Backtalk: CTAMs New Tech Push

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Last week marked a first for CTAM: The marketing tradeassociation actually had to pull the registration form off its Web site and turn awaylast-minute callers for its "Digital & Pay Per View Conference," which isbeing held in New Orleans this week.

"We're sold out and returning money," said atruly astonished Char Beales, CTAM's president, adding, "I've been in the cablebusiness since 1980 and I never thought that I'd be in this position in my life."

Maybe, in part, it really is the lure of getting away fromthe big chill hitting most of the country in early March, as one of my reporters -- whodidn't get the plum assignment -- bellyached.

But clearly, that's not the driving reason behind 1,100people wending their way to the "Big Easy" for the association's conference,which, for only the second time, is pairing together the topics of digital TV and PPV.

PPV is a drawing card, but for many of the people whom Ispoke to, the lure is clearly digital TV -- a new business that, according to CTAM's andother research, is a product that people actually love.

And what's interesting is that no two operators are doingit alike, with all of them taking unique approaches to digital on everything conceivable,ranging from set-top boxes to actual programming lineups.

At this year's conference, Beales said, the associationwill present for the very first time actual case studies in digital -- a very popularproduct with subscribers that, when you think about it, isn't even two years old yet, withsome of the earliest adopters having first received the service in the summer of 1997.

The conference will also be the first public forum in whichCTAM's leaders will be able to implement some of the newer aspects of their new three-yearstrategic plan -- a plan that was cooking in development for more than a year.

Much of what was mapped out in that plan, which wasannounced several weeks ago, is pretty much business as usual, which is not meant to be adig, because CTAM has done extraordinarily well under Beales' reign.

What was more eye-opening to some in the business wasCTAM's new mandate "to be the highly valued bridge between the exploding technologyworld and marketing, as they come together to develop, introduce and market newproducts," according to the printed mission statement.

"Is CTAM trying to overtake the National CableTelevision Association?" asked one amazed reader. "It sounds like they're doingeverything but lobbying."

And that's about it. What the new mandate means in plainEnglish, Beales says, is that CTAM wants to help companies to provide "consumer inputbefore products roll off the shelves."

Now that's language that we understand, and we applaud themove -- especially given the cable industry's track record of not really understandingwhat its customers actually want.

To bring technology and marketing together, CTAM haselected Dick Green, president and CEO of CableLabs, to its board of directors -- anothergreat move that the industry should applaud.

On top of that, CTAM just hired David Large, a 15-yearcable veteran, as a technology consultant. Large is principal and cofounder of MediaConnects Group, which provides consulting services in telecommunications to other publicand private sectors.

Starting in New Orleans, CTAM says its members will seemore technology and new-product focus at its conferences. The association has already hasmade good on that promise: Just to drop a few names, at the closing brunch of this week'sconference, two of the speakers hail from the high-tech world.

Ed Breen, chairman and CEO of General Instrument Corp.,will be on hand to probably take a little heat from fellow panelist Maggie Bellville,senior vice president of operations for Cox Communications Inc., who has some gripes aboutsoftware support.

And Adam Grosser, senior vice president of operations at@Home Network, will tell us what to expect next from our TV sets and computers.

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