CHICAGO — The Independent Show — which kicks off today (July 29) in Chicago — is shifting with the changing cable sands this year, offering members more marketing, workforce and e-commerce sessions in line with the industry-wide transition toward broadband and IP services. National Cable Television Cooperative CEO Rich Fickle spoke with Multichannel News about the show and and other issues affecting small cable operators. An edited transcript follows.
MCN: What’s different about the show this year? What should operators be looking for?
Rich Fickle: If you looked at the show content three years ago or four years ago, it was probably 80% video-driven. Now you’re seeing a broader mix, more broadband and some other areas relating to the management of companies. So, for example, this will have a focus on three panels regarding workforce hiring. Next generation — there are a lot of family-run companies, so there are a lot of special circumstances associated with that. It’s really an interesting time, in terms of how do you find a workforce that can adapt and operate in a much more software-driven world, given the mix of services? That’s one critical theme.
The folks in our group and ACA [Connects] on the legal side put together a pretty good program that is attracting some of the top legal executives from across the membership. That’s a first for us.
There is much more of a focus on marketing. As some of these services start to look alike across the competitive landscape and there is more competition, how do you differentiate yourself as a smaller operator? Where do you stand in terms of your brand, and what are the best practices that you can learn from others to compete with sometimes larger companies?
MCN: How different is it marketing broadband, apps and IP services than the traditional bundle, which mainly was sold on a price-comparison basis?
RF: Operators used to have a common, triple, double, sometimes quadruple play, and everyone was organized the same way and it was a call-center sales process. Today, I think it’s much more of an e-commerce play — allowing customers to find you easily, make their selections online and, in some cases, fill their requests online and even from the comfort of their remotes at home. That’s a different paradigm.
MCN: I see that you’re doing a General Session with Viacom. Is that a first for you guys?
RF: It is. We recently completed a renewal with Viacom and I think the terms are good, they’re attractive to a lot of our members. It doesn’t mean you won’t see some members think long and hard about the renewals, just because of the way that pressures are with the cost of video. We thought it was appropriate, given that we were able to reach a positive agreement with Viacom, to have their executives spend some time talking about what’s going on with that company, and a little bit about the deal structure and where they’re going. I would give kudos to [Viacom CEO Bob] Bakish and his team in their efforts to revitalize those relationships across the industry, ours included.
You’ll see another similar approach on the technology side. We invited some senior executives from a couple of the large suppliers to talk about their businesses and the challenges they have, given things like competition on a global basis, tariffs and shrinking R&D budgets. We thought we would let these executives help us understand what’s important to them, what the challenges are and how we can work together more collaboratively.
MCN: There are some breakout sessions on topics like HR. Is that becoming increasingly important to your membership as technology advances?
RF: It is. In some ways it’s kind of an aging workforce, and the question is, how do you recruit and attract that next generation? The old way I grew up in cable, you had technicians that were at the top of the food chain in terms of being able to solve problems and turn things around. Now a lot of the tech skills are embedded in support systems, alarming, alerts and diagnostics. [Call-center reps are] no longer customer-service reps. They’re really technical support people now, with tools that are far different than what we had five years ago.
MCN: What can members do for fun at the show?
RF: We’ve got an afternoon out at Wrigley Field, giving members and their families the chance to run out on the field, run the bases, throw pitches, hear from the Cubs management and a few players. I think it will be a tremendously popular event and it’s being done in partnership with Sinclair, which struck a relationship with the Cubs [forming RSN Marquee Sports Network]. … We’re grateful to Sinclair, to have them participate in a big way, and once again it’s a sign of the different approach to how we’re adapting to the challenges in the industry.