To CTAM Summiteers in '05 and '06


This being the week of the annual Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing Summit, two quick translations seem timely: One on an in-your-face, technology-based assertion already crashing in from the satellite camp, and another on a set of technologies that will likely require significant marketing attention this time next year.

First things first: If your television is like mine, you've probably seen a series of advertisements from DirecTV, taunting consumers to switch sides.

Some are vaguely cute. Others are vaguely frightening: The middle-aged guy moonwalking in his undies, for instance.

All contain wording that blasts cable for offering digital pictures on some, but not all, channels. It's a potent jab, because it's true — at least until the simulcast surge is complete, and all channels are available digitally.

Yet there's a part missing from DirecTV's message, and it's the part that is your ammo, marketers, when this particular jab is aimed at you.

In order for anyone to offer an all-digital package to Consumer Jane, it is necessary that every single one of Consumer Jane's analog display devices — which, in reality, are probably most of her TVs — gets outfitted with some kind of box.

Maybe it's not the crushing retort you wanted, but it nonetheless matters. When your cousin Gary starts blasting you about how much better the dish guys are than you because they have digital on all channels, remind him that he can't use the remotes that came with the TVs in his kitchen, bedroom, basement and living room because he has to use the remote that came from his satellite provider.

You, on the other hand, are outfitted to offer a suite of channels that are precisely as digital as Consumer Jane needs. Say she has an HDTV set in her living room and three analog TVs scattered throughout the house. She probably doesn't need a digital box on the other three TVs. On those, she can plug the wire right into the back of the TV, and watch as normal.

The dish guys can't do that. Every (analog) TV needs a box. Enough said.

And now, a quick fast-forward to next year's CTAM Summit, with a topic that shows all the markings of being A Big Deal within that timeframe.

It's a fairly safe prediction: By next summer, a swell of activity will be pushing toward two-way, digital cable ready devices, sold at retail.

Yes, it's a mouthful. Hopefully by then we'll have a better, or at least more succinct, way to describe these gizmos. For now, make sure you're at least familiar with the acronym known as “CHILA,” for “Cable Host Interface Licensing Agreement.” (People tend to say it as a word, as in, rhymes with “pie-luh.” Too bad there wasn't a second “L” in there, so at least we could call it “chill-uh.”)

Don't panic, marketers: The acronym won't hit the mainstream, but its fruits will.

What are they, you ask? Well, recall how openly cranked you've all been, about the “one-way” digital TVs that are in the market now — and how ravenously you've asked for “two-way” TVs?

This is them.

It is widely expected that by next Christmas, consumer-electronics manufacturers will start making digital-cable-ready TVs, which work on two-way plant.

In the beginning, watch for high-end HDTVs, possibly with built-in DVRs, which also work with cable-delivered digital services.

Perhaps the most important marketing component is this: Four companies signed the CHILA agreement (see prior “translations” for more on this). They are taking a leap of faith, and are expecting — and deserve — cooperation and partnership with cable providers.

In short, they're developing plush devices that can run cable-delivered services, including the guide, anything on demand and anything that can be “fetched” over the two-way portion of the cable plant.

And, these devices will necessarily have a national reach. No CE manufacturer — or retailer — is interested in selling something that works in Philadelphia but not in New York. That means a consistent adherence to unity, between and among MSOs.

There's another bit of context that fits here. It is OCAP, or the OpenCable Applications Platform.

The desire to leapfrog to “two-way” devices began the instant the “one-way” devices hit the market. However, as one involved technologist noted last week, it's a bit short-sighted to only know these devices as “two-way,” because that moniker doesn't answer this question: Two-way to what?

Thus it is that OCAP software will also find a spotlight over the next year, because it is OCAP that will necessarily sort out the mechanics of making two-way CE devices work with cable-delivered services.

In closing: Recently I was jumping waves at the Jersey Shore with my 9-year-old niece. She peered ahead, giddy for the next big crasher. Alas, most turned to gentle swells by the time they reached us.

Glumly, she turned to me and made one of those oddly wise comments of youth: “Hardly any of the waves of the future ever turn into anything.”

Hopefully this column identified at least one of them.

See you in Philadelphia.

Stumped by gibberish?