Backtalk: CTAMs New Tech Push

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Rushing out of the recent CTAM Digital & PPV Conferencewhile trying to get an earlier flight home, myself and many other attendees instead foundourselves marooned in the New Orleans airport -- one of the hardest on this planet to getin or out of.

So being sensible people and trying to make the best of abad situation, we schlepped our luggage to the nearest bar at the airport and dug in ourheels for the duration of our respective delays.

Over Cajun burgers and beer, several of us soon became newbest friends, swapping stories from the conference, where the topic of digital clearlyovershadowed the PPV track.

Judging from what I heard and saw at the conference,coupled with the ad hoc meeting in the airport bar, clearly, this confab was a pivotalpoint for cable. Representatives from many MSOs and systems really shared, givingblow-by-blow details of their current digital strategies and of what they thought thelandscape would look like 18 months out.

The looking-ahead part is always the most fun, especiallylate on a Friday afternoon, hoisting a brewsky or two with people who are involved in somevery innovative new launches.

For example, take a look at what Tim Krass is doing. Krasshas now been at Intertainer as its senior vice president, affiliate sales and marketing,for two months.

Prior to Intertainer, Krass had headed up affiliatemarketing at Fox/Liberty Sports and, in an earlier life, he had worked at several CoxCommunications cable systems.

Looking at a demo of his service in the bar, it becamequickly apparent that Intertainer is not just another VOD service.

Krass, in fact, describes it as "a completeentertainment network on-demand, offering everything from movies-on-demand to e-commerceand interactive advertising."

While it was only a demo, it looks like it has the makingsof a killer app. And apparently, I'm not the only one who thinks so, because thetwo-and-a-half-year-old company has already convinced five major companies -- NBC,Comcast, Sony, Intel and U S West -- to dig into their pockets and become minoritypartners.

So far, the Culver City, Calif.-based start-up has threetrials under way: one with Comcast in a suburb 20 miles outside of Philadelphia, and twowith U S West over DSL in Denver and Boulder, Colo.

Because neither Scientific-Atlanta's Explorer 2000 norGeneral Instrument's DCT 5000 is expected to roll until the fourth quarter at theearliest, Intertainer is testing its service on users' computers, rather than on TVsets.

The advanced boxes, Krass says, will drive interactiveservices, and Intertainer will be able to run on both computers and TV sets once the boxesstart shipping.

For Krass, the most shocking finding from the six-month-oldtrials is that "the buy-rates for movies are strong, especially when you realize thatpeople are buying full-length movies and watching them on PCs."

Of course, the computers in the test are not exactlystandard-issue: Testers are rigged with souped-up Gateways with 27-inch monitors -- aboutthe size of most television screens.

In its test markets, users pay $3.95 for movies right now,and Intertainer says it has signed content deals with almost every studio. Right now, allthey can do is order movies-on-demand. But soon, they'll be able to do moreinteractive functions, like e-commerce, and to participate in interactive advertising.

On the business side, Intertainer's splits withoperators are comparable with those of PPV, and when e-commerce kicks in, operators willalso get a cut of the action, as they do with cable home shopping networks.

Krass came out of New Orleans, he says, a very happy man,having lined up appointments with several smaller operators to go over their plants'technical specifications for Intertainer.

And that's one of the most interesting things aboutdigital rollouts that came out of this CTAM conference.

In many respects, the smaller, more nimble operators areleading the pack, not the giants in MSO-land.

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