Final Curtain

Musings of a long-time exhibitor/attendee

By Russell Whittaker

By the time you read this, NAB will be over and SMPTE/NE's informative review of the exhibition will be upon us. Every journal, and most conversations will revolve around what was promised at NAB (much) and what was delivered (considerably less).

With every year, NAB seems to get bigger and more important to our industry. For manufactureres this is especially true. While there were once a number of dates to mark the broadcast calendar, now NAB rules. NAB has grown because it provides for the needs of both exhibitors and visitors. More than anything, NAB in Las Vegas offers a neutral (possibly bland) and predictable environment to hold a convention.

The town has the infrastructure to handle more than sixty thousand visitors. There are always enough rooms, and restaurants are at least plentiful. Taxi drivers, exhibit crews and the entire service industry are very helpful. The hassles have been removed, and this allows everyone to concentrate on the business at hand, be it trying to make sense of the relative head life of different machines, planning lobbying strategy or just selling products.

The NAB exhibit committee has continued to listen and fine tune the exhibition. Long badge lines are a thing of the past. Exhibit space is allocated through a rational priority system. There are few bad booth locations, and even the North Hall could prove to be good-witness the popularity of the Multi-Media area at the Hilton. The biggest task of the exhibition committee is to manage the growth.

Much of this growth is at the expense of other shows, including SMPTE's own exhibition and conference. The demise of SMPTE can be explained in one word: Javits. The building is a nightmare for exhibitors, with theft and extortion the rule. Attendees were exempted from most of this, but have ultimately suffered with the demise of an East Coast show.

To revive the fortunes of this show, SMPTE has joined together with some other acronyms, and hired NAB to run their show. Maybe some of the magic will rub off, but we donít need another sunbelt mega show. I for one hope that there will again be balance in the exhibit calendar.

Like NAB and SMPTE, Europe also has two exhibitions with long histories. One show, IBC, has clearly tried to emulate NAB, and is a hit with at least the exhibitors. Montreaux has done little to accomodate the needs of exhibitors, and little more for attendees. It wants to remain elite and operates under the philosophy of "if you hold it, they will come". Notwithstanding this, it remains popular with third world broadcast bureaucrats who want to check on their numbered accounts, and is reputed to have a very nice spouses program. Want to guess which one is going to succeed?

With so much riding on one show, NAB had become the single most important event of the year. Exhibitors start planning for NAB long before hotels are reserved. Products need to be designed. And before they can be designed, they need to have a name.

Names fall into three categories: One and Two Digits; Multiple Digits, and Words. Each says something about the company and the new product. Small numbers challenge customers to remember the other products that allowed AAA-12 to evolve. Really small numbers, like one, suggest biblical creation. Sadly, more than one company wanted to make sure we got the point and called their product "Genesis".

Large numbers are inflationary. They say "if you liked the 22, you're going to love the 2200". As with inflation, there are winners and losers. The losers seem to be people holding on to the model 22. Lately, words have been coming on strong with "X" appearing out of all proportion to its frequency in the English language. We have had fast animals, but have so far been spared Indian tribal names.

Once there is a name, work can begin in earnest on the new product. Yet, no matter how early the name has been decided, there is always a crunch as April nears. As this is being written, there are quite a few engineers who are working hard to get new products to Las Vegas. But for what purpose? Many of these products would not survive a day in the field, but can be made to work in the controlled conditions of a booth.

In the past these prototypes were likely to be physically fragile, or require judiciously placed fans. A conscientious company could be relied on to eliminate these problems before the product was released. Now it's usually software that is full of bugs, most of which are discovered in the field. Software seduces many to believe that more is better. Unfortunately, many current designs lack perspective. The truly important suffers under the weight of unrefined new features. We end up with a fat Swiss Army Knife when we really need a single sharp blade.

This emphasis on new is a genuine problem. There is no denying NAB's impact to our industry, but this importance can warp decisions. Use NAB to gain insight into future technology, but do so with caution. Do not let your present needs be sacrificed to a vague promise. Remember that you are being presented with the future that someone else has defined. Exercise your right to be skeptical.

Russell Whittaker grew up in the video business: His father co-founded Echolab, the switcher manufacturer. He is currently International Marketing Manager, and is out selling their new NAB introduction: The MVS-9 20-input analog production switcher (Available in August.). He can be reached at (617) 273-1512.