A la Carte Top of Mind at CTPAA Confab

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Washington -- The long-standing debate over whether operators should offer subscribers a la carte programming choices was a hot topic at the Cable Television Public Affairs Association conference here Monday.

"I fear an a la carte world for sociological reasons," TV One CEO Johnathan Rodgers told attendees, noting that he was concerned that an a la carte distribution strategy would see people "self-segregate ourselves."

Rodgers drew strong applause from attendees when he noted that while not all viewers would watch ethnic channels like TV One, they may never get the chance in an a la carte world.

"Would people pick this channel if they had to? No. Would they watch this channel from time to time? Yes," he said.

Charter Communications Inc. CEO Carl Vogel told attendees, "Pure a la carte is unrealistic."

And Insight Communications Co. Inc. chief Michael Willner said a la carte would see few new networks succeed. "It would be difficult to launch a new idea -- it would be impossible," Willner added.

Moderator Torie Clarke, a senior Comcast Corp. advisor and former Pentagon and National Cable & Telecommunications Association spokeswoman, noted, "99% of policymakers think the reason [cable operators] don’t want a la carte is that you’ll make less money."

The backlash from Janet Jackson’s halftime performance at the Super Bowl was also a big topic, with Scripps Networks president of affiliate sales and international development Susan Packard noting that cable operators need to "take a pretty strong point of view with those [programmers] that are chasing ratings."

Willner responded by pointing out that in meetings with cable networks, "We usually get a pat on the head, saying, ‘We’ll take care of the content, you take care of the distribution.’"

Vogel said cable operators offer parental-control features that can protect children from inappropriate content, and content isn’t an area that should be "overlegislated."

The panelists also discussed the difficulties in marketing on-demand programming.

"It’s a dilemma because it’s very expensive," Packard said, noting her company’s experience with Comcast’s on-demand platform in Philadelphia.

Willner also noted that one of the difficulties in marketing on-demand programming to advertisers is that "there’s still really no way to rate these viewers."

Pointing to Samsung Electronics America Inc.’s recent agreement to market HDTV in partnership with eight top MSOs, Vogel said operators should team up with national retailers and consumer-electronics companies to market new services. "We can leverage their marketing dollars," Vogel added.

Clarke received solid reviews from attendees as moderator. At one point, she had Rainbow Media Holdings Inc. CEO Josh Sapan play the role of a cable operator, while asking Willner to wear the hat of a programmer. "I’m not going to give you all of my products for nothing," Willner told Sapan.

Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing CEO Char Beales asked panelists a question from the floor, suggesting that the industry needs to use a different term for distributors than "cable operators," which, she noted, can have a "sleazy connotation."

Panelists were asked to predict what the cable industry would be called in 2014. Packard said the industry would still be known as cable, while Sapan said it would be "something more encompassing, something interactive."

Vogel cracked that the industry would be called "nirvana," while Willner went with the term "communications."

The CTPAA conference kicked off Sunday, with a silent auction that evening raising about $12,000 for the Emma L. Bowen Foundation for Minority Interests in Media.