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To Broadcast Or To Podcast: Report From The National Association Of Broadcasters Conference

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The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) organized their annual melee in Vegas this past week. The show is billed as the world’s largest electronic show. It is not an empty boast given that the conference draws over 100,000 attendees from the United States and abroad, has over 860,000 square feet of exhibition space, and conducts over $30 billion in business.

The show started off slowly over the weekend with a series of seminars, talks, and certificate training classes on a variety of technologies including podcasting, HD capturing, and Final Cut Pro. The conference kicked into high gear on Monday when the exhibition halls were officially declared open.

The two discernible themes to take away from this conference were convergence and High Definition TV (HD). HD had a robust presence at the exhibition with products ranging from HD cameras to editing workstations to archiving products associated with HD making an appearance.

Given that the analog broadcast would cease in the United States starting February 17, 2009, there is a widespread move within the broadcast community to come up with robust workflows around digital systems. There is widespread expectation though that the networks will transition to HD digital systems rather than the Standard Definition (SD) digital channels. This transition to digital systems has created a flurry of activity in terms of product releases of HD systems tailored to the broadcast market. Among the technologies that are getting a lot of attention within the HD camp are encoding technologies – specifically, systems using the MPEG-4 standard for encoding digital signal are being flaunted.

The other major theme in the conference this year was convergence. Digital technologies have matured to a point that they play an important role within the newsroom, the production room, and in the area of distribution and storage. All this talk about convergence may make one think the PC/Mac world is close to the broadcast world. And I would never have been more wrong. The broadcast world has embraced the digital project in a different way than one would have hoped. Then again, part of it is due to the shortcomings in the infrastructure. But first, let me explain what I mean by embracing the digital project in a different way. With digitization, one would have hoped that broadcasters would just tube the content via the Internet and forgo the “broadcast infrastructure” but they haven’t done that and for good reason. The Internet infrastructure, especially the tunnel to people’s homes, still remains too narrow for such an ambitious move. The other reason behind this lack of convergence is the sheer lack of understanding of technology and of taking all photos, videos, and whatever as data. Let me give you can example to illuminate further the divergence. Broadcasters are developing infrastructure to wrap metadata around their content, but it’s not going to be XML, rather some format that encodes the metadata within.

Part of the reason why broadcast industry has refused to come to the Internet side of things is because the broadcast industry is still full of analog engineers and gets lobbied by niche broadcast-only product makers. On the other hand, techies often underestimate the challenge posed by broadcast. They neither understand the complexity nor the quality requirements or even ease of access that have made television into such a universal entertainment medium.

Let me end by saying techies have a lot to learn from broadcasters — especially about designing interfaces (remotes that change channels or sites with the flick of a button) and about maintaining quality. The broadcast industry, on the other hand, needs to understand the merits of taking all digitized content as data and finding ways to tunnel it through network pipes and concentrate its energies giving users the choice of accessing content. That is, give users access to stored data like website owners do and give users choice of searching through content and accumulating content (RSS feeds?). Until then, we must NAB on.

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