National Show '03: Tech Leads the Way — Again

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John Sie, the chairman of Starz Encore Group LLC, remembers the 1975 National Show vividly.

A major flood hit New Orleans that year, leaving the suitcases of many convention attendees bobbing in the hotel lobby, Sie recalls. At the convention itself, Gerald Levin and Robert Rosencranz announced plans to put their networks on satellite — Levin developed Home Box Office, while Rosencranz started what would become USA Network.

Also making an appearance on a panel session that year was Teleprompter Corp. CEO Irving Kahn, who had been released from jail the previous year, after he was convicted of attempting to bribe officials in order to get a cable franchise.

More new tech

Sie, who was a top executive at Jerrold Electronics at the time, said that technology exhibits dominated those early conventions, which took place before many of today's basic-cable networks had launched.

While the rapid growth of new networks saw programmers dominate the cable industry's annual conventions throughout the 80s and 90s, technology — led today by HDTV and video-on-demand products — will once again rule the National Show this year.

"I think what the focus of the show is likely to be on is the new products and services that companies are offering," said National Cable & Telecommunications CEO Robert Sachs.

The centerpiece of the convention floor will be an HD Pavilion, organized by Cable Television Laboratories Inc. The pavilion will feature many HDTV displays from hardware companies such as Sony Corp., Scientific-Atlanta Inc., Microsoft Corp. Motorola Broadband Communications Sector and Pioneer Corp., as well as programmers such as HBO, Showtime Networks Inc., Discovery HD Theater, A&E Television Networks and ESPN HD.

Sachs, who also hinted that there would be several HD-related announcements from networks at next week's convention, said cable operators are looking to use the rollout of HDTV services to help differentiate themselves their from satellite competitors, especially on the local level.

"If the cable industry is able to recapture some of the existing analog spectrum on cable systems, then cable will be very well-positioned to offer more and more HD product, and satellite — which today, even in an analog world, only services 50 to 60% of the markets with local broadcast signals — is going to have its own challenge in bringing broadcast television and high-definition broadcast television to 210 markets," Sachs said.

Although wireless fidelity (Wi Fi) services, which allow users of the wireless Internet to plug into local broadband networks, may pose a competitive threat to cable operators, the technology will also be spotlighted on the convention floor.

The "Wi Fi Park" will contain several exhibits and offer National Show attendees free wireless Internet access.

Gates a draw

Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, who will be featured in the opening general session on Monday, is expected to be one of the biggest panel draws.

But unlike the 1998 National Show in Chicago — where Gates gave a speech that touted Microsoft products — this year he'll take part in a roundtable discussion with Viacom Inc. president Mel Karmazin, AOL Time Warner CEO Richard Parsons and Comcast Corp. CEO Brian Roberts.

NCTA plans to close the convention on June 11 with a panel session featuring several other heavyweights, including Time Warner Cable CEO Glenn Britt, Comcast president Stephen Burke, Mediacom Communications Corp. CEO Rocco Commisso, Cox Communications Inc. CEO James Robbins, Cablevision Systems Corp. president Tom Rutledge, Adelphia Communications Corp. CEO William Schleyer and Charter Communications Inc. CEO Carl Vogel.

Most nets are in

NCTA listed more than 175 separate exhibitors on its Web site last week. But the list broke out the exhibits of many individual companies into multiple exhibits, such as the Discovery Communications Inc., which listed 10 exhibits, and Fox Cable Networks Group, which comprised seven exhibits. The 2002 convention drew approximately 200 exhibitors.

While nearly all cable programmers skipped the industry's other major convention — the Western Show in December — most major networks and several smaller programmers will exhibit in Chicago.

Although the number of attendees and exhibitors at the National Show has dropped since the dot-com boom of the late '90s, Outdoor Channel CEO Andy Dale said that can be a good thing.

"The fewer exhibitors on the floor, the less the clutter," Dale said. The exhibit for Outdoor Channel, which buys displays at regional conventions but not the Western Show, will look like "an oasis of wilderness in the middle of all of this glitz," Dale said.

Disney's pitch

While most of the major cable networks already have long-term deals with the major MSOs, some executives said that conventions like the National Show allow them to pitch new products, including VOD and Internet applications.

In addition to pitching networks like Toon Disney and SoapNet, ABC Cable Networks senior vice president of affiliate sales and marketing Ben Pyne said the company will be showing cable operators its subscription video on demand product for Disney Channel and Playhouse Disney and its "Learning Together" public-affairs initiative.

"We are part of the industry, and it is a time when the entire industry comes to one place," Pyne said. "I welcome the opportunity to talk about our networks because there's clearly so much going on with Disney Channel and ABC Family, and also with SoapNet and Toon Disney, which are still in their growth phase."

Attendance at another industry convention, last month's Society of Cable & Telecommunications Engineers Cable-Tec Expo, increased slightly, to 10,600. But SCTE president John Clarke said the Expo's growth "isn't indicative" of a growth spurt for the trade-show business; rather he attributed it to the SCTE's decision to move the convention to Philadelphia this year.

CTAM plays along

Two years ago, NCTA executives talked to officials with other industry organizations — such as the Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing and SCTE — about rolling some of their conferences into the National Show. But CTAM, which folded its Broadband Opportunities Conference into the National Show beginning last year, was the only association that agreed to NCTA's offer.

"We're the only group that actually played along," said CTAM president Char Beales. CTAM will generate a "little bit" of revenue from running some sessions on Sunday at the National Show.

Beales, who will run the annual CTAM Summit in Seattle this July, said the growth of new broadband services is good news for organizations that run conventions such as CTAM and NCTA.

"We're only now beginning to see what the opportunities are to use that pipe into the home — that's why the Broadband Opportunities Conference is great," she said. "So I do think the shows could grow as the companies figure out what to do with the pipe.

"Will they get back to 30,000 [attendees]? Probably not. The industry has changed too much."

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