Wired for change

Cable confab has entrepreneurial spirit

Cablers opened their annual convention with celebration of past glories and enthusiastic anticipation of future challenges.

Execs speaking at the first large session of the National Cable & Telecommunications Assn.’s 2006 National Show in Atlanta invoked cable’s “entrepreneurial spirit” as the driving force of the industry’s success. Biggest challenge for the future, they said, was to maintain that spirit in the face of increasing obstacles.

Tapping a patriotic vein, session began with a video presentation that likened cable’s success to the country’s history. “Cable: She succeeded like America,” a voiceover intoned, noting that the industry’s first men and women “risked everything they had.”

Bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell delivered a keynote address that compared the success of radio with that of cable. Radio went from an infant, almost obscure technology to a mass-communications phenomenon as the result of the vision and determination of one individual, Gladwell said. Cable essentially has done same, he added, except on a larger scale.

Geraldine Laybourne, chair-CEO of Oxygen, pointed to the original concept of MTV, which she said industryites labeled as “the dumbest idea ever.” But the persistence of founders Bob Pittman and John Lacke helped launch an unprecedented phenom. “They brought the resources of the music industry to pay for programming that had never been seen before,” Laybourne said, adding that MTV was the first network to regard teens as a significant market.

John S. Hendricks, chairman of Discovery Communications, noted the advent of HBO as another pioneer of niche marketing. The idea of “a movie every night,” Hendricks said, led to “other simple, elegant ideas” for similar programming, such as a sports channel, a kids web, even a 24-hour news network. “All the categories of TV began to fall into place after that.”

Since a number of cable’s greatest success stories began as “dumb ideas,” Gladwell noted, the question arose of whether it was even possible to predict cable’s next big hit.

“The most dangerous thing for us right now is our own success,” Laybourne said. “With success comes a hesitancy to lean forward” and take more risks.

Gladwell polled speakers on what grade they would give Congress in helping the industry succeed.

“I’m not gonna answer that,” said Robert Miron, chairman-CEO of Advance/Newhouse Communications.

“It’s a mixed grade,” said Brian Lamb, chairman-CEO of C-SPAN. “A lot depends on the timing, the moment and how effective our lobbying operations were. They do get an F on must-carry, but an A on others,” he added.

“We do well when we’re free to compete,” Hendricks said. “Our darkest days are when the government steps in to mess up the playing field.”

Hendricks and others cited Congress and the FCC’s recent push for a la carte subscription models, but absent from the discussion was any mention of another potential regulatory threat, multicast must-carry. The Senate Commerce Committee has declared its intention to take up that issue in a second bill on the digital TV transition, possibly later this year.

Shots also were fired at Hollywood when speakers discussed the rising popularity of video-on-demand. One reason for the popularity, Lamb said, is “movies are lousy” now. “When they’re good again, there won’t be box office problems. But they’re just terrible,” he opined.

“The ads in front of trailers are intolerable,” Laybourne added, “and theaters are dirty.”

The future, they all agreed, is all about multiplatform delivery, involving everything from mobile phones to iPods. “Anything we can do to give the consumer more control and keep them connected are winning propositions,” said Hendricks.