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NAB Explores Future With “Pilot” Program

Former NAB Labs aims to drive broadcast through strategic research and investments

Recent investments and a name change have put new attention on a four-year-old technology initiative of the National Association of Broadcasters.

NAB Labs was launched in 2012 with a stated mission to “foster innovation and continue to propel broadcast television and radio into the future.” It sought to provide “a platform for innovation, a venue for forging partnerships and testing new technology, and educational events to create awareness about over-the-air radio and television technology initiatives.”

It has made several notable business announcements recently and in January the department changed its name to Pilot.

Part of its mission remains to invest time and resources in burgeoning organizations whose technology will provide directly applicable benefits for radio and TV broadcasting. But Pilot hopes also to pull in new media broadcasters, advertising partners, technology enablers, and measurement and “attribution” companies.

Charter members include Accenture, Akamai, Google, Nielsen, Frankly, Shareablee and Yahoo. Charter membership in Pilot is a form of associate membership in NAB.

To a casual observer, one question might be: “What does all this have to do with TV and radio?” But the NAB has acknowledged that the definition of broadcasting has expanded beyond over-the-air signals, and it sought to take a deeper dive into multiplatform business for its members, including streaming, FM broadcasts via smartphones, virtual reality and the like.

Sam Matheny

John Clark “We want to look at the way that these multiplatform digital platforms are becoming such an important part of our traditional business,” said Sam Matheny, executive vice president and chief technology officer of NAB, by better understanding consumption.

The name, Matheny says, will help reinforce the organization’s efforts and attract more businesses beyond broadcast to the proverbial table. (NAB styles PILOT in all capitals, though it is not an acronym.)

“If you think about it, there are pilot signals in TV that are the first and most tunable part of the signals, and there are pilot tones in radio that indicate that these are the frequencies I need to tune to,” said Matheny. “There are pilot programs in both. There is experimentation in both, and pilot experimentations are done to prove things out.”

When it came to changing the moniker, the organization thought the name should be about navigating a future that includes but is not exclusive to broadcasting or related to lobbying. “A lot of people will think [this organization] is about advocacy. We want to be able to leverage that, but be very intentional about this being a navigation of broadcast’s future. We want to be on that leading edge and helping to define what comes next.”

Former media exec John Clark has been named to lead Pilot as executive director.

“We have unparalleled opportunities to advance how we serve our audiences,” Clark said. “We’ve launched Pilot to explore the answers to these questions with the people directly and indirectly involved.”

Part of the mission of NAB Labs has been to invest in “development and commercialization of new technologies that have the potential to advance broadcasting in the digital age.” Investments over a decade have included Yet Analytics (2016), Antenna (2015) and Syncbak (2007), an NAB investment made before the name NAB Labs existed.

NAB has not made public how much money is involved in each investment.

In 2015 it also announced partnerships with 1776, a hub company that provides resources and networking connections for startups, and the Dingman Center Angels, an investment group that provides resources and networking connections for early-stage companies.

In February of this year, Pilot announced an investment in Haystack TV, a California-based startup that aggregates content for a stream of “tailored” news that can be viewed on mobile devices as well as on connected TVs. Matheny joins Haystack TV as an advisor.

These efforts complement initiatives at NAB such as FASTROAD, a technology advocacy program, and Sprockit, a program at the spring NAB Show that gives startup companies the opportunity to present to media and entertainment executives.

Also, while NAB Labs didn’t directly invest in NextRadio, it underwrote and funded development of the API that engages a smartphone application to talk to and use the FM chip hardware. “That’s been beneficial for all broadcasters, to see FM chips activated on smartphones,” Matheny said.

To support NextRadio, NAB Labs underwrote and funded development of the API that engages a smartphone application to talk to and use the FM chip hardware. That was also the thinking behind the program’s January investment in Yet Analytics, a Baltimore startup that provides technology platforms for the collection and analysis of data within large organizations. The essence of the technology is that it can simplify and leverage so-called big data analytics.

According to Yet Analytics CEO Shelly Blake-Plock, broadcasters will continue to see an increase in the number of data sources and the variety of data types being produced across industries. “It is in this environment that the real-time collection and analysis of performance metrics will provide game-changing insight into the way that businesses function in a fully-immersive digital world,” he said.

Likewise, the organization’s investment in OTT company Syncbak and its live streaming solution was a success, Matheny said. Syncbak is powering real-time streaming for the CBS All Access service as well as providing OTT services for Fox O&O affiliates and Raycom Media. NAB made its initial equity investment in Syncbak in 2007 and participated in some follow-on rounds since.

Matheny said there is no one single methodology behind Pilot’s investment strategy, but the organization is “intentional” in putting itself behind companies with technologies that would be beneficial for broadcast, such as the API technology being used to deliver live and local FM radio via NextRadio.

Pilot is not a venture capital fund or placing big bets on individual companies. But it seeks to work with innovators, Matheny said, and its priorities include content creation and gathering, content distribution and monetization.

While he was mum on any new investments on the horizon, and silent on whether funding for the Pilot program comes from NAB member fees or other sources, he said the organization is considering small-scale investments that will help the broadcast industry see further into the future. “We want to be involved in the process of being engaged in the startup community. … We are actively going out and meeting with and seeing pitches from a whole variety of startup companies that are boundary-spanning.”

For instance, Pilot made an early-stage investment in startup firm Antenna, which built an online engagement platform that enables users to react to and interact with mobile and Web content. Matheny told Radio World last August that Antenna’s overall seed round was $650,000 and that NAB Labs was a minority investor; but he didn’t specify a dollar value of its share.

The platform measures audience sentiment from these reactions, including responses to news and entertainment content, and provides a means for media companies to determine what online content is resonating with audiences.

“It’s a unique and creative platform that allows people visiting mobile sites of content producers to pick which piece of content they want — they don’t have to wade through the whole document or the entire story, but can comment on a particular quote within article, or in a headline or in a paragraph,” Matheny said.

Taking cues from the uptick in audience response time due to social media, the technology from Antenna offers feedback more than just a “like” or a “heart” (on Facebook or Twitter, respectively).

“Media companies want to know what their audiences care about and why,” said Antenna co-founder and CEO Porter Bayne. While they may “love the engagement, they often need help managing the interface and monitoring and interpreting reactions.”

“When looking at measurement for traditional over-the-air or linear listening, more has to happen,” Matheny said, whether the audience is listening via a traditional radio station or via an online app for a TV network. Both radio and TV industries need to get a better sense of how people are listening, how they are sharing their opinions and what that means for overall content consumption.

So how do you use this data to help a station? “We want to help develop solutions that will measure across all platforms to determine how to make content more discoverable, how to better measure engagement and how to ensure that our members’ content is positioned the best way that it can be,” Matheny said.

Exactly what role the charter members like Akamai and Yahoo will play has yet to be seen; but according to the organizers, these members will help Pilot define key areas in which to devote research and development. They become associate members of NAB and thus will participate in NAB technology program development, conventions and networking events.

On Sunday of the NAB Show this spring, Pilot will introduce Digital Futures Exchange, a conference track that will provide educational programming to those with digital leadership responsibility at a station.

“We’re trying to see further into the future,” Matheny said. “As the definition of what it means to be a broadcaster broadens, it is critical to work with traditional and new media partners on innovations to better meet the needs of future generations of consumers.”