New digital domain

Tech tops agenda at NCTA National Show

NEW ORLEANS — Don’t expect the same policy fireworks at the National Cable and Telecommunication Assn. confab early this week as were seen in Las Vegas when the National Assn. of Broadcasters held their annual group powwow last month.

Fresh from withdrawing his bid to acquire Disney, Comcast topper Brian Roberts will likely steal the NCTA’s four-day National Show when he addresses the general session this morning, along with Time Warner chieftain Richard Parsons. Show runs through Wednesday.

New House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) made headlines in Las Vegas when he warned cable and satcasters to watch their mouths and their programming content or they too could find themselves looking down the barrel of Congress’ loaded gun on the indecency issue, lumped in with their over-the-air broadcasting brethren.

But as the new man in charge at Commerce, Barton may just have been playing to his broadcasting audience who often gripe that the federal indecency standards create an unfair playing field between themselves, cable and satellite, who do not have to conform to the federal anti-smut laws. Whatever the motivation behind the comment, Barton isn’t on the schedule for the National Show.

It seems Barton has been outranked by his soon-to-be Senate counterpart, Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who will take over as chairman of the Senate Commerce panel when Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is forced to hand over his gavel at the end of this session because of term limits.

Playing down indecency

What’s more, the National Show’s latest schedule features only one panel on the indecency subject. “Are You Decent? Educating Consumers About Cable’s Family Viewing Resources” is skedded to take place Tuesday afternoon and will likely just recap all the voluntary education initiatives cablers took up when Janet Jackson stirred up Washington’s latest cultural war with her Super Bowl flash dance.

Federal Communication Commission chairman Michael Powell, who launched an assault on the f-word earlier this year, will likely make some news when he addresses the general session Tuesday morning. Cablers and broadcasters are engaged in a battle over whether cable companies will be forced to carry all of broadcasters’ multiple digital signals when the transition to digital is complete. Both industries are awaiting a decision from the FCC, and Powell has wavered on the issue and has yet to express a strong opinion one way or the other.

A panel of some of television’s leading programming execs will follow Powell’s speech. CNN’s Anderson Cooper will moderate a Q&A with Matt Blank, CEO of Showtime Networks; Oxygen Media founder Geraldine Laybourne; Fox Networks Group prexy-CEO Tony Vinciquerra; NBC Cable Networks prexy David Zaslav; and E.W. Scripps Co. chief exec Ken Lowe.

Organizers of the convention expect one of the largest exhibitor turnouts in years. In Los Angeles in 1988, show peaked with 160,000 square feet of exhibit space and 294 exhibitors. In the last couple of years, those numbers dropped dramatically, but NCTA officials expect some 300 exhibitors in 165,000 square feet of space, up from the 192 exhibitors that showed up for last year’s show in Chicago. By now the New Orleans locale is old hat for the NCTA; org is returning after holding the show at the same convention grounds in 2000 and 2002.

At home with broadband

Cable programmers will show up in force, but technology exhibits will likely be the main attractions on the convention floor. One end of the hall will house a new 7,000-square foot Broadband Home exhibit featuring video-on-demand technology and all the latest consumer electronics with a special focus on HDTV, online gaming, interactive television, Internet phone service, home monitoring and control and the latest in video display technology.

The NCTA spent half a million dollars on that exhibit alone.

The other end of the space will contain the CableNET display from Cable Television Laboratories. It will feature up-and-coming interactive television products and the latest in wireless and telephony.

Organizers expect attendance to rival or exceed the 16,700 people who showed up for last year’s convention in Chicago. Regular participants Microsoft and Motorola have rented the largest spaces, and 72 first-time exhibitors, including Juniper Networks, TiVo and Universal Remote Control, will join them. Several up-and-coming programmers will also make the scene, including Anime Network, gay net Here! TV, Hustler TV and the Tennis Channel.

New programmers will try to create some buzz; Anime, for instance, plans to play up details of the June launch of its 24-hour net and carriage deals.