NCTA’s high-tech rollback

Firms trim or ax presence at cabler confab

WASHINGTON — Jittery over the economy, several tech giants have canceled plans to peddle their wares at the cable industry’s premier confab in Chicago next month.

Cisco Systems and Nortel Networks are among those who recently informed the National Cable & Telecommunications Assn. (NCTA) that they will not attend the annual meeting after all. Some congloms, such as Lucent Technologies, have opted to cut back on exhibit space rather than bail altogether.

NCTA prexy-CEO Robert Sachs told reporters Tuesday that he’s not worried about the last-minute withdrawals, which have come from the tech side and not from programming.

“This drop is directly attributable to what’s happening in the economy, especially in the technology sector,” Sachs said.

The timing of the cancellations is no surprise, since tech companies are having to reckon with first-quarter earnings, Sachs said.

As a result, overall attendance at the annual meeting will be down by about 15% from last year, when there were nearly 33,000 confabbers, Sachs said.

The four-day meeting runs June 10-13 at Chicago’s McCormick Place Convention Center.

In Las Vegas last week, the National Assn. of Broadcasters faced a similar phenomenon at its annual confab. Foot traffic was noticeably slower than expected, with NAB officials citing the lagging economy.

Sachs reiterated that on the programming side, business will be as brisk as usual at the NCTA gathering.

Washington politicos and high-profile execs scheduled to speak at the confab include new FCC chair Michael Powell, Viacom honcho Mel Karmazin and AT&T head Mike Armstrong.

Charter Communications prexy and confab chair Jerry Kent said issues sure to be hot topics in Chicago include cable’s foray into providing Internet access and telephone service.

More traditional concerns also will be at the forefront, such as the cost of programming.

During the NCTA press briefing, Kent said he has one idea for solving the high cost of sports programming: The government could mandate that ESPN and other channels be offered as a separate package, allowing cablers more flexibility.

As it is, nonsports viewers end up subsidizing the cost of sports programming, as cablers must offer those channels as part of their basic service, Kent said.