My Turn

Cable Cool at CES

1/16/2007 3:24 AM

Cable operators kept their usual low profile at the International Consumer Electronics Show this year, and that's probably a good thing.

Satellite TV's two CEO stars, DirecTV's Chase Carey and Dish Network's Charlie Ergen, talked up HD channels, TV downloads and portable-TV players.

Verizon touted mobile live TV, a new electronic guide and local TV channels for FiOS.

Cable? Well, at least there wasn't a repeat of the 2006 CES press conference extolling the interactivity-enabling OpenCable Application Platform. Cable CEOs' best explanation of OCAP's consumer benefits at that time came down to enabling a single remote to control a set-top, a TV, a DVD player and other devices.

Universal remotes really don't get consumer-electronics writers excited.

There were a couple of advancements on old cable announcements at this CES:

• Panasonic is getting a trial with Comcast of OCAP-enabled, interactive digital-TV sets, after last January's deal to work together on OCAP applications and digital set-tops.

• MobiTV said it will supply TV programming to the Sprint Nextel joint venture with cable operators, an undertaking that's off to a quiet start; and

• Comcast demoed a Motorola set-top with TiVo navigation now in trial in Denver, following the companies' March 2005 agreement.

Meanwhile …

• Apple CEO Steve Jobs was in San Francisco, showing off the snazzy new touch-screen iPhone and the AppleTV playback device at Macworld;

• Dell CEO Michael Dell was in Las Vegas at CES, urging cable companies to get more bandwidth to the people (something Intel's Andy Grove was doing a decade ago) and to donate money to plant trees; and

• Comcast CEO Brian Roberts was at a Citigroup investor conference near CES in Vegas. What was he touting? Prospects for telephone revenue from small companies, “a natural extension” of the existing business. Talk about a contrast.

There's logic to all this, though, beyond cable's natural conservatism, born out of years of overpromising new services, underdelivering and then getting punished by the stock market.

Satellite TV is still a consumer-electronics retail product, so it needs to make a splash at CES. Get some good press for your new movie-download service and growing HDTV lineup, sell more HD DVR boxes and add customers.

Verizon's FiOS TV and broadband services are still new to consumers, and the telcos need product innovations (like local channels and maybe a better guide) to set their TV services apart from cable and satellite.

Cable doesn't need CES so much. A growing number of cable executives go to the show every year, of course, to keep up with what competitors are doing and to see what zippy new applications might someday run on cable or create demand for cable modems. (Disclosure: four Multichannel News editors went, but I didn't.)

Bob Zitter, chief technology officer at HBO, told MCN's Todd Spangler cable's cool embrace of CES is all about historical tensions between the two industries. “Speaking personally, I think it's sad that the cable industry and the consumer-electronics industry didn't spend the last 10 years going down a collaborative road,” he said.

But Louise Mooney, a technology publicist with strong cable ties who went for five years, but not this time, said cable's playing it smart at CES. “It's a device show,” and cable would be foolish to compete for attention there.

Cable folks are smart to do what they're doing, she said — going in order to keep up with the competition and not to make noise.

Roberts got rewarded for his decision to emphasize the unsexy sizzling prospects for high-margin small-business voice revenue. Merrill Lynch's Jessica Reif Cohen “strongly” restated her buy rating on Comcast after his presentation at the Citigroup event. Last Tuesday, she ticked up her price target on Time Warner to $27 from $23.

Time Warner closed Wednesday at $22.25, a new 52-week high, and Comcast's CMCSA shares ended that day at $42.91, just below the 52-week high of $43.41.

Cable stocks in general rose 40% last year.

When the boats are rising, CES is no place to rock them.