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US Broadcasters Focus on Value, New Technology in Economic Downturn

  • Craig McCulloch

In these times of economic uncertainty, American broadcasters are turning to new technology and new program formats to keep earning a profit.

The annual gathering of the

National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas has a renewed focus on the bottom line, especially in television, the most capital and labor intensive part of the industry.

Equipment-makers are displaying their wares through 93,000 square meters of exhibition space.

Standing in the sprawling Sony Electronics display is Doug Jensen of Vortex Media, who has been coming to this convention since 1983. Now also a consultant for Sony, Jensen says this year people are focused and looking for value.

"These people, they have already done their homework on the cameras, they want to come and touch and feel them and find out the details. In years past, ... people have been browsing by and kicking the tires a little bit and not that really interested. The people here this year are serious and I would say that people are looking for value for the cameras, absolutely. They are looking for a camera that can meet the wide demands of their clients and needs," he said.

He says they are looking for cameras that can use multiple standards, including the so-called PAL system favored in Europe and the NTSC system in the United States, which can shoot in both standard and high-definition formats. He says added versatility, and the fact that the cameras use no tape, will cut costs.

Hollywood actor Kelsey Grammer, who stared as psychiatrist Frasier Crane in the shows "Cheers" and "Frasier," says the change in the economy has television networks and studios rethinking their programming. Grammer is now a producer and the man behind the shows "Girlfriends" and "Medium."

He says Hollywood made the move to cheap reality-based programs a few years ago, but the format is getting stale and profits are dropping off, so the networks are investing once again in scripted shows, which feature professional actors.

"What has been woefully missing has been the scripted comedy. I think they warm to the idea of a kind of reinvestment act into scripted comedy," he said.

He says the industry is looking to new sources of revenue through digital downloads for home computers and portable devices, and is producing new content especially for these media.

Grammer was at the convention to receive the organization's Television Chairman's Award. A winner of four Emmys and two Golden Globe Awards, he says people will search out entertainment on a computer, mobile phone, DVD, digital recorder, or even on a traditional television set.

"Whatever it is, it is all about, 'Do you want to watch this thing?' If you want to watch it, if you make something you are proud of that actually agitates the retina, disturbs the mind just a little bit and maybe comforts a dash and explores something of the human experience, maybe pulls on a heart-string and makes us laugh, people will find stuff like that, because we need it," he said.

Dennis Wharton, the Executive Vice President of Media Relations for the National Association of Broadcasters, says a decision made two decades ago to restructure this convention is paying dividends in allowing attendees better access to new technology.

"Only about 20 percent of the people who come to the NAB convention are actually broadcasters. We made a conscious decision about 20 years ago to expand this convention outside just the traditional broadcast media and to expose our broadcasters to new technologies, new companies that might not be broadcasters, but who might be competitors or partners in the future," he said.

Wharton says the people attending the convention come from 160 countries. The recession is taking its toll, however, even at this industry convention.

Attendance is down to just under 84,000 attendees from more than 105,000 last year.

Yet organizers say there are profits to be made. They expect the gathering to generate more than $50 billion in spending for the 1,400 exhibitors showing off their products.

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