For Cable, Bird's the Word


If you had attended the National Show in Chicago last month to get the view from 30,000 feet, you would have absolutely no clue as to how really worried cable operators are about the clear and present danger from direct-broadcast satellite.

But if you had attended the CTAM Summit or the New England Cable & Communications Association's recent meetings, you got the view from the operating field — which is starkly different and more honest about where things stand, especially regarding the losses the industry has felt from DBS.

That's largely because the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, which hosts the National Show, has one and only one agenda: to spin cable's glowing story to Wall Street, Washington regulators and the consumer press. In other words, the National Show is no time for the industry to publicly sweat. And it did not.

By contrast, both CTAM and NECTA wrestled with the nitty-gritty challenges of keeping satellite at bay — an onerous job, considering that the cable industry, to date, has lost about 20% market share to DBS.

And new developments on the DBS front will pose even more new competitive problems for cable. More than likely, while the public shrugged off DBS developments as no big deal, operators at both CTAM and NECTA were bracing themselves for even more fierce competitive battles.

They reckon that News Corp. chieftain Rupert Murdoch will invest handsomely in his new toy and try to launch the kind of interactive services here in the states that he has so successfully done with BSkyB across the pond. That's trouble.

On top of that, EchoStar's Dish Network, which has always played a cut-rate pricing game, just got a $500 million infusion from SBC Communications. That deal seems to be all about SBC entering the video business, so it could bundle in DSL service to attack cable on the high-speed access front. That could be interesting.

If all of that wasn't enough for cable industry to stew over, one of its very own brethren, Cablevision's chairman Chuck Dolan successfully launched his Rainbow satellite and promises that by October it will be up and running with programming services. And that is very weird.

While no one except Dolan knows what's he's going to do, some folks were worried that he launched the satellite only because if he didn't, he would have lost the spectrum due to deadline constrictions.

Now some cable executives fear that Dolan will, in turn, sell Rainbow DBS to DirecTV, which needs more capacity — thus making it an even more fierce competitor to cable. That's too scary to think about.

No matter how you slice it, the bird is clearly the word and the reason the push is on for cable to quickly ramp up and spew out even more advanced services, like high-definition television.

The Wall Street Journal last Thursday reported that satellite already has the lead in the HDTV rollout. But the high-def race is getting more interesting by the moment, with Time Warner Cable leading the charge.

This race bears watching, because it involves every sector of the television business. Cable must not be left behind.