Rethinking Show Biz

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It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that it's not business as usual these days. Now that the dust has settled, cable's upfront advertising market looks to be off some 20 percent from last year.

And nowhere is that stark reality being absorbed more quickly than at the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, which is already working to make sure that next year's National Show in New Orleans doesn't crater as well.

The NCTA, like many of its members, is looking at Aug. 24 with great trepidation. That's this Friday — the deadline that the California Cable Television Association has set for Western Show exhibitors to commit to booth space. The No. 2 cable-industry show heads back to Anaheim, Calif., this November, and many programmers are still on the fence about whether to return as exhibitors.

Come Aug. 24, we will know if the CCTA's effort to get more warm cable system bodies onto the exhibit floor by paying their way will actually matter to those who are thinking of pulling out to save money during tight times.

But the NCTA is not going so far as to pay anyone's way. Instead, it is looking for new ways to convince exhibitors — especially the more-established ones — to keep pitching their tents at the event.

The NCTA's basic thinking that the traditional convention model of a big exhibit hall works fine for new companies, but not for established outfits. The new companies are not bellyaching about the high cost of exhibition because they have few or no customers and are willing to pay the price for market entry.

But that model no longer seems to work for established exhibitors, who say they can make eight phone calls to the eight powers that be and seal any deal.

Right now, the NCTA is doing some refreshing and candid rethinking of the whole trade-show conundrum. The association argues that the purchasing chain is much larger than eight MSOs and involves a host of local cable-system executives who need to be a part of that process.

The inference: Where better to do that than at the National Show?

As a result, the NCTA is now exploring alternatives for exhibitors who want to maintain a presence without erecting a costly booth. One new option that could keep exhibitors from mutiny: the prefabricated suite.

Presumably, such units — which look a lot like a hotel suite, with a living room setting and bar but also a small screening area — are cheaper than booths.

The NCTA may also reduce the number of sessions it runs, realizing that they drain traffic from the exhibit floor. So it's is considering putting meeting rooms in a corridor adjacent to the halls, to empty traffic right onto the floor. Not a bad idea.

To further reduce exhibitors' costs, the NCTA may host a giant party for all comers. That event would have a center tent with some big-name entertainer on stage. Exhibitors who want to have private parties could erect their own pavillions around that center tent and issue passes to key clients. The notion is to let them have their private parties, but still be a part of a bigger happening.

Those are just some of the early seeds planted by an NCTA task force. Soon, the association will form its convention planning committee, chaired by Wink Communications Inc. CEO Maggie Wilderotter.

Now that you know what the NCTA's planners have up their sleeves, throw in your two cents and tell them what you think — and what you want.

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