I just finished reading Walter Isaacson’s
biography of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, and I’m left wondering:
What would Steve do if he were at the helm of the cable
industry? What are the parallels between his vision and
style and what we are doing in cable TV?
Needless to say, some of the technology that
we are using is hopelessly behind the curve. I am
actually embarrassed to admit to my son, who
just started at his first job as a software engineer,
that we are still using the PCMCIA form factor in
all of our set-tops.
I know, I know. It’s not our fault: It’s the FCC’s.
True, we may say that cable is heavily regulated
by the government; that it is fragmented (almost
1,200 operators and 7,200 headends); that it
has a leased business model; and that operators
are at the mercy of the programming networks.
So maybe it’s time to review cable’s entire
technological paradigm of doing business and
ask, “What would Steve Jobs do?”
Consumers expect and receive new devices every year. In
cable TV, we depreciate set-top boxes for 10 or more years.
Can anyone tell me how it is possible to compete when we
are holding on to 10-year-old equipment? The 20-plus generation
barely knows what a set-top looks like. They get content
of their own choosing on any device, when they like.
There are numerous studies on cord-trimming, but one
thing is common — young people are not subscribing to traditional
Cable basic-video subs went from 66.9 million in 2001 to
59.8 million in 2010, according to the National Cable & Telecommunications
Association. Our industry has lost almost
4 million subs in the last two years.
Those who like to extrapolate would say the trend is gaining
momentum. Is it time to rethink if watching TV over RF
is the way to the future? While we, the baby boomers, have
been almost genetically conditioned to watch cable from the
family-room couch, the young, college-educated generation
is not likely to follow this convention, and they are the ones
who will be spending the money.
Simply put, our industry’s main competition
is not satellite or telcos (as Time Warner Cable,
Comcast and Bright House just demonstrated
in the deal with Verizon); it is the Internet.
Among Steve Jobs’ last projects was an integrated
TV platform that would be completely
easy to use. In Isaacson’s biography, Jobs says
he “finally cracked it.” No one knows what this
really means, but, in my opinion, it is high time
for cable to start thinking out of the set-top box
instead of relying on QAM to be here for the
next 10 to 15 years.
By accepting this notion we are reinforcing
self-fulfilling prophecy that indeed QAM is going
to be here 10 to 15 years from now. One of Steve’s rules
was that Apple shouldn’t be afraid to cannibalize itself, because
someone else would. As an industry, cable must focus
on what it wants to look like in five or 10 years, and use
imagination and vision to develop new products and services.
In other words, there should be no sacred cows, and everything
should be on the table.
Cable has been great and I’d like to see it become “insanely
great” in the future. What would Steve Jobs do to
make this happen?
Alex Nevelson is a 20-year cable engineering veteran, working
or consulting for such companies as General Instrument,
Comcast, Pioneer and Time Warner Cable.