Backtalk: Baltimore Skinny

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There was something very refreshing and down-to-earth aboutthis year's regional Atlantic Cable Show, held in Baltimore last week.

There was a spirit among the attendees that the WesternShow and the National Show somehow never quite manage to capture.

That's in part because of their elephantine size and theirmandate to be all things to all people — especially the industry's bigwigs, whosesupport they need.

About 3,700 people from cable's ranks in the North Atlanticstates — most of whom never go to the two mega-shows — turned out in force thisyear to mingle and to share ideas and war stories with their peers.

Judging from what we saw firsthand, and from the spiritedtone of the corridor talk, we think that the Atlantic Cable Show attendees got a good bangfor their registration buck.

And this all leads to a point that we want to make in thisongoing era of industry consolidation and the never-ending obsession with the bottom line.

In recent years, there has been, and still is, a whole lotof talk about disbanding or combining some of the smaller, regional shows.

Of course, this talk emanates squarely from corporateheadquarters, whose denizens, in large part, don't even attend the regional shows, and whoare tired of bankrolling something that they view as expendable.

True, some of these confabs don't deserve the corporatesupport that they have enjoyed, because they are nothing more than thinly disguisedboondoggles, trying to sport some patina of a business meeting.

But this year's Atlantic Cable Show attracted some industrypioneers and bigwigs from the region. About 700 people in the first day's general sessiongot a special treat: listening to four of cable's pioneers looking back, and then forwardto the future.

To look back at history is a luxury that few people haveduring their breakneck, busy workdays. But that morning, they did, and they learned somevery important lessons about cable's humble beginnings in a panel moderated by the veryevenhanded Brian Lamb, chairman and CEO of C-SPAN and a cable pioneer himself.

Lamb asked the four pioneers to first recall the earlypivotal experiences that they had, and later, to look into their crystal balls.

Most candid and amusing was John Rigas, chairman, presidentand CEO of Adelphia Communications Corp. In his self-effacing way, he recalled how manytimes he was close to going under, and he even pleaded guilty to writing a bad check tokeep his then-fledgling operations afloat.

Likewise, Bill Bresnan, president of Bresnan Communications— the youngest of the four pioneers up on the stage — had his own war stories.He got some chuckles from the audience when he related how the mayor of Rochester, Minn.— after awarding him his first cable franchise, in 1958 — skeptically told himthat it was a free country, so Bresnan should have the chance to lose money any way hewanted.

Chuck Dolan, chairman of Cablevision Systems Corp., didn'tspend much of his time telling stories from the past. Maybe he was preoccupied with hisreported desire to buy the New York Yankees.

Instead, he talked of a future where subscribers would befree to pay for only what they wanted — a move that would one day finally get thegovernment off the cable industry's collective back.

There was plenty of audience participation. One attendeeasked what AT&T's acquisition of Tele-Communications Inc. would mean to the business,and why the four onstage hadn't sold out yet.

Ever-feisty Lenfest Communications Corp. chairman and CEOGerry Lenfest — whose company, like all of those represented on the stage, has strongties to TCI — warned that deals like AT&T/TCI always call for a "pound offlesh."

Curiously, none of the four pioneers on stage — all ofwhom also have grown children helping them to run what were once small family businesses— seemed likely to sell out, like so many of their cable-pioneer buddies haverecently done.

What was said and done at last week's Atlantic Cable Showis now part of cable's collective past. And based on what we know from history, nextyear's show in Baltimore is going to look and sound a lot different, given the fact thatthe TCI/AT&T deal should largely be a fait accompli.

But, trust us: We'll be back in Baltimore, supporting aregional show that has managed to survive it all by offering more provocative sessionseach year.

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