The Future of Media

Tune in for a roundup of the National Association of Broadcasters conference and predictions for new media.
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LAS VEGAS -- When I want to get a feel for the future of media -- the real future, not the overhyped, venture-capital-backed dreamland that clutters much of the consumer tech world -- I like to hit the National Association of Broadcasters show that finished up here last week.

The NAB show is nominally a trade-only event for the broadcast TV and radio industry.

Programmers such as

News Corp's

(NWS) - Get Report

FoxSports come here to inspect, say, the spankin' new video production trucks they've just leased. Big-iron television and radio equipment vendors such as

Sony

(SNE) - Get Report

, Toshiba, Chyron, SES Americom, Snell & Wilcox and more come here to schmooze their programmer clients. Industry heavyweights walk the halls. I hung out with everybody from the owner of the New England Patriots to the head of engineering for WOR radio in New York City.

And since today's media business has spread to cable, satellite and even consumers -- we all can make hits on YouTube -- the NAB now covers the entire media world:

Apple

(AAPL) - Get Report

was here with a big demonstration of its new desktop production tools. Media start-ups such as

Maximum Throughput and

Whiteblox were here at the show. Even

Google

(GOOG) - Get Report

sent CEO Eric Schmidt for a keynote chat.

Though it's mostly trade-only here at the NAB, if you squint a bit -- you know, use your imagination -- you can see the future of media in these halls. The deals that get done here at this year's NAB will be tomorrow's programming, content and production techniques.

Here then, are my picks of the "Best of Yet to Come" in broadcasting and media.

1. Apple will polish low-budget content.

Don't let Apple's tiny market share in the desktop computer world fool you. Here in desktop production land, Apple is the eight-million pound gorilla. Apple's media production software tool Final Cut Pro is the absolute standard in low-budget production. The tool is used by literally tens of thousands of devotees. The company's industry event here was a cheering, SRO affair with an audience of at least two thousand.

And there was news. Apple released a new riff on its production software called Final Cut Studio, targeted at the emerging high-definition desktop production landscape.

The new version creates fabulous-looking content and comes chock full of first-rate Hollywood effects, including smart image compositing, automated music editing, advanced sound effects and more. Effectively, Apple is offering a full-fledged HD production studio for $1,299 -- or about one-hundredth the cost of what FoxSports pays for one it is new HD sports trucks.

I'm not saying that Final Cut Studio does anywhere near the same things a full-fledged production truck would. Not even close, as a matter of fact. But for the money, Final Cut is dang close to what the high-end production world uses. And since Final Cut Express comes standard on most Macs, it's virtually free. Consumers will have simply marvelous tools to make content, so we can expect the line between low-budget and high-budget production to blur.

Get ready. Pretty soon that professional-looking short clip you're watching on YouTube won't come from anywhere near a traditional film studio. You will make it.

2. Local broadcast TV will come to the cell phone.

TV on a cell phone is not news. If watching short, jittery clips of SportsCenter on a tiny screen is your thing, VCast, MobiTV, or any one of a number of other services from

Verizon

,

AT&T

and/or AmpD Mobile can help you out.

What is new is that your local TV -- the exact feed your local broadcaster emits -- will be coming to cell phones sometime next year.

Harris

(HRS)

and

Samsung

both showed working prototypes of local broadcast to cell phones. The technology uses the new digital TV spectrum to send an exact duplicate of the local broadcast to cell phones and portable devices in the area. I got a nice demo of both standards while I was stuffed into a souped-up minibus that sped around the streets of Las Vegas. And I was impressed. Quality was good, and the technology seemed to not hammer the fragile battery lives on most phones.

Expect some neat new riffs on traditional broadcast TV with the service: Real-time traffic information for exactly where you want to go is probably my favorite.

3. HD Radio will get real.

While satellite radio gets all the news these days -- the

XM

/

Sirius

nuptials are in the "will they/won't they" stage -- high-definition radio is the bigger story by far.

Now more than 1,200 terrestrial radio stations broadcast in HD radio and about three times that amount are expected to go HD over the next several years. Prices of HD radios are beginning to drop: Radiosophy, for example, has a

unit for $100. And new services are being tested by broadcasters.

Why is HD radio so cool? First off, ignore the radio industry's complete misbranding of the technology. Yes, HD radio can be high definition. It can provide excellent sound quality. But what is far more important is that HD radio is

digital

radio.

Just like cell-phone networks that made the transition from analog to digital in decades past, new digital broadcast networks will provide a full range of new services. Conditional access will allow for highly targeted radio feeds to groups as little as a few hundred. Forget KROK. You'll get YourROK.

Your radio will learn what you like to listen to and feed you that content. There will be content tied to positional information such as GPS systems and in-car navigation. There will be graphics, links to Web content and probably most important of all, coupons. Discounts will be fed on the fly to listeners as they approach, say, a McDonalds.

Factor in that radio penetration is 100%. There are easily 1 billion radios in U.S., and billions more worldwide. Everybody has a radio. Imagine what happens when they all go digital -- which is only a matter of time -- think of the reach of even the most basic discount coupon promotion.

Drive by this McDonalds. Get a $1 off a Big Mac if you are within a 10-block radius. Can anybody say that is not marketing gold?

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Jonathan Blum is an independent technology writer and analyst living in Westchester, N.Y. He has written for The Associated Press and Popular Science and appeared on FoxNews and The WB.