Meat for NCTA meet

Cable confab hits right after FCC flips rules

Thousands of cable TV insiders will gather today in Chicago as the National Cable TV Assn.’s annual show opens in earnest. The timing couldn’t be better for media watchers, coming just a week after FCC decisions turned the media environment upside down.

Today’s breakfast session will feature a panel that includes the world’s richest man, the head of the nation’s biggest cable system operator and the toppers of two of the world’s biggest media companies. For those without a program, that’s Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Comcast’s Brian Roberts, Viacom’s Mel Karmazin and AOL Time Warner’s Richard Parsons, respectively. TV business journalist Lou Dobbs will moderate.

Sparks aplenty

The star appeal of those four mega-execs on one dais will be an irresistible lure for many. But there could be even more fireworks over the next two days over federal regulatory changes in media ownership rules.

The convention arrives a week after the Federal Communications Commission relaxed or eliminated key media ownership rules, immediately bringing congressional condemnation. With so many media titans, industry bigwigs and federal regulators in one place, Chicago is sure to be buzzing about the controversial “Powell rules.”

FCC topper Michael Powell, who set the agency on the path to deregulation, will address the convention Tuesday morning, using the bully pulpit to defend his approach. FCC commissioners Jonathan Adelstein and Kevin Martin will take part in a separate Tuesday lunch panel.

Welcoming change

Powell will have some friends in Chicago, ensuring a friendlier reception than he received last week in a grueling hearing before skeptical senators. Backers of his changes include Karmazin and Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), the House telecom subcommittee chair who has repeatedly commended the rule revisions. Upton will join Sen. Conrad Burns, the Montana Republican who chairs the Senate’s telecom subcommittee, in a lunchtime discussion today.

On Tuesday morning, Pentagon spokeswoman Torie Clarke will return to the NCTA, where she once was its top media handler, to champion the Defense Dept.’s decision to embed 600 journalists with military units during the Iraq war.

She will speak at a breakfast panel, along with correspondents Martin Savidge and Mike Boettcher from CNN; Rick Leventhal of Fox News Channel; and C-SPAN host Susan Swain, who will moderate.

Tech unveiling

There should be plenty of technology on display, too, as companies vie for attention on the show floor. Cablers have been most caught up in deploying video-on-demand systems that allow them to sell movies either a la carte or as part of monthly subscriptions whenever viewers want to watch.

At the same time, cable companies continue to diversify into other areas with potentially lucrative revenue streams, such as telephone service, high-speed Internet connections and game services.

And the show still has room for the wacky marketing gimmickry that once characterized cable industry shows before consolidation reduced the number of owners of channels and systems to single digits. The Game Show Network, for instance, has built what it bills as the world’s largest bobblehead doll, of longtime host Chuck Woolery.