas. Each subscriber gets access to one of those every time he watches something.

Judge Denny Chin wrote, “The system is a Rube Goldberg-like contrivance, over-engineered in an attempt to avoid the reach of the Copyright Act.” Well, yeah. It would have been a lot simpler to use one common antenna and copy the signal to everybody, but Aereo was forced into that “over-engineering” to make sure it obeys the law. What’s the problem with that?

I wonder if this comes too late to work into the keynote speech at next week’s NAB Show. Broadcasters are not happy about the possibility of some of their lucrative retransmission consent fees to viewers with OTA antennas. In a statement, NAB Executive Vice President of Communications Dennis Wharton said “NAB is disappointed with the Second Circuit’s 2-1 decision allowing Aereo to continue its illegal operations while broadcasters’ copyright actions are heard. We agree with Judge Chin’s vigorous dissent and, along with our members, will be evaluating the opinions and options going forward.” So I guess that next week, we’ll all have more to talk about.

map of Major League Baseball territories

Major League Baseball territories, from Wikipedia

Baseball’s Opening Day always makes me feel like a 10-year-old. I grew up watching the local team on local TV. In those days before cable, I was lucky to see 60 games a year that way, usually on the independent station, plus the NBC Game of the Week on Saturdays. I got to know who the players were, and both the sport and the team grew on me. That team’s unwitting investment then paid off with years of game tickets, video subscriptions, and pilgrimages to baseball parks.

One of the lures of FTA satellite TV when I started with it was major league baseball. A lot of teams had regional over-the-air packages of games for stations within their territories. Thanks to MLB’s inscrutable territory rules, some cities were claimed by several overlapping teams. And some of the stations in those cities took advantage of that.

Buffalo NY is claimed by four teams – Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and both New Yorks. One station there carried Mets, Yankees, and Indians games whenever they were available. (I guess they couldn’t get the Pirates.) Arkansas is claimed by Texas, Houston, Kansas City, and St. Louis, and stations there carried some of those games as well. I looked at these as the second incarnation of superstations – those satellite-delivered TV stations that delivered lots of programming, including baseball, starting in the late 1970s. WGN and TBS survived and morphed into true pay-TV networks, and only two of the remaining five legally defined superstations still carry baseball games. That sure was fun while it lasted!

(Of course, now if you want to see out-of-market baseball games, all you need is high-speed internet, MLB.TV, and enough cash to subscribe. If you’re a baseball fanatic, it’s a great deal. But I digress.)

What about today’s viewers? The National Association of Broadcasters said last June that a growing number of Americans, 54 million back then, rely on over-the-air TV. Almost 18% of households use OTA signals to watch, up from 15% in 2011. That’s not the 99% of my youth, but it’s still a lot of people.

How is baseball reacting? By sharply curtailing OTA broadcasts. In an effort to squeeze every dime out of every game, most teams have sold all their games to regional sports networks. For 2013, only 10 of the 30 MLB teams plan to broadcast as many as five of their games via OTA. Aside from the two Chicago teams, which still use WGN, only Philadelphia and the Dodgers plan over 25 OTA games this year. (There’s also a weekly regional game on Fox (PDF schedule), but that won’t be much help to get folks to identify with their hometown team.)

Baseball probably won’t see any negative results from cutting off OTA until today’s 10-year-olds grow up and get some money in their pockets. The ones who never got to watch games on TV probably won’t be fans, and they won’t buy tickets. If the backlash against pay TV grows, baseball will miss even more young never-will-be fans. One day, they’ll realize what happened, but by then, it’ll be too late.

Business woman massaging tired legs

© Depositphotos.com / David Castillo

The NAB Show is coming up in just a couple of weeks, and if you’re planning on going this year (you should), then you need to know what you need to know.

First read Chris Potter’s post “10 Tips for Success at NAB“. It’s at least 90% accurate. Personally, my “alone time” (tip #4) tends to be in my hotel room, where I can drop off my handouts and swag, grab a cold drink, take a deep breath, then set out for another few hours of intense learning and interaction. And that’s part of the reason I disagree with tip #7, Get Off The Strip. Having a convenient hotel means having one within walking distance, or maybe on the monorail. The energy you lose by driving in and parking is worse than what you lose by having to line up at a buffet. But Potter’s post is a must-read, so go read it already!

