Cablers keep eye on future

Jul 30, 2001  •  Post A Comment

CTAM’s 25th anniversary Summit was about much more than just connectivity of the high-tech kind-though a casual observer might have mistaken last week’s annual gathering of cable marketing executives in San Francisco for an engineering convention.
Despite the displays of Internet-protocol telephony, video-on-demand hardware and software programs, Microsoft’s XBox, the latest in digital “interfaces” and other edge-of-the-envelope widgetry, CTAM was what it always is: a great place to schmooze, reminisce and ruminate about the future of the industry. Selected highlights follow:
Digital subscription channels devoted solely to “sub-niches or super-niches for highly specialized interests” are the imminent future of SVOD, according to Rainbow Media Holdings President and CEO Josh Sapan, who told a handful of reporters at CTAM that Rainbow’s Sterling Media “incubator” division is now organizing subject areas and gathering content for just such an array of services, which will be aimed at hobbyists and others who are passionate about a defined subject area not now served by any channel currently available on a television screen.
Some of the areas under consideration for the new, server-based digital pay services: photography, boating, bird-watching, motorcycling, even map collecting. (Mr. Sapan himself is an avid collector.)
Content of interest to these and other enthusiasts is available, Mr. Sapan said, but not easily accessed in one authoritative place, and Rainbow believes there is a new business opportunity for the entire cable industry in doing that aggregation in a “rich and editorially authoritative” way.
Enthusiasts don’t require “extravagant” entertainment values, he said. “We are pursuing a model in Sterling Digital in which there is a price for each content area.” Mr. Sapan added that server, coding and transmission costs for the proposed service are “not insubstantial but coming down.” Content will be produced both in-house and with outside partners, he said.
The new Sterling Digital services, not yet branded, could be up and running by the end of this year or early next, according to a spokeswoman.
What are the biggest dangers in the coming digital transformation? “Not having a big enough vision or [the ability] to execute quickly for the Holy Grail-what I call cable on demand, which is the next level of providing video,” said John Sie, founder, chairman and CEO, Starz Encore Group.”
When home video arose in the 1980s, Mr. Sie recalled, “Cable had no technical counter to it. This time, cable has a two-way infrastructure. So it’s a game for cable to lose if it doesn’t aggressively go after it.”
The enemies at cable’s gate this time are “PVRs integrated into set-tops, DBS doing SVOD or the telephone company,” Mr. Sie said.
The biggest danger ahead for cable, according to Rainbow’s Mr. Sapan, is the interface. “What’s the interface going to be; what will the experience be like with the thing in your hand? How friendly will it be, how appealing? … It’s unproven and unknown.”
Mr. Sapan cautioned, “If it’s not done right early, it’s inevitable that some momentum will be lost.”
At CTAM’s invitation-only 25th anniversary luncheon, 630 attendees heard Showtime Chairman and CEO Matthew Blank’s droll deconstruction of a quarter-century of CTAM Summit “themes.” For example: CTAM met in 1985 under the rubric of “Bridging the Gap From Strategy to Reality,” about which Mr. Blank observed: “That bridge is still under construction.”
In 1992, the theme was “Building Bridges to the Consumer.” “[We were] back in the bridge business,” said Mr. Blank, “which was refreshing, having burned all our bridges when we tried to `Serve Tomorrow’s Customer Today,’ instead of today’s customer today, back in 1988.”