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Sony CEO calls for digital embrace

Sony chief executive Howard Stringer opens the National Association of Broadcasters conference by stressing that broadcasters need to accept new technology to survive.

LAS VEGAS--Sony Corporation of America chief executive Howard Stringer opened the National Association of Broadcasters conference here with a joke, but it was only half funny: "Remember when you could read the trades and actually understand what they were writing about?"

Though the lighthearted opening to his keynote address before a few hundred attendees drew laughter, his point--that digital media and new technologies are rapidly changing the face of broadcasting and communications--is on the minds of the roughly 100,000 industry members at this year's conference.

Stringer followed his point with a call to arms, warning that broadcasters had better "stop crying into your Chardonnay about lost share" and get moving into developing partnerships, standards, and content for high-definition television and other emerging technologies.

Stringer's sentiments come during a challenging time in the media business. As audiences expand, broadcasters worry about shrinking share as viewers increasingly are faced with more choices to occupy their spare time.

Stringer also stressed the need for TV networks to forge relationships with Net firms such as portals. He added that content companies, broadcasters, and technology companies must team up to ensure copyright protection in the digital age to prevent consumers' homes from becoming "a potential pirate's cove." Stringer also called for cooperation among electronics companies when he spoke here in January at the Consumer Electronics Show.

Copyright protection is a unique challenge for Sony, because its businesses stretch across electronics and content. For example, the company, which created the groundbreaking Walkman portable music player, faces competition from the likes of Diamond Multimedia and others that are creating portable MP3 players.

At the same time, Sony has its own record label, and along with other major companies it is fearful of MP3's popularity among music pirates. For its part, Sony has been heavily involved in working on a secure standard for music delivery online; most recently it said it is teaming up with IBM to make its copyright protection technology compatible with IBM's Electronic Music Management System.

Deals such as Disney's investment in Infoseek and USA Network's proposed buyout of Lycos underscore that convergence is well underway. Sony itself is hard at work strategizing on how to leverage its abundant offerings across content, technology, and delivery channels.

Stringer warned that not being aggressive about creating programming for digital platforms and not actively seeking partnerships is what will bring about "obsolescence and irrelevance" in the digital age. Of course, since Sony is also in the electronics business, it is to the company's advantage for broadcasters to embrace the technology.

"I know you're not satisfied with the sales of digital television sets--neither are we," he said. "But we need to get beyond the chicken-and-egg dilemma and move the industry forward." If they don't, he added, "Bill Gates, Steve Case, and a couple of 20-year-old nerds we've never heard of would be happy to talk down to you and replace you."

Stringer touched on what he called the "digital home network," a market Sony is trying to tap with its i.Link technology. This technology is a high-speed connection port that allows computers to hook into stereos, game players, cameras, and other entertainment devices.

News.com's Jim Davis contributed to this report.