The major annual meeting for independent cable operators later this month is undergoing some sweeping changes, as those smaller companies reach out to their much-bigger brethren.
For the first time in recent memory, the Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing will moderate a panel at the joint meeting of the National Cable Television Cooperative, a buying co-op, and the American Cable Association, a lobbying group. The NCTC and ACA both represent small and medium-sized cable companies.
A second panel at the confab in Chicago will focus on the so-called quad play — video, voice, high-speed access and wireless phone.
That session will examine the Sprint Nextel Corp. joint venture with Comcast Corp., Time Warner Cable, Cox Communications Inc. and Advance/Newhouse Communications — as well as what the prospects are for smaller cable operators to participate in that deal, or if they should instead consider reselling cellular-phone service on their own.
“If this Sprint joint venture is a viable option for our guys, we want to know that,” said NCTC president Jeff Abbas, whose co-op represents cable systems with 8 million subscribers. “If it’s not, we want to know that, too, because our guys are going to get in the wireless space.”
These panels reflect Abbas’s stamp on The Independent Show, the moniker for the joint NCTC-ACA meeting.
Abbas, as the eight-month-long president of the NCTC, has been trying to build better relationships between his members — which range from rural mom-and-pop companies to Cable One Inc. — and the rest of the cable industry.
“We’re looking to forge better connections with all of the industry entities and harness everybody’s thoughts about how you harness this transformation,” Abbas said, referring to the evolution of cable operators — including his small members — from video providers to full-service telecommunications companies.
“Our role is to help them manage that transition,” he said.
Like large MSOs, smaller cable companies believe they can better compete against direct-broadcast satellite by offering a package of services, not just video but voice, broadband and even cellular phone service.
The NCTC and ACA since 2001 have been holding joint annual meetings. This year’s event, rebranded as the Independent Show, kicks off with a Sunday dinner July 30, with panels and sessions July 31 to Aug. 2.
In the past, the ACA sponsored the opening welcome dinner and conducted its show sessions totally separate from the NCTC’s. This year, the welcome dinner is being held by both groups, and ACA and NCTC panels are sprinkled throughout the four-day show.
“The biggest change to the face of the show, the appearance of the show, is that it really is much more integrated with the ACA,” Abbas said.
ACA president Matt Polka agreed that fully combining both meetings allows for more integration of the topics of politics, his forte, and business, the NCTC’s bailiwick. Retransmission consent, for example, is one issue that has political and business implications.
“Business is politics and politics is business,” Polka said. “In virtually any aspect of what I do, three’s a business context. And in virtually everything that Jeff does, there’s a political context.”
Abbas, who has spent the past four months traveling across the country and visiting 40 of his members, has made it his mission to make overtures to fellow cable organizations — not only CTAM, but such others as the National Cable & Telecommunications Association.
He’s enthusiastic about CTAM president Char Beales coming to the Independent Show to lead a panel on effective marketing for smaller cable systems in rural markets.
“I’m just thrilled that Char is going to come out and spend some time with us,” Abbas said, adding that he expects her to tailor her observations to his members.
“Having Manhattan to amortize a marketing decision would be a wonderful thing, and our guys don’t have [that],” he said. “Char has to push her thinking down to the lowest practical denominator.”
As far as the quad-play panel at the show, 20 to 30 of the NCTC’s members are already offering wireless phone service, according to Abbas. He has talked to some of the cable-operator participants in the Sprint Nextel wireless consortium to get a read about whether his members will be able to jump on that deal.
“Clearly they want to welcome us to the party, to have us get a place in line,” Abbas said. “But the flip of that is they don’t know whether that line … [means waiting] six months long or two years long before they work through all of their own operational integration-type questions.”
Ultimately, according to Abbas, NCTC members “may think that joint venture is the right vehicle for them, or they might think that the time horizon is too long or too uncertain, that they may want to do something on a reseller basis, even if it’s on a short-term basis, to get some experience in the product bundle.
But they want to know what their options are so they can make an informed decision.”