Still Looking to the Future

Dec 1, 2003  •  Post A Comment

It was the little regional show that grew to rival the National Show as cable’s most significant “must attend” event. At its peak in 2000, the Western Show would draw more people than the National Show. The exhibit hall that year attracted more than 400 companies, most of which hawked some form of technology or new media.
Its beginnings, however, were far more humble.
“We used part of one hotel, and the exhibitors displayed on the sidewalk on the tops of card tables,” the late Ed Allen, then general partner of Intermedia Partners, said in a 1989 interview as part of The Cable Center’s Oral History Project.
The Western Show began modestly enough as a way to get leaders of California’s nascent cable industry to gather for a real trade show. Other states had them, reasoned the late Walter Kaitz, who at the time was general counsel of the California Cable Television Association.
“I believe that 1972, the year we moved to Anaheim, was our first real trade show. That was the year we brought in professional management of the show,” said Spencer Kaitz, president and general counsel of the renamed California Cable & Telecommunications Association, which has produced the Western Show from day one.
The first event took place in 1968 at a little San Diego convention complex known as Vacation Village. It drew fewer than 100 people.
Two years later, the show moved to nicer quarters at San Diego’s venerable Hotel del Coronado. It was still a relatively small assembly, well below the national radar screen, and California’s cable barons met there for two years. It was a place they liked. There was discussion in the early 1970s about limiting the size of the event so it could remain at the del Coronado.
By 1972 cable was beginning to grow, not only in California but also across the country. The Western Show moved that year to more ample quarters at the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim.
Though it was expanding along with the industry it represented, the Western Show stuck to its roots.
“It really got away from the politics and the national issues and problems, and it did a lot more to look at the business issues on the ground and the opportunities. It was much more opportunity-driven,” said Paul Maxwell, president, Media Business Corp., and founder of CableFAX daily.
Still, politics had a place. Western Show planners always provided time for debate on regulatory issues that cable operators faced in their own markets. San Diego and Anaheim served as venues to bring together legislators, regulators and cable industry leaders to talk about things they had in common and issues on which they disagreed.
“What an impact it had to be able to actually screen the programming, show the technology being used and get some of those key regulators in a place that, frankly, was fun, and that had some glitz and glamour,” said C.J. Hirschfield, former VP of industry affairs at CCTA.
The World Catches On
By the early 1980s key media outlets began to pay attention to what happened in Anaheim in early December. Newspapers, trade publications, broadcast and, later, cable outlets covered speeches, panels and parties and helped tell cable’s story worldwide.
The Western Show generated its share of headline acts. Industry glitterati like Ted Turner, John Malone, Barry Diller, John Hendricks and others populated stage and dais with vivid visions of cable’s future.
It was at the Western Show in 1992 that Mr. Malone divined the oft-quoted “500-channel universe.” It was where Mr. Turner in 1978 announced his plans for a 24-hour cable news service-two years before the launch of CNN. HBO first demonstrated high-definition television at the 1987 Western Show. Anaheim made for good copy.
Focus on Law and Politics
“In the end, both the NCTA and CCTA are advocacy organizations,” Ms. Hirschfield said. “To us, the eye on the prize was being able to have a positive impact on those who would be regulating us and those who would cover us in the media.”
The Western Show proved a great launchpad for new program services: Bravo (1980) and CNN/SI (1996) were among those that premiered during the show’s run.
The event provided a great promotional platform for planned services. ABC announced during the 1981 Western Show its intent to start its own cultural network. Alpha would later morph into A&E. NBC President Larry Grossman in 1985 talked about his network’s plan for a 24-hour news service to compete with CNN. Five years later, NBC and Time Warner laid out their blueprint for what would become Court TV.
The 1994 the Western Show buzzed with word of numerous network launches, including Home & Garden Television, The Game Show Network, History Channel, BET on Jazz and The Golf Channel.

