The best and worst of NAB 2015

Samantha Bookman, FierceOnlineVideoThis year's gathering of the National Association of Broadcasters featured unprecedented support for over-the-top video strategies. From that OTT perspective, what were the highs and lows of this annual trade show? Which companies had a realistic grasp of the requirements of next-generation video, and which didn't?

The NAB Show itself had more than 103,000 attendees, surpassing last year's almost 98,000. Nearly 26,500 attendees were from outside the U.S., representing 164 countries. Nearly 1,800 exhibitors stretched across the Las Vegas Convention Center, taking up over a million square feet of exhibit space. The upshot: as in previous years, a whole lot of walking. By day three the Trade Show Hobble was in full evidence, with many attendees shambling along the half-mile traverse between the north and south halls on sore feet.

Still, there was plenty to see and talk about when it came to OTT technologies at NAB. The broadcast industry is actively looking to tie into OTT, and that was evident at the show. Here are a few of the show's highlights:

Biggest news: Imagine Communications stepped out of the gate at NAB with a deal in hand with Disney/ABC Television Group that will see Imagine shift the broadcaster's workflow into a cloud environment. The announcement set the tone for a show in which the old guard is searching for new revenue possibilities, but it was only part of a series of partnerships Imagine announced in tandem with the show--including an end-to-end OTT distribution solution with Verizon Digital Media Services, and a cloud-based delivery integration with HP.

Partnering, as opposed to the acquisition strategy Imagine pursued last year, is part of what Glenn LeBrun, VP of product marketing, calls an "organic/inorganic strategy" to grow rapidly. "When Charlie (Vogt) came in he told us, if you're not going IP, and if you're not big, you're gonna get crushed," he told FierceOnlineVideo in an interview at the show. "What surprises me is how fast we were able to get it done. A year ago Steve Reynolds was talking about all the things we wanted to do, and we're really now starting to deliver them. Part of the reason was we made a very specific decision to go and invest more and kind of bite the bullet on other areas of opex and go and invest in what we need."

Best speaker: Forget Gordon Smith or Tom Wheeler's regulatory-themed missives. Jerry Lewis, who received a Distinguished Service Award from NAB's president-CEO after his own keynote, showed the C-level types how it's done: keep it short, make sure your joke is actually funny, drop the mic like a boss and then bolt.

Newest buzzword: "Big Iron"--to mainframe old-timers, this slang word isn't new, but seeing it used so often in panel conversations about OTT infrastructure, and by marketing and PR folks, with a straight face, is a new thing. Yes, moving a great deal of one's in-house operations to the cloud is one way to break free of "big iron" infrastructure … of course, much of that will be housed in a remote server environment that is the embodiment of "big iron," so … philosophically, it works, I guess. I expect it to shift pretty quickly to the "overused buzzword" category.

Coolest technology: It was hard to pinpoint the most eye-catching tech at this year's trade show. ATEME's booth once again featured its LiveSphere 360-degree video product, part of a collaboration between it, Finwe and Kolor. 3Play Media demonstrated its new Video Clip Captioner, which it says will affordably solve the clip-captioning conundrum faced by broadcasters and OTT providers as an FCC requirement looms. Dynamic ad-insertion solutions were cropping up everywhere, it seemed; Akamai and Adobe Primetime are teaming up to give server-side DAI a try, for example.

Best comeback (startup category): 4SeTV, a device that gives users a "mosaic" view of up to 4 TV channels--from cable, streaming or over-the-air sources--made it through several tough months after its first Kickstarter campaign wasn't a success. Founder Hyung Lim was on hand at a preshow event demonstrating his improved device and touting the success of the company's second Kickstarter campaign, which quickly surpassed its $50,000 goal. The device doesn't seem like much at first glance, but 4SeTV straddles the divide between OTA antennas and multidevice streaming in the home network and does so at a price that's competitive with both TiVo's Roamio OTA DVR and the early-to-market Tablet TV.

Best comeback (enterprise category): Microsoft, which is clearly hoping to ensure its future by becoming a top-tier cloud-services provider with its Azure portfolio. Okay, it's not exactly a comeback by OTT standards, and Azure has been on the market for well over a year, but compared with its lackluster Windows 8 operating system, Azure seems like both a natural fit, and a breath of fresh air, for the technology company.

Most stylish: VideoBlocks, with their shiny pants. The user interface for their online-video stock-footage service was also pretty hip: simple, fast and easy to use.

Of course, no trade show is without its downside, particularly in an industry where the technologies are changing so rapidly. Here are a few:

Smith and Wheeler's rap battle: Where does OTT fit into the pending auction of 600 MHz of broadcast spectrum? When the FCC suggests that TV stations find new ways of getting their signal to viewers so they can sell off more spectrum. Those new ways include over-the-top delivery as well as dropping to low VHF channels or becoming diginets. NAB President Gordon Smith told attendees in his keynote that he was fine with those options but that the FCC needed to let the broadcast industry find its own way. "The FCC must simplify its rules and stay out of the price-determining business, and instead allow the market to determine the price of each 6 MHz channel," he said.

FCC Commissioner Tom Wheeler, in his own keynote, put a hard sell on the spectrum auction, calling it "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to expand your business model on somebody else's dime" and pointing out that the recent AWS-3 auction netted almost $45 billion.

Despite the NAB's warming to next-gen technologies such as OTT, the keynotes still felt like a tug-of-war between old and new industries, with Smith and Wheeler captaining opposite teams. The 600 MHz auction is probably not going to be all sunshine and lollipops for broadcast stations, despite the commissioner's assurances, and Smith's words of caution reflected that.

Most overused buzzwords: A three-way tie between "cloud," "scale," and "end-to-end." It wasn't at all unusual to hear all those words in the same sentence. Being told, "Moving your workflow operations into the cloud will allow you to scale quickly when you need it" is fine, but hopefully companies that are exploring just that type of service are looking behind the buzzwords to make sure a cloud provider really understands their needs.

Stalest exhibit: It's not even a thing yet, but NHK's 8K exhibit has been making the rounds of large trade shows, including NAB and IBC, for the past two-plus years. Granted, it seemed to be the only booth pulling in attendees at the Futures Park pavilion (Harry Glazer's dynamic Sprockit pavilion at the other end of the north hall is a routinely bigger draw), but maybe it's time to change up the displays, or even, dare I say, move it out to the main floor.

This list is far from complete--there were plenty of highs and lows at NAB 2015 that I may have missed, or that didn't stand out as much as the above. Let me know in the comments of any you think deserved a mention.--Sam