Cablers sing happy tunes

WASHINGTON — To many, Viacom topper Mel Karmazin is Mr. Broadcaster. Radio is his roots, CBS his game.

So it didn’t go unnoticed last week when Karmazin headlined the cable industry’s annual confab in Chicago. He may have been wearing Eye cufflinks, but otherwise, he was happy to take his place among the cable-cozy crowd.

One longtime industryite says Karmazin’s appearance in the Windy City was symbolic of cable’s promising outlook at the same time that the broadcasting industry is up against the fraught digital transition and near-civil war between the Big Four and their affils.

It’s easy for Karmazin to switch hats, since he’s prexy of Viacom, which made a fortune off its MTV cable net before gobbling up CBS. Indeed, part of the reason cablers are feeling top of the morning is media consolidation.

Without a doubt, the spirit and tenor of the three-day cable convention was more upbeat than at the broadcasting industry’s annual confab in late April.

While broadcast ad buys are decidedly down, , cable ad revenues are up (even if slightly). Cable audiences are growing. Original cable programming — think HBO’s “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City” — is all the rage.

And, as the National Cable & Telecommunications Assn. (NCTA) loved to point out throughout its confab June 10-13, cable is well-positioned to lead the broadband revolution, bringing high-speed Internet access to American homes.

Much of the discussion focused on new cable services, whether the Internet, local telephony, interactive TV or video-on-demand — all through that one little ol’ cable line.

New revenue streams are hardly rushing waters yet, no matter how good the talk. VOD has not yet found a workable business model. Same for interactive TV.

Nevertheless, some cable execs couldn’t help but lord it over broadcasters.

“To be sure, the future is behind them,” AOL Time Warner Gerald Levin said in a one-on-one interview with CNN’s Larry King during the confab’s closing session June 13.

Levin went so far as to say he has no interest whatsoever in buying a broadcast net.

In recent months, there’s been some speculation that AOL TW might make a bid for NBC. Talk was heightened when the Federal Communications Commission said it was now OK for a net and weblet –such as AOL TW’s WB — to be owned by the same company.

Levin said his conglom wouldn’t rule out some sort of joint venture between CNN and a net news division, but was clear that CNN would be the dominant partner.

FCC chair Michael Powell also contributed to the good mood in Chicago when delivering perhaps the most direct and complimentary speech of his four-month tenure.

(The regulatory topper also wowed the crowds with a spontaneous somersault, in honor of acrobats who were his opening act.)

Ever a fairy-tale fan, Powell said the cable biz is the frog that turned into a prince.

“The cable business has the most positive regulatory environment in decades,” Powell said. “But will it last? Sadly, it has grabbed defeat from the jaws of victory before. It depends how you (cablers) deal with natural anxiety and consumer satisfaction.”

In other words, don’t gloat too much, cablers, or wrongly assume the FCC is going to let consolidation overwhelm diversity on the airwaves.

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