“The Western Show has been a great place to launch new networks and products, and as more companies used the show that way, the marketing creativity was as talked about as the products,” said Char Beales, president and CEO of CTAM.
Telling Their Story
Anaheim became a marketing mecca during the show. Networks and other vendors pulled out all the stops to grab the attention of the masses. Hotel rooms were often littered with tchotchkes of all types, from fliers to T-shirts to hats to food.
One year, a typical room was adorned with a 6-foot-tall cardboard cutout of a Radio City Music Hall Rockette promoting Radio City Networks. Attached to the window was a mannequin leg, complete with fishnet hosiery, promoting the same exhibit booth.
Risque was de rigueur. Lifetime Movie Network once placed a box of “Cracker Jill” snacks that promised to be filled with “popcorn (no nuts)” to promote the service, aimed, of course, at women.
Promotions Run Amok
Occasionally, the promotional machine would get out of hand. Ms. Hirschfield remembers many a Western Show during which she and her staff toted portable sound meters from booth to booth to keep a handle on those who would pump up the volume to the offense of neighboring exhibitors. There were rules on such things.
The most vivid example of marketing run amok may have been a Comedy Central campaign that included a crime-cene-like chalk image of a body drawn on the hotel room floor. Unfortunately, not every room that year was taken by a convention-goer, and some Japanese businessmen got the surprise of their lives.
Western Show patrons worked hard and played hard. Socialization was always a strong point, and a major draw. Ask cable industry leaders what they enjoyed most about their trip to the Western Show, and one hears a familiar refrain:
“It provided a great opportunity to network with friends and colleagues in the industry,” said Robert Sachs, NCTA president and CEO.
Privately, many experienced Western Show troopers acknowledge that this show had the best parties over the years. This was where Willie Nelson and Leon Russell once appeared together. Performers such as the Pointer Sisters and Huey Lewis and the News played Western Show gigs. It was where E! Entertainment Network threw outgoing CEO Jarl Mohn (then known as Lee Masters) a huge going-away bash, and where Playboy once provided models scantily clad in lingerie and furs.
“MTV Networks, when I was there, used to do a big press dinner at the show every year at a restaurant called The White House,” recalled Rich Cronin, now president and CEO of Game Show Network. “It was a break in the deal-making, and just a very fun gathering for 50 or 60 people.”
A Cable Geek’s Haven
The Western Show became cable’s de facto spawning ground for new technology. In 1973 cable pioneer Bill Bresnan, then president of TelePrompTer Cable, set up an earth station outside the convention center-a “portable” eight-meter dish atop a tractor trailer-and piped in a live speech from Washington by Speaker of the House Carl Albert.
“We called that the first U.S. domestic satellite transmission,” said Mr. Bresnan, still active in the business as chairman and CEO of Bresnan Communications.
In 1993, the Western Show unveiled CableNet, a technology exhibition for the newest equipment and fanciest protot
“So many rollouts of new technology tended to occur at the Western Show, and a lot of the emerging technologies were first seen there,” said Richard Green, president and CEO of CableLabs, the industry’s technology consortium.
It was the Western Show that demonstrated the first digital cable, first cable modems and first digital set-tops, Mr. Green added.
For all its advantages, the Western Show could not overcome the industry consolidation that drained it of decision makers. Fully distributed networks no longer needed to wine and dine the diminishing number of cable operators. Services looking for carriage could, in later years, make a few trips to top MSOs and do business face to face.
The collapse of California’s technology industry in 2000 did not help, nor did the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In 2000 the show drew 33,000 attendees, more than did the National Show. The following year, longtime exhibitors A&E, Comedy Central, Discovery, MTV Networks and TBS said they would no longer attend. Attendance plummeted by 50 percent, then fell below 10,000 last year.
“It was not inexpensive to mount the kind of booths that they had, and as they achieved saturation, it didn’t make sense to spend that kind of money on a huge display,” Ms. Hirschfield said.
In August 2003 CCTA announced that this year’s show would be the last. CableNet will live on, moving to the National Show starting in 2004.
“The industry will adjust,” Mr. Bresnan said. “This show has had an incredible run, and it changed and evolved with the industry. But now, our needs are different.”
Mr. Kaitz, whose contract with CCTA runs through the end of 2004, has asked his board to eliminate his position to save money. Although he admits to certain sadness that the Western Show will fade into the sunset, he refuses to be maudlin.
“I don’t want this [final] show to be retrospective,” he said. “This is an industry always moving toward a greater future.”