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DBS Threat darkens mood at NCTA

NEW ORLEANS — It’s being whispered in the halls and the bars and over crawfish and jambalaya, and it represents the three letters in the English language that cable operators fear most: DBS.

Yes, if you want to start a debate instantaneously at this 1997 National Cable Television Assn. confab, which kicked off here Sunday afternoon and runs through Wednesday, just start discussing the burgeoning war between the cable and direct broadcast satellite industries and how it stands to impact everyone from the system operator to broadcasters to the cable business itself.

Past NCTA shows generally acknowleged a sort of non-specific, low-level concern about DBS. Yet the feeling overall was that the worry amounted to much ado about very little; that while DBS was picking off cable customers it remained more of a nuisance than a genuine threat. The presumption was that for the foreseeable future its impact would be more or less restricted to high-end subscribers.

Merger changes things

That all changed, however, on the day in February when News Corp. and its ASkyB announced a proposed merger with EchoStar Corp. to form the potentially formidable Sky Television service later this year or early in ’98.

That merger will result in a change of control of the DBS satellite slots that the Federal Communications Commission sold to MCI in a 1995 auction. It will overnight bring the new News Corp./EchoStar venture control of 2/3 of the DBS slots allocated to the United States. Even more important, it gives them the capability to retransmit local broadcast signals to subscriber homes in many, if not most, major television markets, which eliminates perhaps the major stumbling block prohibiting DBS from competing with cable.

If you think the idea of Rupert Murdoch upping the ante — and indeed declaring war on cable — had a chilling effect on the cable business itself, you would be correct.

This cable convention arrives with a palpable undercurrent of tension. Suddenly, there is a feeling that the battle has been joined, and pity the fool who underestimates the strength of the foe.

“Rupert and DBS are pretty much all anyone is talking about,” observes one cable operator. “It’s like everyone is starting to obsess on him. I think everyone dreaded the day when Murdoch joined the war. But none of us figured that day was around the corner. Now that it’s come sooner than we thought, it’s shaken everyone up.”

Keeping a lid on hostility

So chilly have the cable vs. DBS waters grown that when it was suggested that the NCTA show include a panel inviting certain DBS executives to discuss the industry alongside heavyweights from cable, the idea was deep-sixed over fear that such a session would grow too hostile. That wasn’t the case even a year ago.

In the absence of the actual enemy, this show will walk the dicey tightrope between downplaying the DBS threat and acknowledging the need to attack it by painting it as too expensive for consumers and too uncertain in its ability to go local.

But the face-off with DBS is scarcely in evidence on the official NCTA agenda. Much of that program in the main business and general sessions will deal with more routine issues such as programming, the fledgling Internet and cable modem technologies, the achingly slow transition to digital technology, telephony, policy initiatives and regulatory concerns.

Turner headlines panels

Time Warner vice chairman Ted Turner will also be a chief topic this week, as both an honoree and a participant on a number of panels. One of those panels is scheduled for today at 2 p.m. when Turner shares the spotlight with CBS Entertainment prexy Leslie Moonves, FCC chairman Reed Hundt and megaproducer Marcy Carsey in a session being packaged as a TV special exploring the relationship between children and TV. Linda Ellerbee serves as moderator.

Today’s opening general session centers on cable’s role as a leader in the future of telecommunications industry, with the panel featuring NCTA prexy and CEO Decker Anstrom, TCI prexy Leo Hindery, Continental Cablevision CEO Amos B. Hostetter Jr., USA Networks chairman, founder and CEO Kay Koplovitz and Cox Communications prexy and CEO James O. Robbins.

The convention is expected to surpass last year’s attendance record of 30,593 delegates, with the number of exhibitors primed to exceed last year’s record 354. There are 67 new exhibitors compared with 40 last year.

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