The NAB Gets Real
May 2008

by Dirck Halstead

With some 111,000 attendees, the annual convention of the National Association of Broadcasters is the second largest convention to be held in Las Vegas each year, behind the Consumer Electronics Show.

Normally the convention is a love fest as broadcasters trumpet the newest advances in an industry that is transforming itself in the age of new media and technologies. The future this year looks especially promising, with the gift from the federal government of mandating that all televisions must move from the old analog standard to digital early next year, meaning that millions of viewers will all have to buy new televisions or converter boxes.

However, the keynote address delivered by actor/activist Tim Robbins was anything but pablum. He arrived on stage looking bemused. He announced that he would not be giving his scheduled speech, because he had been asked not too. Instead, he was to submit to an onstage "conversation" with an NAB-appointed moderator. No sooner had he been seated, when voices in the crowd began to chant "speech … speech … SPEECH!"

Robbins then said, "OK, if you want the speech, I'll give it to you!"

He then proceeded to rip apart the broadcasters in a 30-minute speech. "We are at an abyss as a country and as an industry," he said. He spoke of pervasive cynicism in the country and added, "And you, the broadcasters of this great nation, have a tremendous power, and a tremendous potential to effect change. You have the power to turn this country away from cynicism…. Or you can hide behind the old adage, 'I'm just a businessman; I provide what the audience wants.' "

He denounced television's "pornographic obsession with celebrity culture" and warned that meaningful civil discourse is being threatened by it.

As he concluded a majority of the audience gave him a three-minute standing ovation.

Read the full text of Robbins' speech.

Then, producer Barry Sonnenfeld took up the same theme in an address to the Radio and Television News Directors: "We are probably looking at the last generation of Americans that exist in a democracy. Totalitarianism is not far in our future, and the next generation will go down that road happily. My only hope is that the Bush administration has screwed things up so profoundly, socially, economically, and environmentally, that perhaps our kids will face such hard times that they will be angered by how much our generation has selfishly destroyed their future, and will put down their computers and become socially aware human beings.

"The Facebook generation has no concept of the right of privacy, and in fact will not understand the need for it," he said. "They'll have no problem with additional government supervision, spying and intervention."

Futurist Alvin Toffler, with his wife Heidi, continued his lifelong focus on technology, culture, and economics during a general session. Continuing the theme of a society adrift in a blizzard of change, Toffler observed, "With knowledge and change coming faster and faster, more and more knowledge becomes obsolete, leaving us with excess stores of 'obsoledge.' We're drowning in obsolete information," he said. "Even worse, corporations and governments make major decisions based on it."

Rarely have the attendees at the NAB convention been bombarded with such provocative viewpoints, which in many cases challenge their rosy view of what is actually going on out there in the real world.

It will be interesting to see if some of that awareness shows up on those new digital High Definition plasma TV screens.

© Dirck Halstead
Editor and Publisher of The Digital Journalist

Dirck Halstead was Time magazine's Senior White House Photographer for 29 years. He now is the Publisher and Editor of The Digital Journalist, the monthly online magazine for visual journalism, and a Senior Fellow at the Center For American History at the University of Texas in Austin. His new book, MOMENTS IN TIME, published by Harry N. Abrams, is in bookstores, and available from