Content, celebrity vie with circuitry at CES

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Jerry Seinfeld, Tony Bennett, Drew Carey, Vanna White and Alex Trebek will share a stage tonight in Las Vegas, a lineup most would kill to see. But they won't be appearing at any of Sin City's glitzy theaters: This show will be in the Sony booth at the 2008 Consumer Electronics Show as part of a presentation to 250 of the high-level executives with whom Sony Pictures Television does business.

And with that, CES enters a new era -- SPT will be the first major Hollywood studio to showcase its content at the annual event, turning what had once been a venue strictly for black boxes (and which still does feature the latest gadgets) into one that emphasizes content as much as circuitry.

"All the people we license content to or have programming deals with are attending this convention," says SPT president Steve Mosko. "It gives us a platform for talking about our content."

As content thrives on a diverse number of platforms -- from mobile phones and iPods to gaming devices and the Internet -- it now makes sense for Hollywood to not only attend but participate in CES.

"In 2008, content is really a central theme of the show," says CES vp communications and member relations Jason Oxman, who says a CES poll revealed that 12,000 of the 140,000 attendees identified themselves as being in content and entertainment areas. "It started in 2007, when we had the Tech Emmys on-site for the first time, and we launched a 'Content@CES' destination area at the show."

CES makes sense for Sony, which also manufactures electronics; chairman Howard Stringer has pushed for "Sony United." But Mosko insists that the move to CES came out of a conversation with the electronics group about how to participate. "It came from within the ranks," he says. "It happened organically when it made sense."

That kind of organic evolution has been happening elsewhere in the film and TV community. For Dan Glickman, chairman and CEO of the MPAA, 2008 will be his third CES. "One of my goals is to do my best to bridge the two industries," he says. "You have to put content on those boxes or they're just pieces of furniture. We're both dependent on each other."

"Being at CES is a perfect opportunity to demonstrate our industry's commitment to reach the consumers the way they want," Glickman adds. "At times, our industry has been criticized for resistance to new technology, but we are extremely responsive, and me being there represents that."

Hollywood has had a presence at CES in the past couple of years; News Corp. president and COO Peter Chernin was a keynoter at the 2006 CES Leaders in Technology dinner, and Disney president and CEO Robert Iger gave his company's first CES keynote address in 2007. But in 2008 everyone will be at the party. "It's the place you have to be if you're a media person," says Beth Comstock, president of NBC Universal Integrated Media. She reports that NBC Universal president and CEO Jeff Zucker is planning to bring his entire leadership team to CES for the first time this year.

Calling herself a "newbie" to CES, Comstock says she met a lot more content people at 2007's CES than she expected: "Folks from all different related industries are there."

Underscoring the importance of CES, NBC Universal became the show's official broadcast partner this year and will broadcast select programming (such as the "Today" show) live from the show floor while integrating coverage on its Web properties. "We believe that content is a critical part of the consumer electronics equation," Comstock says. "That's where you see all the new technology and real business get done because everyone in the ancillary business is there."

CES' Oxman points out that the content and consumer electronics industries have always had a symbiotic relationship. "Consumers simply cannot either watch or listen to the content of their choosing without a CE device," he says. "On the flip side, the demand for CE devices is created by the availability of robust content. So the relationship between the two industries has always been somewhat interdependent."

Notes Oxman, CES has a history of being the venue for unveiling advances in how content is consumed, from the VCR and DVD player to IPTV. "If you're a content company and want to see the next cool device in the pipeline, you'll want to come to CES."

Those events have made a lot of Hollywood executives realize that CES is a core event, says Oxman, who reports that the average U.S. home has 25 consumer electronics devices. "A lot of content companies see that CES is where their future business plans will be molded, where they'll see new technological innovations that will be in every home," he says. "That creates a remarkable opportunity for producers of content to understand how people use the devices and, in some cases, influence manufacturers as to how they make them."

New technology is a big draw, and organizers have created "TechZones" for an array of emerging media, including HD DVD formats, TechHome and Mobile Internet & WiMax. (A complete list of exhibitors and TechZones can be found at cesweb.org). CES Partner Programs, which are hands-on conferences organized by partners, include Digital Hollywood, CES Mobile Entertainment and CES Game Power.

"If I had to point to any development this year, I think it was the decision by a large number of traditional content companies to really embrace the business opportunities provided by digital media," Oxman adds. "They've been developing their digital business plans, and now we're starting to see those come to fruition, with NBC Universal and Fox's hulu.com, for example."

Although no highly placed Hollywood executive is delivering a keynote at this CES, industry leaders who go to the show can listen to the latest from Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang, and Comcast chairman and CEO Brian Roberts.

"To sum it up," says Comstock, "we're a content company and, increasingly, a digital content company, and that's why we're here. We want to participate in as many ways as possible."
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