Fear and loathing at NAB 2012

If this week’s National Association of Broadcasters Show is any indication, by 2020 “broadcasting” is a term that will be foreign to anyone under 40. Based on the show’s programming this year, as well as the general vibe that multiplatform delivery is the future, it seems that pretty soon no one will be concerned about how content is distributed — just if it’s good or not.

How quickly things change

This was my fourth or fifth year in attendance, and in many ways, it was shockingly similar to the others I’ve attended. There was (again) a lot of talk but no real movement on stuff like mobile DTV and 3-D TV, as well as grudging acceptance among incumbent content creators that the Internet, mobile and tablets are platforms they need to play on, even if there’s no real money there.

But there was one thing that was very different, at least in the makeup of the show’s keynotes and “super sessions.” In attending a few of the higher-profile sessions, I got the feeling that this year’s NAB Show wasn’t actually about broadcast TV, at least not in the way that it’s sold or distributed. It was instead about the multiplatform piece, and seemed specifically to shine a light on those who were leading the charge in that arena. The only problem is that the creators and distributors it highlighted weren’t broadcasters, at least not in the traditional sense, but those mired in the online-only or online-first world.

While last year’s NAB show featured a keynote speech by CBS (s CBS) head honcho Les Moonves, there were no comparable heavy hitters from the TV world to give their vision for the future. Notably, the show seemed to cater instead to those who were interested in how streaming and multiplatform delivery were disrupting the traditional TV model. NAB brought in speakers like Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos, Machinima President Philip DeBevoise, Electus’ Ben Silverman and Revision3’s Jim Louderback, among others.

Even those speakers who are part of the traditional broadcast model seemed to be there not to talk about the business of TV, per se, but about distribution in the bold new multiplatform world. Hell, even Betty White — who we all know of because of her TV career, and who spoke at an early breakfast slot on Tuesday — has seen her career resurrected mostly because of a Super Bowl commercial that went viral online and made her part of the conversation again.

What is a broadcaster, anyway?

I wasn’t the only one who was confused by the whole thing. I facilitated a roundtable discussion for a group of attendees Wednesday morning, leading a wide-ranging talk about a number of topics facing content producers and distributors.

The makeup of the room was impressively diverse: There were attendees who were there at their first NAB show, and others who had been going for decades. There were some present who worked for PBS, others who produced news and other content for local affiliates, and a university professor who was there to comment on the way the behavior of college-aged viewers were changing. There were participants from the agency side, others who created apps, and still others working on new web-original projects. There was even a guy from Brazil who produces surfing shows for the web. He switched from TV distribution to streaming video more than a decade ago.

One of the folks there — whose name I’ve unfortunately forgotten — summed up the feeling of the show pretty well: “How do we define a broadcaster?” he asked. “Is it someone who distributes content over the air? Is it someone who does over-the-air and cable and satellite? Is it someone who does that and also does delivery on the web and to other platforms, with a certain number of viewers?”

Barbarians at the gates

Considering who was speaking at this year’s show, I think there’s a clear answer to that: the definition needs to fall outside the traditional scope of the broadcasting industry and needs to include folks who are making content that doesn’t necessarily originate on TV. When Netflix introduces a slate of programming that includes shows from David Fincher, Kevin Spacey, Eli Roth and the return of Arrested Development, you can no longer define content as “premium“ just based upon whichever distribution platform it appeared on first.

I’ve always attended NAB with a view toward the digital future — and over the years, I’ve been frequently frustrated by how the industry doesn’t seem to “get it.” This is the first year where I’ve felt that the show and attendees were having real discussions about the future, the first time someone acknowledged that the big broadcast and cable networks weren’t the only ones who held the keys to the future of video.

But I wonder what that means for everyone else at the show, or, what the people who have been going to NAB for decades think about the barbarians at the gate that are taking up all their speaking slots and shaping the discussion. What does it mean when there are no real broadcast titans speaking at a show for and about broadcasters?

It probably means that the world is changing, and it could mean that smart content creators and distributors are doing everything in their power to stay ahead of that change. And maybe, just maybe, it means that the broadcasters at NAB could learn a lesson or two from those who are doing so, including the folks at Netflix, Machinima and Revision3.