NAB’s Wharton: Renewed Sense of Optimism for Broadcasting’s Biggest Show

Over the years, National Association of Broadcasters EVP Dennis Wharton has seen the NAB Show grow and shrink, reflecting boom-and-bust economic conditions, an ever-consolidating broadcasting community, and the growth of new technologies like HD, the Internet, and more. SVG recently caught up with Wharton via e-mail to get his thoughts on this year’s show and the renewed sense of purpose as the association battles for broadcasters in Washington.

It seemed that this year’s show had a bit more energy than last year’s show and even 2007. From your discussions with exhibitors and attendees, what seemed to spur the positive energy? Renewed faith in the economy? Interest in 3D and mobile DTV?
Last year was tough for every industry, given the general malaise related to the recession. This year’s NAB Show was just the opposite. Attendees were upbeat, the floor was crowded, and exhibitors were ecstatic and selling product. After weathering last year’s downturn, it was rewarding to see 6,000 more attendees this year, along with 200 first-time exhibitors. Without question, the NAB Show more than proved its staying power, which is a testament to the lineup of speakers and educational sessions put together by the NAB Conventions department. 3D and mobile DTV certainly provided strong storylines, but the keynote speech from new NAB President Gordon Smith also played to rave reviews.

What do you think was the big story at the show?
Mobile DTV and 3D seemed to be top of mind for many attendees. Whether it was the standing-room-only breakfast hosted by the Open Mobile Video Coalition or the packed press reception in the Mobile DTV Marketplace, the opportunities of providing live, on-the-go TV content to viewers are proving to be an enticing proposition for TV stations. That was followed up by the Pearl Mobile DTV announcement, in which 12 broadcast groups announced they will form separate and distinct mobile-DTV programming. That’s going to provide a huge boost for local broadcasting and make our shows more relevant for a mobile society.

For Hollywood types, the great debate of 3D seemed to dominate discussions in Las Vegas. The fact that [DreamWorks’] Jeffrey Katzenberg asked to address the convention at the last minute on 3D validates how important the NAB Show has become in the content-delivery space. There was a lot of conversation about “best 3D practices” and whether or not the added expense will translate into increased revenue at the box office.

In terms of exhibit space for next year, any info on how the size will compare with this year?
If history is a guide, the exhibit floor should be bigger next year. When attendance goes up, there’s generally an uptick in the size of the exhibit hall the following year. Of course, a lot of this is dependent on whether the economy continues to rebound.

2010 is shaping up to be an important one for the broadcast industry as government officials seem to think its spectrum is better served for broadband needs. How did that issue energize discussions and panel sessions at NAB? How will NAB ensure those conversations continue between now and the 2011 NAB Show?
Well, remember that NAB’s primary mission year-round is to advocate in Washington on behalf of free and local broadcasters. We have a responsibility to our members to continue the dialogue and educational effort with both the FCC and Congress on the enduring value of broadcasting. So, while the NAB Show provides a high-level platform for policy discussions, the bulk of the work will be done in Washington. We’re going to continue making the case that broadcasters are by far the most efficient users of spectrum and that there is no way that cellphone networks and the Internet can replicate the reliability of broadcasting in delivering entertainment, sports, news, and timely and potentially life-saving information.

It appears there are hundreds of Europeans stuck in Vegas as a result of the volcano in Iceland. Does NAB have any sense on how many people are still there? I know there is a Facebook page (stuck@nab), but can NAB do anything to help them? Have you been in communication with any of them?
About one in four NAB Show attendees travel to Vegas from outside the U.S., and more than 150 countries send people to the show. A fair share comes from Europe, and we’ve reached out to some of them. Anecdotally, we’re hearing that some have not made it home yet, and, in fact, we got an e-mail today from someone with a London-based firm who expects to be in San Francisco for another week. Hopefully, this problem gets alleviated in the coming days, and everyone will be getting home safe.

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