Special Report Consumer Electronic Show: Content Joins Tech Centerstage at CES

Jan 8, 2007  •  Post A Comment

One sign that the annual Consumer Electronics Show has morphed into a conference for content providers as well as gadget hounds is that CBS CEO Les Moonves and Disney CEO Robert Iger will deliver two of only five keynote addresses slated for the event. This year marks the debut of both executives at CES and underscores the importance the conference has assumed in the television industry in recent years.

In fact, the show’s theme this year is “content, technology and everything in between.”

In past years, the keynote slots were secured by the computer maker and software triumvirate of Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft. While Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and Dell Chairman Michael Dell will still deliver their traditional keynotes, Hewlett-Packard, beset by a board of directors scandal, is off the docket and CBS and Disney are on.

“CES is moving from a device-centric event of sorts to an annual event that’s much more focused on content plus technology,” said Kaan Yigit, analyst with Solutions Research Group in Toronto.

Both CBS and Disney declined to discuss the speeches their top executives will give. However, both companies played a significant role in broadband video in 2006. The past year has been branded by the impact of Web video on the television business and how networks, such as CBS and Disney’s ABC, have responded to the explosive growth in the category. CBS inked a deal to provide clips from its shows to YouTube, while ABC has been successful streaming shows on its Web site.

“Many of the discussions will center on how to monetize the new 24/7 broadband reality-what business models, what content and what devices will have staying power and which ones are here today, gone tomorrow,” Mr. Yigit said. “As the digital universe expands with promise of pervasive `always on’ Internet around the corner, this means great potential for all manner of mobile content and entertainment devices.”

In a pre-broadband world there was little need for TV executives to attend CES and few did. But what brought them out to Vegas in small drabs starting a few years ago was not actually broadband but high-definition TV.

The steady increase in hi-def programming and set purchases over the past few years turned CES into more of a consumer-centric show, widening its interest to TV executives, explained Todd Chanko, analyst with Jupiter Research. “It reignited interest in TV sets as a category,” he said. “It’s bringing people back into stores and raising the profiles of consumer electronics in general.”

Just as hi-def is now part of the new digital ecosystem, so is broadband. TV executives will attend the show looking for new opportunities to showcase their content online.

“The game for any content provider is essentially to connect with your consumers or your viewers wherever, whenever, in ways that are ultimately additive to your business,” said Clint Stinchcomb, executive VP and general manager of HDTV and new media at Discovery. As content providers enter the business of purveying video online as well as on TV, they’re eager to learn more about new distribution methods.

In addition to speaking on a panel, Mr. Stinchcomb said he will be at the show to meet with cutting-edge companies that can enable new viewing venues for Discovery. “It’s one of the few times you can see and touch and feel and see a physical demo,” he said.

The big buzz for TV executives is which device will better integrate the computer and the set-top box.Convergence has been a goal for the TV industry for several years but has yet to materialize, said J.B. Perrette, president of NBC Universal digital distribution, who will attend CES. “It’s still a big question mark as to how simple and seamless it’ll be,” he said. “Whatever Apple does will be an interesting benchmark. I think it will be the theme of continued convergence of these two platforms-but I think it’s a bigger issue of not just set-top box to PC, but the connectivity of devices in the home, set-top box to wireless or wireless to the set-top box. … We’re on the path to the finish line but I don’t think we’re there yet.”

Content providers are more keenly involved in that race this year. That’s because the gatekeepers of cable and satellite operators don’t stand in the way now that networks have another option to reach consumers via the Internet. “The CE guys are looking increasingly to get closer to the content provider,” Mr. Perrette said.

CES has assumed more importance to the television industry after the demise of the Western Show, said Mark Pascarella, CEO of broadband and video-on-demand portal Gotuit. “CES has become this all-important kickoff to the start of the year. … It’s the very best opportunity to get together with folks in content and technology and there isn’t another opportunity to do it,” he said. He plans to meet with large media companies, independent producers and network operators at the show.

Jonathan Leess, president and general manager of the CBS Television Stations Digital Media Group, has been attending for about six years and has seen the show evolve beyond a device and technology fest. “It’s mostly an opportunity to get together with some of our existing partners and set up meetings and discussions with future partners,” he said.