What Next for Show Biz?

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Fresh back from last week's National Show in Chicago — an event which saw attendance sag 23 percent and exhibitor floor space drop 10 percent — one has to wonder how future gatherings will be retooled to deal with the realities of a very different marketplace.

If I were an exhibitor, I would be thinking hard about the return on my investment. And judging from the corridor talk I heard in the Windy City, vendors are clearly mulling their future options.

On the tech side, many MSO heads said that their companies would stick with the 2000 line of digital set-top boxes. Basically, they're saying that little sucker has a lot of life and flexibility in it. Many compared it to a Honda engine, which lasts forever.

That Honda analogy resonated with me. While I lust for a green Jaguar, my 1988 Acura Legend does what a car is supposed to do: It starts, keeps on running and gets me to my destination in relative comfort.

Sure, I wish it could brew coffee — or remind me to turn off the coffeepot when I leave home — but the Jaguar can't do that, either. So, who really knows what that mystical 5000 box can do that the 2000 cannot?

And that's a wake-up call for middleware vendors. They have to do a little straddling here: Keep developing applications for the present line of boxes while investing in the future for a world that awaits souped-up 5000s.

Likewise on the programming side: With many established networks at full distribution and emerging channels waiting for further digital set-top deployment, there wasn't a whole lot of wheeling and dealing going on in the sparsely attended exhibit hall.

Every cable operator wants to add more viewing options to stave off the threat from DBS and its vast offerings. But unless there's subscriber value, what's the point of adding another digital network of repurposed programming from the mature, mother network?

Maybe not much. It's like me buying yet another pair of black shoes. I have dozens of them, but wind up wearing the same pairs — like viewers who wind up watching the same dozen or so favorite channels.

So enter the backers of cable's next big confab, the California Cable Television Association, which is staring down the barrel of a loaded gun. The CCTA is in the thick of planning its Western Show, an annual soirée that returns to the not-so-popular venue of Anaheim, Calif. — a long and expensive trek for East Coasters.

But none of this is lost on veteran CCTA vice president of industry affairs C.J. Hirschfield, who buttonholed reporters in Chicago last week to let us know that major changes are in the wind.

And the biggest one is that the CCTA will pay cable MSOs to send their folks to the show. Here's the pitch: The CCTA is in dialogue with major MSO heads about scheduling their company meetings at the Western Show. The association would pony up free hotel rooms, dump registration fees and provide other benefits.

That's not a bad idea, but you wonder what this will do to the CCTA's own financial health. It's a high-stakes gamble.

According to Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing president Char Beales, most industry trade shows already waive registration fees for would-be buyers. Luckily, Beales doesn't have that problem. Her upcoming annual summit in San Francisco next month does not have an exhibition area, so she doesn't have to worry about directing traffic to vendors' booths.

The CTAM summit is more education-driven, and Beales reports that attendance, to date, is tracking favorably to last year's numbers.

And that might be the real clue for beefing up attendance at the major cable shows. One thing I did notice at the National Show last week was that sessions were jammed, even though the exhibit hall was not.

That tells me there's more room for out-of-the-box thinking. CCTA's Hirschfield says 65 new vendors to cable have already signed up for the upcoming show. Now, all she has to do is get some real live customers on the floor.

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