ANAHEIM – Those who predicted it would be a rainy day in Orange County before Ted Turner missed an opening session panel at a Western Cable Show were proved right Wednesday morning when the Time Warner vice chairman was absent from the quartet of speakers who officially kicked off the 1996 show.
Instead, the colorful and uniquely eloquent Turner will show up this morning along with embattled Tele-Communications Inc. prexy and CEO John C. Malone on a panel discussing information technology. Some have been referring to it as the real opening session.
On Wednesday, as the rain fell outside, mayor-bashing reigned inside. The favorite whipping boy during the kickoff panel was New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, chided for his involvement in the attempt to undercut Time Warner Cable’s New York system and force it to carry the fledgling Fox News Channel.
In fact, Peter Barton, prexy and CEO for Liberty Media Corp., quoted one pundit as saying Giuliani is so clueless he “thought ‘Moby Dick’ was a venereal disease. I don’t know what he thinks he’s doing trying to determine programming.”
Chimed in Terry McGuirk, chairman, prexy and CEO for Turner Broadcasting: “We were required to put on only one additional news channel in New York, and the chips fell where they did.”
“I think Time Warner made an absolutely brilliant decision,” said NBC Cable prexy Tom Rogers, whose MSNBC is safely ensconced on Time Warner N.Y.
“As Yogi Berra said, it ain’t over ’til it’s over,” cautioned Bloomberg L.P prexy and CEO Michael Bloomberg, whose Bloomberg Business News channel has sided with the Rupert Murdoch/Giuliani forces in the Battle of New York.
But Giuliani and Fox-Time Warner bad blood aside, the opening session (moderated by Paul Kagan, prexy of Paul Kagan Associates) likewise addressed issues of channel capacity, new Internet technology, market exclusivity and the looming threat posed by DBS satellite and telco competition.
While McGuirk trumpeted the relative health of the cable business, he expressed concern that the shortfall of DBS satellite dish sales projections at year’s end “is a concern to all of us. The wall we’re hitting may just be a small blip, but we’d be foolish now to put too many eggs into that basket.”
“DBS will never be as big as cable,” Barton predicted. “Nothing will come close to matching cable as the principal provider of programming.”
Rogers disagreed somewhat, acknowledging the slowdown for the small-dish satellite industry, but at the same time maintaining that DBS is no drop in the cable bucket, but now “a significant revenue source.”
“The thing is, no one can be sure if this is the end of the DBS phenomenon or just a natural slowing. But it doesn’t necessarily surprise me that dishes haven’t been selling during the holiday season. I think people probably look at it more as a service than as a gift item.”
There was less disagreement among the panelists about the future of telco providers and wireless cable. The recent radical downscaling of the Tele-TV venture seemed to cement the perception that the business was doomed for stillbirth, with McGuirk charging that Tele-TV’s plan “was full of holes and never made sense.” Barton and Rogers essentially agreed, with Barton foreseeing “no palpable phone company challenge to cable” down the road.
Bloomberg however, still sees telephone cable ventures as “the biggest threat” to wired cable’s well-being.
“If the phone company technology works, it’s inherently a better idea than what cable has,” Bloomberg said.
Barton spoke passionately about the need on the part of the cable industry to place a greater priority on market exclusivity in order to interest operators in new and existing services, with McGuirk concurring that particularly new networks will need to be looked at on an exclusive basis in order to foster interest.
The panelists also addressed the increasing practice of new networks offering upfront, per-subscriber pay incentives to operators for carriage. Predictably, all four agreed that the kind of “bounties” being paid in exchange for pickup can’t possibly continue, though Barton emphasized that new networks could continue paying for duration deals and better channel positions, rather than carriage.