That Dumb Pipe Is Cable's Edge


Having recently returned from the industry's largest gathering of marketing experts, enthusiasts and ingénues, there is a certain expectation that cable marketers are all now invigorated and ready to kick Rupert's and Charlie's you-know-whats.

However, has anyone out there contemplated if operators are arming themselves with the right weapons for this competitive battle? It's an obvious question, but the argument has changed over the years, and the value of broadband's role in the consumer world has changed with it.

"Content is king!" has been the oft-repeated hue and cry of the industry, echoing again as "branding," "value" and multiple other buzzwords that are tossed around to describe what cable operators should champion to maintain or advance their place in the universe. As Hallmark Channel's Chris Moseley pointed out, operators have yet to get credit for delivering the world of infotainment to customer's living rooms — so from what do they get return?

Like it or not, they get credit for their big pipes. For years, the cable industry has been valiantly fighting to not be characterized as a dumb pipe. But if you boil it right down to basics, cable's advantage is in that pipe, regardless of its I.Q.

Content is everywhere. More and more, what you can find on broadcast you can find on cable and then some, which you can also find on direct-broadcast satellite. And what you can find on all of these, you can find on the Internet. Programming and content companies get to play on all sides of the distribution fence, and exclusivity is an issue in only one or two cases. Is content really the best value proposition to present to cable customers? The satellite platform will always prevail on sheer quantity and uniformity.

It seems logical that broadband's true distinction is in delivery. Think about it from a psychological point of view. What makes cable customers the angriest? If you could only pick the top issue — that one thing that cable's best customers tie themselves in knots over — what would it be? When it doesn't work. When you go to watch your favorite show, and you only get snow in return. When you rely on your Internet access like a fanatic and network problems prevent you from getting your e-mail. We won't even touch telephony.

Reliability of delivery is the key. Obviously, with cable's top customers — those multiproduct, interactive wanna-bes — price isn't the most pressing issue. It's not availability, because if you have a program craving, you have at least three sources (if not more) from which to get it. Speed? Not really. Digital subscriber line or T-1 technologies can get most customers where they need to go seemingly as fast as a cable modem.

What really ticks people off? When all of that content that they've come to know and all of that access that they've come to rely on is not there.

Cable's local advantage still exists, though it's only an advantage if it does something novel for the customers served. New technologies will be key, but most are too far in the future for mass appeal or acceptance today. The connection is the thing.

As a customer, would you switch providers if a less-than-optimal connection was available, but could be relied on to never let you down? Think about the e-mail scenario before you answer that.

Comcast [Corp.] is on to something in this arena, as its local Denver system keeps running an ad about the unreliability of DBS signals. It's simple, it gets attention and it presents a critical brand-differentiating element — but only if the backbone can support the advertising claims. Cable marketing overall says very little about signal dependability, and maybe that's why. New technologies are coming fast and furious, and if you're going to highlight delivery, the main caution is to make sure the whole cable ecosystem works, and that you can support new elements if you need to (especially if quick popularity may strain the system). Note: don't rely on the consumer to help with dependability either. Every operator I know has volumes on that subject.

Once you get to a certain level of provision, it's all about reliability — which includes technology — but the two are not the same. Having established an unbreakable baseline of selection and technological availability when compression came on the scene, cable's nuance shifted from quantity to quality. The voice of the mass market is clear, and it sounds eerily like that of a junkie: "Don't tease me. If you get me hooked on it, and I come to expect it and rely on it, and then you disappoint me, you lose me."

Just add "keep it working" to the ever-repeated plea of "keep it simple." And to all of the operators and programmers who continue to make the fight worth it — keep it up.