At this week’s NCTA show, cable professionals celebrate their entrepreneurial past and share their visions for meeting the challenges of today
By Elizabeth Jensen
Special to TelevisionWeek
Planners of this year’s National Show were having their first meeting in event co-Chair Geraldine Laybourne’s New York office when Hurricane Katrina was just a warning, but potentially headed for the chosen convention site of New Orleans.
Warning turned to fact, but for more than a month after the hurricane hit, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association held out hope that the cable industry could be one of the first conventions back in the devastated Louisiana city. Eventually it became apparent that wasn’t feasible.
So NCTA promised to come back to New Orleans in 2008 and started scrambling for this year. Atlanta had the space and hotel rooms but the convention would have to be six weeks earlier. Everything shifted.
It all came together somehow, making it all the more apt that this year’s conference celebrates the “fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants” flexibility that characterized cable’s early days. Officials said attendance is tracking even with recent years, when 16,000 to 17,000 people registered.
The official theme of the show, running April 9-11 at Atlanta’s Georgia World Congress Center, is “Cable: A Great American Success Story.” That is also the theme of the industry’s current image campaign.
“I think it’s important that we recognize our roots as an industry,” said Thomas Rutledge, chief operating officer of Cablevision Systems and the convention’s other co-chair. “We are an entrepreneurial industry founded by individuals at the local level. Localism has become an issue in the public policy arena with national franchising.” But cable’s great strength, he said, “is who founded it and the culture of the companies in the cable business and how dynamic they are.”
“I have long felt the cable industry, especially the operators, have not gotten credit for a lot of the things they did,” said Ms. Laybourne, the chairman, founder and CEO of Oxygen Media. “They have gotten a lot of blame-for things like bad customer service marks early on-but the truth is you wouldn’t have CNN or MTV or Nickelodeon or C-SPAN if it hadn’t been for these brave entrepreneurs who knew they needed content and were willing to pay for it.”
But the convention is not about looking back nostalgically at cable’s roots. Even though cable today is a vastly different business from when it started, with well-funded rivals also chasing consumers’ dollars, there are lessons to be applied from the early days, Mr. Rutledge said.
Investing in Upgrades
His assessment: “I think that if you are willing to create new products that add value to consumers and you’re willing to put your money where your mouth is and upgrade your whole cable network, you can build whole services that work and consumers are willing to pay for.”
The cable industry, he noted, has spent about $100 billion in recent years to upgrade its infrastructure and is reaping benefits even in the fiercely competitive environment, as consumers adopt broadband, voice over Internet, video-on-demand and gaming products. “All those services together create a real value proposition that consumers are willing to buy,” Mr. Rutledge said. Those issues will be among those examined during the Tuesday 10 a.m. general session titled “Add Cable and Stir: A Recipe for Business Success.”
In addition to Mr. Rutledge, panelists for that session are Glenn Britt, president and CEO of Time Warner Cable; Mark Cuban, president and chairman of HDNet; Patrick Esser, president of Cox Communications; Tony Vinciquerra, president and CEO of Fox Networks Group; Michael Willner, president and CEO of Insight Communications; and David Zaslav, president of NBC Universal Cable.
Ms. Laybourne, a driving force in the early success of Nickelodeon, is herself a programming pioneer and was scheduled to be a participant in Sunday’s opening session panel. “When I started in 1980, the only thing I knew about the business was written on a cocktail napkin by a guy at HBO,” she said. “It was a gamble.”
The panel is set to be moderated by writer Malcolm Gladwell, author of “The Tipping Point” and more recently “Blink,” which explores intuitive decision-making. Cable “grew from business leaders who didn’t rely on research and focus groups to build an industry that they knew was the right thing to do. And that is Malcolm Gladwell’s management theory,” said Barbara York, NCTA senior VP for industry affairs, who has planned the last 25 of NCTA’s 55 conventions.
“He’s going to talk to us about how we came on our vision, and what it took to stick to our vision,” Ms. Laybourne said. The lesson for this year’s attendees, she said, is: “Smart young MBAs who are bright as anything may have some secret answers for us, and yet just because they have every ability to analyze things from a numerical standpoint doesn’t mean they have all the answers. It’s a great thing to remember that our gut is often better than our brain.”
Also scheduled for that panel are John Hendricks, chairman of Discovery Communications; Brian Lamb, founder, chairman and CEO of C-SPAN; and Bob Miron, chairman and CEO of Advance/Newhouse Communications.
Monday’s 9:30 a.m. session examines convergence. “We’re showing the spectrum of what the new telecom world looks like,” said Ms. York, with representatives of distribution (Brian Roberts, chairman and CEO of Comcast Corp.); the media entertainment business (Richard Parsons, chairman and CEO of Time Warner); new technologies (John Chambers, president and CEO of Cisco Systems; Gary Forsee, president and CEO of Sprint Nextel; and Edward Zander, chairman and CEO of Motorola); and content (Anne Sweeney, co-chair of Disney Media Networks and president of the Disney-ABC Television Group).
The final session, scheduled for Tuesday at 4 p.m., will examine how content is adapting to new platforms, with panelists who are “really thinking about television beyond television,” Ms. York said. Panelists are Jeffrey Bewkes, president and chief operating officer of Time Warner; Stephen Burke, chief operating officer of Comcast; Susan Lyne, president and CEO of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia; and Judy McGrath, chairman and CEO of MTV Networks.
Four Shows in One
On the 200,000 square feet of exhibition floor, attendees will find what Mr. Rutledge called “four shows within the show.” A VoiceNET area will have products related to the delivery of voice products. BizNET, which is being mounted jointly with the Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing, will showcase the newest equipment for cable to capture its share of the business and commercial telecommunications market. Mr. Rutledge called it “a huge opportunity for our industry” now that many systems have been upgraded.
For the 13th year, CableLabs will showcase cutting-edge cable technology from more than 40 vendors. And for the first time, the National Show will have a 7,000-square-foot area dedicated to video gaming, with hands-on playing opportunities that organizers hope won’t keep attendees too engrossed.
“NCTA knew nothing about gaming, which is enabled by the broadband pipeline,” Ms. York said. “We did not know the huge marketplace that gaming has become and the intensity and loyalty of the following. Putting the game area together, and the four sessions on gaming, has been fascinating.”
The floor exhibits, Mr. Rutledge said, reflect the fact that “the cable industry has become a lot more complex. It is really a lot of industries together under a single umbrella, able to be delivered through the modern cable architecture.”