Hollywood will embrace its inner geek at Las Vegas expo
Once suspicious of change, entertainment and media executives are prowling for new ways to deliver content.
By Alex Pham and Dawn C. Chmielewski
Los Angeles Times Staff Writers
January 5, 2008
Welcome to Nerdstock, Hollywood-style.
Entertainment and media executives are heading to Las Vegas next week in droves to inspect gadgets, gizmos and other devices at the annual International Consumer Electronics Show. About 12,000 of them -- roughly triple the number of two years ago -- are expected to be among the show's 140,000 attendees, according to organizers.
"If you look at the list of people who attend CES, it's the who's who of our business," said Steve Mosko, president of Sony Pictures Television, which is exhibiting at CES for the first time and plans to announce digital partnerships there with help from Jerry Seinfeld. "Every big media company is going to be there."
Hollywood has long fought technological change, worrying that advancements such as the VCR -- launched at CES in 1970 -- would encourage piracy and kill lucrative businesses.
But TV and movie studios are now embracing technology with newfound fervor to find alternative ways to deliver their products.
The expected profits from these digital deals have become a primary point of contention in the labor dispute with Hollywood writers, who are seeking higher pay when their work is distributed over the Internet. The studios contend that the economics of new media are too uncertain to justify such increases, yet their executives are flocking to CES to seek distribution deals with electronics companies.
While there, many expect to scope out trends, show off their growing technical savvy and ensure that devices being produced are secure against piracy.
"We want to talk to them, and they want to talk to us," said Greg Clayman, head of digital distribution at Viacom Inc.'s MTV Networks. "So, hey, why not do it in Vegas?"
Nowhere will Hollywood's desire to see and be seen be more in evidence than at the planned NBC Universal booth, where the broadcast network will strut like its iconic peacock. Even on an exhibit floor with enough wattage to rival the neon of the Las Vegas Strip, it'll be easy to spot: It's the only one with a peacock feather mobile that's 100 feet tall and suspended 50 feet in the air.
"You can't talk about great tech without great content," said Beth Comstock, NBC Universal's president of integrated media. "That's what led us to this year saying we need to have a presence. We want to be in the middle of all these conversations."
NBC is doing its best to be buzzworthy, with "Nightly News" anchor Brian Williams broadcasting live from the booth on the eve of the New Hampshire primary. The network also plans to showcase its 290 websites at its exhibition booth.
Comstock said she wasn't worried about the potential for incurring the wrath of the striking Writers Guild of America by flaunting NBC's digital assets.
"We're all trying to figure out what that digital landscape is, going forward. It's part of our future," Comstock said. "We have to stake out the best relationships. And hopefully, we'll all work out our differences. But we've got to keep focusing on our future."
This year a host of celebrities are on tap to help Hollywood usher in the future, including Seinfeld, Tony Bennett and Kevin Costner.
Other entertainment types are taking a more low-key approach. CBS Corp., Walt Disney Co. and News Corp., whose executives have delivered keynotes in recent years, said they were going merely to comb the show floor for new ways to distribute their programming.
"There'll be a pretty big contingent of people seeing just what's going on in the device space and seeing how those new device developments will impact what we're doing and create new opportunities for us and our consumers," said Steve Wadsworth, president of the Walt Disney Internet Group.
Though entertainment executives have come to CES for several years, this year the tenor is more urgent.
"Last year everyone talked about 'someday,' as in, 'Someday, when everyone watches video on the Internet . . . ,' " said media analyst James McQuivey of Forrester Research. "That 'someday' language has gone. . . . Change is here. It's upon us."
Consumer attitudes have played a big part in the current love affair between Hollywood and consumer electronics. Many people now buy cellphones and other gadgets based on what music, movies, TV shows and video games those devices will play.
"For a long time, the line between content and hardware has been blurring," said Jonathan Shambroom, senior vice president of product and marketing at Crackle Inc., an online video site acquired by Sony Corp. in 2006. "Traditionally, CES has been about hardware. Now content is really driving a lot of the technology."
That can sometimes put entertainment companies in the driver's seat.
"The devices are only as good as the content they carry," he said. "Every movie and TV show is a little monopoly. Each studio dictates where they want their shows to be available. If I were Disney and I said, 'I want my content on iPods,' I've just made iPods a little more valuable. They can pick which devices have the potential to win and which don't."
One example is the war between HD DVD and Blu-ray, two technologies battling to define the next-generation high-definition DVD. On Friday, Warner Bros. shifted the playing field considerably when it announced that it would release its movies exclusively on Blu-ray discs, a huge boost to manufacturers of Blu-ray players.
One big reason Hollywood shows up at CES is to make sure new devices also carry protections against the sort of piracy that has decimated the music industry.
Russell Frackman, the Los Angeles attorney who represented the Recording Industry Assn. of America in its lawsuit that shut down the Napster file-sharing service, agreed.
"Those are very complex issues that are best off not left to judges," he said, "but should be accommodated by discussion between the people who make the technology and those who make the content."
In what may well be the ultimate imprimatur of Hollywood's approval, CES even hosts its own red-carpet event. It will for a second year be the site of the technology and engineering Emmy Awards.
"In prior years we had 200 people at the ceremony, most of them with pocket protectors and PhDs," said Peter Price, chief executive of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. "Last year, there were 500 people in the room, many of them under the age of 30. Lots were graphic designers or technologists working for the Showtimes and HBOs of the world, not just the Microsofts and Thomsons."