The organisers of the annual National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas claimed over 83,000 registered attendees, down on the 105,000 last year, although the actual numbers seemed much lower. The number of international attendees was also down to 23,000 from 28,000. At least there was little need to wait in line or push through the crowds.Those that were there were doing business.

Many exhibitors commented that there were fewer people in the halls but that the conversations were more commercial. Some of the stands were smaller and there were some empty spaces between them on the show floor. One way or another, some companies may not be coming back next year, at least in their current form.

Those that were there reported strong business, despite the economic downturn. The consensus seemed to be that anyone serious about staying in business needs to be responsive to the changing media environment. Indeed, the imperative to invest in more economic production processes is probably stronger than ever.

Many functions that once required dedicated rack units can now be performed by ever more powerful and cost-effective software on commodity hardware, linked by data networks. The distinction between domestic and professional equipment is slowly diminishing in the digital domain.

David Rehr, the president and chief executive of NAB delivered the annual state of the industry opening conference keynote, addressing a smaller audience than in previous years. He spoke of exciting changes in radio and television that seem to happen in the blink of an eye.

While referring to an unprecedented consumer education campaign to promote digital television transition, he managed to gloss over the delayed deadline for the final switch off of analogue transmissions, now embarrassingly postponed until June.

Instead, the conference was looking ahead to mobile television as a way of using the spectrum available to broadcasters, with NAB backing the Open Mobile Video Coalition in support of a new ATSC standard for Mobile DTV.

NAB expects that by 2012 there will be 130 million mobile phones and 25 million media players able to receive services. These are due to be available in 27 markets, covering over a third of the United States population, by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, many broadcasters are still catching up with the implications of online delivery, particularly with respect to their advertising revenues.

The sense that the tide may be turning against broadcast television, relegating it to a role more like that of radio, did not seem apparent to most of the old school executives, who have no doubt seen many changes in their industry over the years.

Reflecting on the “dramatic increase in online content being produced by broadcasters,” the NAB leader spoke without irony of using the unmatched brands of broadcasters to “drive consumers online”.

“We must maintain a realistic optimism,” he said. “We may feel beaten down by the economy or influenced by some intent on negatively portraying radio and television,” he said, but added that few industries “are as well-positioned to success as we are”.

Citing President Roosevelt, he said “We will not sit idle in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat. We will dare to do mighty things and we, America’s radio and television broadcasters, will triumph.”

Despite the rousing rhetoric, at the NAB Show this year it was difficult to avoid the profound changes affecting broadcast media.

While recognising its past with a tribute to the admirable Mary Tyler Moore, the future or radio and television seemed less certain.

One trend that could transform television viewing is stereoscopic 3D, which appears closer than ever.

Gerry O’Sullivan, director of strategic product development at British satellite broadcaster BSkyB, provided a compelling demonstration of some test programmes and urged the industry to get started and manufacturers to make compatible displays.

He suggested that there was no need to wait for standards, as conventional high definition signal paths could be used, although it seems there are still many different ways of conveying the stereoscopic images.

What was clear is that there is much to learn about producing successful 3DTV, although the most successful examples were stunning.

If television is to remain relevant in the online era, it may be through natural evolution to broadcasting to mobile devices and relaying events in ever higher resolution and realism.