Picture This

Times, They Aren’t Changing

9/27/2007 8:52 AM

It seems that high-definition TV technology is once again getting front-page treatment in many cable trades, as cable networks and platform distributors look to offer consumers the clearest and most concise television-viewing experience possible.

I say once again, because the industry’s race to provide HDTV signals to consumers was the lead story when my name first appeared in the Multichannel News masthead … 20 years ago.

My, how some things never change.

But at the same time, a lot has changed for the industry over the past two decades … mostly for the better. Back then, in that Oct. 5, 1987, issue, the big news surrounding HDTV technology was that broadcaster NBC was touting a way for networks to soon deliver cost-effective high-definition signals to consumers through HD sets that were expected to start arriving in U.S. homes.

Of course today, all the broadcast channels are offering HD signals to more than 24 million households with at least one HDTV set. And just this week, satellite-TV provider DirecTV launched more than 70 HD channels from cable networks ranging from TBS to The Smithsonian Channel.

That’s significant progress considering that in 1987, there were barely 70 analog cable channels. Cable pioneers were rolling out cable wires to homes and producing differentiated, niche programming that would eventually become today’s innovative, lucrative cable business.

Another sign of progress: Cable revenues have jumped nearly sevenfold, from $11 billion in 1987 when I began covering this business as a young journalism major fresh out of Iona College, to an estimated $74 billion this year, according to SNL Kagan. Much of that added revenue is derived through significant increases in advertising and subscriber revenue from traditional video services, as well as fees from new, high-tech services like high-speed broadband service and telephony.

On the programming side, the big cover story in my first issue revolved around concerns by then (and now) Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) that cable would deprive sports fans of free over-the-air access to treasured sports events like the Super Bowl. This was due in part because a then upstart sports service dubbed the Entertainment Sports Programming Network (otherwise known as ESPN) had the temerity to acquire a package of NFL regular season Sunday night games for cable.

Well, Mr. Specter can rest assured that the Super Bowl is still on broadcast television … but its one of few major pro sports events that hasn’t successfully migrated to cable.

Cable — through more than 20 regional and national sports networks — and satellite services such as DirecTV with its groundbreaking, all-access “NFL Sunday Ticket” out-of-market game package, have provided grateful sports fans with more quality coverage of just about every sport you can imagine.

But as far as the industry has come, it still has some work to do over the next 20 years if it’s to continue to thrive in a very, very competitive telecommunications marketplace.

For one, it has to do a yeoman’s job at communicating the virtues and value of its wide array of video services to consumers. In 1987, cable was the new kid on the block, and consumers were chasing trucks to have cable installed in their homes; so marketing and customer service weren’t the industry’s main priority.

Now that the industry has matured — and other platforms like satellite, the telcos and Web-based video distributors such as Yahoo, Google and Apple are providing affordable (and, in some cases, free) video alternatives to consumers — it has to make the case that the significant service-price increases the industry has imposed over two decades (from $12.18 for basic cable in 1987 to $42.76 today) still represents a better value-to-cost ratio than those offered by its competitors. If it doesn’t, consumers will have no problem changing the distribution channel for video entertainment.

The industry also has a ways to go with regard to diversity. On the cover of that Oct. 5, 1987, issue, Ted Turner is photographed accepting an award from the Walter Kaitz Foundation as he praised the industry for its efforts to employ minorities.

Well, two decades later, the industry — while deserving of some praise for having increased the number of employed persons of color over that time — still has yet to push through many deserving minority executives to the management ranks.

According to Diversity 2.0: Across the Spectrum, the National Association of Multi-Ethnicity In Communications’ 2006 minority cable employment report, people of color in middle and lower management positions represent 11% and 20% of the total workforce, respectively. That was down from 13% and 23% respectively from a similar NAMIC employment report just two years prior.

With African-Americans, Asians and Hispanics projected to become the majority in the U.S. by 2050, it would behoove the industry to better reflect in its management ranks what will most likely be its most lucrative segment of subscribers.

But nobody knows what issues will dominate the front pages of this or other industry magazines in the next few decades — that is, if there are any traditional print front pages at all.

But I’m sure somewhere amidst the news of the day there’ll be some discussion about video content … and, of course, HDTV.