Landscape photo of the Las Vegas Convention Center

The Las Vegas Convention Center during the NAB Show. If you look closely, you can see the monorail passing by the North Hall.

For over a week, I’ve been wrestling with the question: What’s it like to visit the NAB Show? Let me try to make the answer manageable by breaking it into four parts: the education sessions, the general sessions, the exhibit floor, and the stuff behind closed doors.

The education sessions, often part of conferences, contain some interesting talks from experts, along with a fair number of sales pitches by folks trying to get you to hire them or start using their products. They’re not free, but some of the topics may be worth it. The best ones to visit are those that are a tight match for what you’re interested in, and they’re even better when they take place during the quieter couple of days before the keynote. Check out the NAB Show conference schedule and pricing to see what’s available.

Weatherman in front of green screen

Virtual sets and green-screened weather services were demonstrated for buyers from TV stations.

The general sessions are free, and unlike the general sessions of some conventions, they’re often worth attending. The keynote, just before the exhibit floor opens, often contains real news. This year, Chase Carey, the president of News Corporation, fired off a warning that Fox could leave over-the-air TV if Aereo continues to prevail in the courts. That’s pretty unlikely, but it sure has started a lot of people talking about it.

If you really want to know what the NAB Show is like, the centerpiece is the exhibit floor. It’s free, and it’s where to find a lot of interesting stuff.

The first thing to keep in mind is that the exhibit floor is populated by companies with something to sell to broadcasters. Or to aspiring filmmakers. Based on what I see here every year, I’m convinced that half the film school graduates in America find themselves working for a TV station news department, and most of them still have a great movie bouncing around in their heads.

A row of small booths at the NAB Show.

A row of small booths at the NAB Show.

The booths tend to cluster by theme. Most of the radio gear was near the front of the Central Hall this year. Production music and stock video were just past the middle stairs in the South Lower Hall. The largest exhibitors stake out the same spot on the floor year after year.

And the booths come in all sizes. There are the behemoths, such as Sony or Harris, that can’t fit into a single photo. There are middle-sized booths, the majority of them, with plenty of room for displays and conferences. And there are the small-sized booths, barely the length of a long folding table with room for just a couple of chairs behind it. Those tiny booths sometimes contain just derivative, cheap products, but sometimes they’re the home of the most interesting new technologies.

Row of satellite equipment

Part of the row of satellite news gathering equipment on display along the green carpet between the South and Central Halls at the NAB Show.

If you’re a satellite fan, this is a much better place to visit than CES. There’s a whole aisle of satellite equipment outdoors, between the South and Central halls. It’s probably not as good as Satellite show held every March in Washington DC, but I haven’t been there yet, so I couldn’t tell you.

And what about the stuff behind closed doors? That’s where the really big deals get made, but with rare exceptions, they never let me in, so I can’t tell you what they’re like. And if you already attend those secret meetings, then you don’t need me to tell you.

Chase Carey, speaking at the NAB keynote

Chase Carey, speaking at the NAB keynote

While I continue to put together way too many NAB photos to tell you what the show is like, I’ll mention what Chase Carey, president of News Corp., said at the keynote. Carey wasn’t on board with the “embrace the future” theme; he said that if Aereo survives and folks continue to watch for free (without retransmission consent money), he’ll convert Fox to a cable network.

This pronouncement caught the attention of a lot of TV people, but I think it’s only saber-rattling. If Fox and its other network friends fail in the courts against Aereo, they’ll go straight to Congress to change the rules. The threat of pulling the Super Bowl off the air will give representatives cover for doing what the networks’ money asks them to do, and there you’ll have it.

Consider that Fox could decide to go cable tomorrow. It could have made the switch years ago, when retransmission money was a tiny fraction of what it is now. But it didn’t and it won’t because it just doesn’t make sense. The end, at least to me.

On the other hand, Broadcasting and Cable’s Jon Lafayette presents a more nuanced examination of what Fox would gain and lose by taking themselves off the public airwaves. In particular, doing so would negate the argument broadcasters have been making about needing all that spectrum they’ve been fighting to keep. So go read that.

Once upon a time, this already sort of happened. WGN and WTBS converted from distant over-the-air superstations (from the perspective of most cable TV systems) to cable channels. In both cases, they continued to locally broadcast most of the programming they sent to the cable systems, with just enough difference to make it count. The easiest way for Fox to convert would be to pick a few of its most popular shows and substitute reruns or infomercials over-the-air for an hour or two a night. To watch next year’s “House” or “24”, you’d need to watch it on cable, but local news would still be over-the-air. I still don’t think it’ll happen, but if it does, see if that’s the way it plays out.

I’m safely back at FTAList / FTABlog World Headquarters in Denver after another interesting, fun time at the NAB Show in Las Vegas. While I re-acclimate to the glorious lack of oxygen up here, I wanted to share with you the most entertaining session I saw this week.

Part of NewTek‘s Broadcast Minds series, the topic was Internet Content Creators Talk What’s Next Online. Never mind the title; I saw that Penn Jillette, one of my favorite author/comedian/magicians, was going to be on the panel along with Tom Green and other fun people. (If Jillette was cheesed that the moderator’s introduction started by mentioning his appearance on Celebrity Apprentice, he didn’t show it.) The video lasts an hour, which went by much too quickly, and it contains a few naughty words if that’s a problem. Enjoy!

Erik Moreno speaking at NABThere are all kinds of fun stories coming out of the 2013 edition of the NAB Show, but what I heard this morning was not fun. During a session called Mapping the Future of Broadcast Television, one of the co-general managers of the company behind Dyle, the mobile TV system, revealed what it plans to do once the service is on its feet. Dyle viewers will be “authenticated,” and if they subscribe to a service that pays retransmission fees to local broadcasters, their device will be turned on. Left unsaid was what would happen to those poor souls who dare to watch over-the-air TV at home for free with an antenna.

Erik Moreno, co-general manager of Mobile Content Venture, was one of the panelists in the session, and he said a lot of things that made sense. There was a lot of talk among panelist about the tension between cell phone companies providing on-demand digital content and TV broadcasters, both grabbing for the same spectrum. Moreno correctly pointed out that this shouldn’t be an either-or question. “If I were God,” he said, “I would make sure to have both.” Broadcasting is the best delivery method for live and popular programming, and on-demand is great for individualized and long-tail requests.

Moreno made note of a simultaneous announcement at the show that Fox was launching a streaming app similar to that available from ABC. He said that mobile users will appreciate being able to watch the stream over their cell phones, then will be disappointed by the data usage bills they’ll get. At that point, mobile TV will have a great opportunity to catch that audience and switch them to Dyle, which would presumably need to be included in their cell phone hardware.

As I’ve pointed out before, Dyle’s press releases had been careful to note that subscriptions weren’t necessary … yet. Moreno made it clear that this was only because there are so few Dyle-compatible stations that they needed to grow the market before beginning to monetize it.

If I needed someone to create and implement a successful business plan, Moreno would be high on my list. But listening to such a casual, naked rejection of free TV over the public airwaves left me shaken and sad.

Instead of ending on such an unhappy note, let’s look to the future. In my next post, I’ll try to give you an idea of what the NAB Show exhibit hall is like. Spoiler: It’s fun, interesting, and even inspiring.