iTV, VOD among topics of discussion

WASHINGTON — While a hot topic of cocktail conversation may very well be the success of HBO’s “The Sopranos,” most of the 30,000-odd delegates to this week’s cable confab in Chicago will be preoccupied with other ways of making money. Think telephone service, digital set-top boxes and high-speed Internet access. Think interactive and video-on-demand.

Don’t be fooled — it’s in these ancillary and advanced revenue streams where fortunes are to be made, says National Cable & Telecommunications Assn. (NCTA) prexy-CEO Robert Sachs.

“I think that we really will have a lot of discussion about how companies are doing with the rollout of these new services,” he says.

NCTA is host of the three-day event (June 10-13), which will feature a number of policy sessions led by industry toppers and federal regulators. Down on the exhibit floor, programmers and tech companies will rap with cable operators.

Last go-around, the cable show turned into ground zero for the fued between Time Warner and the Walt Disney Co. over retransmission contracts.

Just days before the NCTA confab, Time Warner yanked Disney-owned ABC from its cable systems in major markets. The blackout, although temporary, was all the buzz at the cable convention.

Sachs is clear: That was then, and this is now. The fireworks are over.

Thanks to a strange twist of fate, NCTA lucked out when it came to this year’s lineup of Washington pols.

Several months ago, Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) accepted NCTA’s invite to speak at a public policy luncheon on June 10. At the time, the GOP was in control of the Senate, with Daschle serving as minority leader.

That all changed on June 6, when Vermont Sen. James Jeffords left the Republican party to become an independent. Dems took charge of the Senate, with Daschle bumped up to majority leader.

As of June 8, Daschle’s office said the pol still planned on being at NCTA.

The trade org secured another political goodie in getting House Speaker Rep. J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) to cut the confab’s red ribbon on the morning of June 10.

“Having both the Senate majority leader the House speaker at NCTA is a high-water mark in the convention’s 50-year history,” Sachs says.

Daschle, like other pols, has spent time urging cablers to bring advanced services –such as high-speed Internet access — to rural areas, such as Daschle’s home state of South Dakota.

In turn, cablers gain leverage on influential Capitol Hill.

Federal Communication Commission topper Michael Powell delivers a keynote speech at NCTA on June 11, and will likely wax poetic about the importance of trusting the marketplace to solve prickly business issues in the great age of media consolidation.

Charter Communications topper Jerry Kent, who’s serving as the confab chair, says the gathering will be a critical juncture in cable’s future.

To keep a competitive edge over satellites and broadcast, cablers must develop other avenues of revenues, such as phone service and high-speed Internet access, Kent says.

“NCTA attendees will get a first-hand look at the latest advances in digital technology — products and services that are changing the way people work, communicate and spend their leisure time,” Kent says.

AOL Time Warner topper Gerald Levin closes out the confab on June 13, during a one-on-one interview with CNN’s Larry King. AOL TW is CNN’s parent.

Earlier in the week, Levin is slated to receive the cable industry’s highest honor, the Vanguard Award.

The long list of confab speakers also includes new FCC commissioner Kathleen Abernathy; AT&T prexy-CEO C. Michael Armstrong; Fox SportsNet prexy Tracy Dolgin; Viacom prexy-chief operating officer Mel Karmazin; National Geographic Channel prexy Laureen Ong; and Comcast prexy Brian Roberts.

NCTA has been fairly upfront about the fact that attendance will be down from last year’s figure of about 30,000. (Likewise, attendance was down when the National Assn. of Broadcasters met for its annual convention in late April.)

Both trade orgs attribute the slump to the weakening economy.

According to the NCTA, the number of exhibs will dip by 15%. The majority of no-shows are tech companies, including Nortel Networks and Cisco Systems.

Nearly every major programmer is still listed as an exhibitor. In recent days, Starz Encore announced that while it won’t buy an exhibit booth, it will have a major presence, sponsoring several events and hosting a hospitality suite.

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