The Big Kibosh

In the end, it will be impossible to know if we overreacted or did too much, but it will be quite apparent if we under reacted or did too little. - Anonymous

Broadcasting is known for failures at the worst possible moment, and the cancellation of the 2020 NAB Show pushed that notoriety to a new level. What the near-worldwide shutdown means to the TV industry and to the NEXTGEN TV rollout has instantly become another complicated element in the cliffhanger of the year.

As suddenly as the annual NAB Show was cancelled it was overshadowed by more important social, health and economic issues and unknowns. What remains crystal clear is the local broadcaster’s obligation to serve the public’s needs and interests. The ‘Public Trustee Model’ was the basis of the enactment of the Radio Act of 1927 and the Communications Act of 1934, which later become the charter for broadcast television. The ‘obligation to serve’ is what the government gets in return for issuing licenses to make money on the public airwaves.

More Viewers

Some ISPs are making news by lifting data caps on home wired internet service as people stay home and social distance. Working at home and attending school online will shift and increase internet traffic, as will more people with more time to watch streaming video. Over the air TV viewing will increase similarly. Most people have little else to do while locked at home. In the meantime, businesses are shutting down everywhere, which will surely cripple local TV ad revenue and increase the portion of viewers with no money to spend. How’s that fit with the local broadcast TV business model?

On the other hand, crisis can bring opportunity. Broadcasters have affirmative statutory and regulatory obligations to serve the public, which in many cases also reinforces a station’s brand. The outcome of the pandemic is impossible to predict and rapidly changing. What’s happening right now is the latest news nearly everyone expects to learn on TV.

Internet communications is replacing live interaction faster than you can say “paradigm shift,” and causing many people to reevaluate reality and ask questions. Some wonder why schools and universities need an expensive campus and classrooms to teach. Others are considering all the alternative routes to interact with clients and an ocean of new ideas about life in the future that would have been considered preposterous a dozen days ago are suddenly being seriously discussed worldwide.

Supply Chain Issues

All we can say with total confidence at this moment is that life goes on, technology moves forward, and nearly 1000 disappointed companies were planning to introduce new solutions at the 2020 NAB Show.

Will the pandemic and its economic effects delay the rollout of ATSC 3.0 and NEXTGEN TV? The new NEXTGEN TVs require receiver chips that haven’t been built yet, and many of the new NEXTGEN TV sets and internal components will originate in countries hardest hit by the virus.

The annual April Las Vegas NAB Show is the calendar date target for the most significant product introductions, and many manufacturers spend the better part of a year preparing new solutions to debut in their exhibits. Materials needed to build new products have already been delivered.

The supply lines for necessary electronic components to build new hardware in bulk will be affected, but it’s too early to predict specifics. These and myriad other questions can only begin to be known after the world learns more about the pandemic, how long it will last and its financial impact.

TV for TV?

As of writing, the 2020 NAB Show was cancelled five days ago. Some exhibitors are beginning to announce early plans for virtual demos and exhibits, and it appears that everyone has their own idea. In an industry where ‘the show must go on,’ it didn’t for good reason, and Plan B was MIA.

I left my first TV engineering job in 1976 after 10 years with the local NBC affiliate, at the time when Sony Professional Video introduced the Type II U-Matic and the first U-Matic editor, the VO-2850. The company put on a little ‘dog-and-pony’ U-Matic show in town and my station sent me to check it out. I left broadcasting for the new world of corporate video communications a couple of months later.

Sony worked hard at promoting corporate communications, including hiring a couple of cool, west-coast, early-days, professional non-broadcast video producers to teach a long series of hands-on video production seminars to corporate customers around the country. At that time, the main qualification to head a corporate video department was to be the first person in the office to successfully set the clock and record a TV show on a home VCR. The creative TV production training idea worked, Sony sold a lot of editors, and corporate video communications became an industry.

The Secret

Decades later, most video manufacturers still can’t produce an interesting video. When Sony introduced Betamax, it shipped with a recorded Beta videotape in the box explaining how to connect the Betamax to a TV. If you could view the videotape, you didn’t need it. Nothing has changed much since then except for YouTube, which offers 10s of thousands of how-to video alternatives to manufacturers’ printed instructions.

The worst kept secret in television is that most broadcast equipment manufacturers aren’t video production experts. Successful manufacturers accurately predict the what, the when and the where, but seldom do they know why or how their newest creations will ultimately be used. Many corporate and educational productions are more sophisticated than the best of some of the most prestigious TV networks. Making magic wands doesn’t make magicians. TV is magic. Otherwise, who needs anything more than an iPhone?

In the meantime, in the first year without a NAB convention in nearly a century, most manufacturers have no marketing Plan B other than to use the internet to get their new stories out. Many are devising new plans right now. Most of the new TV products set to debut at the 2020 NAB Show will be introduced here in The Broadcast Bridge over the next several weeks. Stay tuned for more info on our special coverage.

Y2K + 20

The amount of time spent preparing for Y2K was stupefying. The TV station group I was with hired a major IT firm to develop written plans detailed down to salespeople riding bicycles to pick up cash payments after the USPS fails. Off-duty cops protected the tower on New Year’s Eve. All hands were on deck at midnight and headed to the parking lot about 10 minutes later. We watched nothing happen through earlier time zones throughout the evening. Most stations and groups had Plans B, C, D and E established in advance. The next morning it was the industry joke. Today’s pandemic is the exact opposite - no warning and no Plan B.

It’s time for broadcasters to step back, inventory what works, what doesn’t, and what’s being recommended, and lead the audience to make the best decisions to stop the virus spread. There has never been a more ‘captive TV audience’ with one common goal, and there may never be again. If local TV broadcasters ever had a golden opportunity to put their best foot forward, this is it.

Good luck, stay well, and wash your hands.

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