The need to open up the digital set-top market to new players was one of the hottest topics at a teleseminar that the Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing beamed to 16 markets late last month.
Produced from the set of TechTV's The Screen Savers
in California's Silicon Valley, the event was broadcast to regional CTAM chapters via satellite.
CTAM likes to produce a turnkey national event for its chapters early in the year, so newly elected chapter presidents can use it to drive membership, said president Char Beales.
The 2002 event featured a panel of cable-industry insiders, hosted by CTAM marketing advisor Mary Pat Blake.
With the introduction of high-definition television, video-on-demand, interactive television and digital video recorders, cable operators should focus this year on "reclaiming the mantle of having the best video product," said Cox Communications Inc. vice president of marketing Joe Rooney.
Cable must do more than just deliver a better product, argued Time Warner Cable Los Angeles division president Tom Feige.
"We have to regain that emotional connection with our customers that we've — quite frankly — lost to the satellite people over the past few years," he said.
With respect to DVR deployment, direct-broadcast satellite providers are two years ahead of cable, Rooney noted. The industry has been "hamstrung" by the Motorola Inc.-Scientific-Atlanta Inc. duopoly that controls digital set-top boxes — and their conditional-access technology — he said, though neither company was mentioned by name.
"I want us to adopt the DOCSIS (Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification) model that has worked so well with cable modems," Rooney said. "I worry that the companies we are doing business with aren't as innovative as the companies that are building boxes for DirecTV [Inc.] and EchoStar [Communications Corp.]."
The DOCSIS standard helped reduce cable-modem costs. A similar initiative could do the same for digital, Mediacom Communications Corp. senior vice president of marketing and consumer services John Pascarelli said.
MSOs could try to replicate their services in a controlled environment, he added.
"If operators were to find a way around conditional access, that would be a major shot across the bow of both [incumbent cable set-top box] companies," said Rooney, before adding, "I'm not sure that's the best solution."
The on-screen programming guides found on today's digital-cable boxes also aren't as user-friendly as they could be, Rooney also complained.
Perhaps that's one reason why digital customers still channel surf via remote more often than they use such digital features as favorite-channel lists, as a recent CTAM Pulse consumer-research study found.
It's also an argument in favor of QVC's decision to pay higher fees to operators that carry the home-shopping channel on a lower dial position, within surfing range of frequently watched networks. QVC provided studios for the mid-Atlantic CTAM chapter's March 21 teleseminar.
The panelists also debated the merit of running dish buy-back programs.
"I think they're a little dangerous," Rooney said. "If you go broadly in a market and say you'll buy back dishes, you're saying there's no risk in trying DBS: If you don't like it, we'll buy it back."
Mediacom has traded cable modems for dishes in an attempt to woo back early technology adopters that may have left the MSO before it upgraded to digital cable.
About 12 to 15 percent of Mediacom's cable-modem users didn't initially take its video service, Pascarelli noted. But the MSO has been able to convert more than 60 percent of its data-only customers to video.