Tech show draws Hollywood

The Baltimore Sun

LAS VEGAS -- A big contingent of entertainment and media executives are in Las Vegas this week to inspect gadgets, gizmos and other devices at the annual Consumer Electronics Show. About 12,000 of them - roughly triple the number of two years ago - were expected to be among the show's 140,000 visitors, according to its 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 new digital partnerships there with help from Jerry Seinfeld.

Hollywood has long fought technological change, worrying that advancements such as the VCR - launched at CES in 1970 - would encourage piracy and kill its lucrative businesses.

But TV and movie studios now embrace technology with newfound fervor to find innovative ways of delivering 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 executives expect to scope out trends, show off their growing technical knowledge 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 is Hollywood's desire to see and be seen more in evidence than at the NBC Universal booth.

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."

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."

Other entertainment types are taking a more low-key approach. CBS Corp., the 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.

While entertainment executives have come to CES for several years, this year is different because 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 L. McQuivey of Forrester Research. "That 'someday' language has gone. ... Change is here. It's upon us."

Many people now buy cell phones 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."

One example is the war between HD DVD and Blu-ray, two technologies battling to be 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, which gave 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 J. Frackman, the Los Angeles attorney who represented the Recording Industries Association 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."

Alex Pham and Dawn C. Chmielewski write for the Los Angeles Times.

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