Having said all that, here’s a reprint of my convention survival guide. I wrote it a few years ago with NAB in mind, but it’s good almost anywhere.

  1. Wear comfortable shoes. This is the highest priority, because if you have bad shoes, it can ruin the whole show for you. You will be walking. A lot. On hard surfaces. Most of the time, when you’re not walking, you’ll be standing. Unless you’re used to being on your feet all day, they won’t be happy with this. Find those comfy shoes now and break them in before you arrive.
  2. Have a plan, but don’t expect to stick to it. Make note of the high points that you absolutely have to see. Add some topics that sound interesting, but which don’t have the same high priority. Make a list of exhibitors you want to meet. Then walk onto the floor with the expectation that your schedule may change. There will be a lot of interesting stuff out there, including something you never thought of. Don’t be afraid to set aside what looked good yesterday when you want to learn more about something that’s amazingly cool today.
  3. Bring food. It shouldn’t be a lot. A PowerBar or Clif Bar or maybe even a Snickers will do. If you prefer something warm and mediocre, you can take a half hour to wait in line, pay too much, then struggle to find a place to eat lunch. Or you can unwrap a protein bar from your pocket or bag and munch on it as you sit and watch an exhibitor’s presentation. Save your time to visit more booths, and save your money for a real meal after the exhibit hall closes for the night.
  4. Drink, especially water. The air is dry in Las Vegas, and hours of walking and standing take more effort than sitting around all day. Dehydration will make you and your muscles feel more tired. When you pass a water fountain, take a drink. Consider bringing a small refillable bottle. And when any exhibitor offers any kind of liquid refreshment, it’s probably a good idea to take it. Come to think of it, that’s good advice on any occasion, isn’t it? (I moved this up, because that small bottle goes well with your PowerBar snack.)
  5. Get a lightweight map. If there’s an application with a map that you can load on your smartphone, (such as the NAB app), that’s the lightest map you can get. Otherwise, get the map that weighs the least. When you remember that you wanted to visit TooCool’s booth, you’ll want to know where to find it. When you want to find the nearest rest room, you’ll definitely be thankful for the map. (Update: The best rest rooms in the LVCC are along the southeast wall of Central Hall. Keep that in mind when you’re in the neighborhood.)
  6. Beware of heavy freebies. There are so many great things for free at a big show. Free magazines. Free catalogs. Pens. Paperweights. Bags for carrying them all. You can probably haul around all the pens that you’ll get, but anything that feels a little heavy at 11 is going to be a burden by 4. If you really need that two-inch-thick catalog, plan to pick it up as you leave for the night.
  7. Wear comfortable shoes. Seriously.
  8. Choose your bag well. With all those fliers and freebies, you’ll probably also want a free bag to carry them around. Don’t just grab the first one you see. Make sure your bag is substantial enough to carry the boxed iPad you hope to win. Make sure it won’t embarrass you because it’s made of coated paper, has a garish promotion on the side, has a long handle made of twine, or all three. Better is a bag made of fabric with a tasteful, colorful logo and a short, strong handle. When you see one of those, grab it fast; those are the bags that run out before the show’s over. (Update: solid fabric bags are in the majority these days, which is good. But anything that looks especially cool will still run out, so choose carefully.)
  9. Time your presentations well. If you pass by a booth with a mob standing around watching a presentation that you’d like to see, make a note of when the next showing will be, then keep moving. If you pass by a booth with a presentation that’s going to start in 10 minutes, have a seat if you think it’ll be of interest to you. Use this 10-minute break to check your schedule, check your email, and get friendly with the folks at the booth. You’ll get the benefit of an unobstructed view of a full presentation and your feet will get the benefit of a full half-hour break. Then get up and walk back to that booth you passed, if it’s about 10 minutes before that next showing.
  10. For your top priority event, get there early. If your schedule is built around the 2 o’clock show at the 3D Theater, get there at 1:30. If Harrison Ford is signing Star Wars posters at 4, get to his booth by 3. If it’s really that cool, it’ll be that popular too, and you’ll probably be waiting in a long line. If there’s no line when you arrive, hang around the neighborhood until it starts to form. If no line ever forms, make sure you’ve got your schedule right; maybe Harrison isn’t supposed to sign anything until tomorrow.
  11. Wear comfortable shoes.
  12. Wear comfortable shoes. Okay?