By Leah Hochbaum Rosner

The 53rd annual Promax/BDA conference, which ended June 19 at the Hilton New York Hotel, came to a close reporting yet another year of increased attendance from a total of 48 different countries. But the halls still seemed somewhat empty. And the roughly 70 sessions (which also seemed less than full) ranged from the relevant — World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) chairman and CEO Vince McMahon receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award — to the mostly unrelated — the Reverend Jesse Jackson extolling the virtues of U.S. presidential hopeful Barack Obama. Promax/BDA, which purports to be about advancing the role of entertainment and information content marketing, promotion and design professionals, definitely needs to refocus its energies and get back to basics. At least in the view of some observers.

“As an industry, I think we’re at the crossroads of the most challenging, but also the most exciting time in the history of entertainment,” said Jonathan Block-Verk, Promax/BDA president, during his opening address, which began nearly 40 minutes late. “It’s not about television — it’s about entertainment and information content marketing, promotion and design.”

The three-day event, featured a wide range of keynotes, sessions and speakers, including such relevant-to-TV seminars as: “That Was Then, This is Now: The Animal Planet 2008 Relaunch,” “Case Study: Wrestlemania—24 Years of Excitement” and “Maximizing The Mothership: Getting the Most From Your Network, Station Group and Syndication Partner” and such seemingly irrelevant sessions as the aforementioned Q&A with the Reverend Jesse Jackson; an Innovation Keynote with Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the One Laptop Per Child Association, an organization that oversees the creation of affordable laptops for kids in the third world; and “Can’t Live Without My Radio!”

At the awards ceremony, where WWE’s McMahon received his Lifetime Achievement prize from Promax/BDA, the ever-humble wrestling bigwig said: “I really appreciate this extraordinary award. And you’ll probably never hear anyone else say this, but I really deserve it.”

One of the issues weighing on many attendees’ minds was the imminent February 2009 U.S. switchover to DTV. A related concern was the loss of TV households that receive TV signals over roof antennas.

During one of the few interesting presentations, “Deciphering Digital Transition,” Barry Goodstadt, senior vice president of Los Angeles-based Centris, a media market research firm, presented new findings on the decline of over-the-air (OTA) households. “An analysis of Centris data collected since early 2004 shows that the number of OTA households has declined from nearly 24 million to about 17 million in first quarter 2008, a loss of seven million OTA households,” said Goodstadt. “We estimate that with consumer choice information and the evidence of potential reception problems factored in, this number could drop to between 4-5 million once the transition has ended. This substantial reduction in the number of OTA households has serious implications for broadcasters and the TV industry.”

In other words, the transition to digital television may result in viewers’ reevaluation of how they receive their local television. And up to 13 million households might decide to get rid of off-air reception in favor of cable or satellite. If and when this happens, towers and transmitters that are currently aimed at a diminishing number of OTA viewers will be devalued, resulting in lower stock prices. Also, government regulators might have to change their views in respect to broadcast spectrum that will be used to reach only a handful of people.

Some of the most popular sessions were also the “30 Minutes With…” dialogues, which included conversations with such luminaries as Adam Stotksky, svp, Marketing and Brand Strategy, NBC Universal Sci Fi; Jakob Trollback, founder and creative director of Trollback + Company; Douglas Scott, senior partner/president of Ogilvy Entertainment; Lee Hunt, president of Lee Hunt LLC; and Dave Martin, director, Interactive Media, Ignited. These meetings gave people the opportunity to directly interact with their design and promotions mentors.

Last year’s Promax/BDA featured the keynote address by former U.S. president Bill Clinton. This year’s featured a reverend discussing the probability of Americans voting an African American into the White House. Here’s hoping that next year, conference organizers recognize that attendees were there to discuss promotions (especially TV)… not politics.