What You Told Us

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Last week, we all read and heard about the Grinch who stole Christmas. I'm not talking about the movie-which is still going great at the box office-but rather the compound effect of the Federal Reserve Board raising interest rates several times this past year, the angst over a new administration in Washington, astronomically rising energy prices and the sharp decline in the stock market-all of which contributed to a very disappointing holiday retail season.

Retailers-ranging from high-end outfits like jewelry stores to mainstream companies like Wal-Mart Stores Inc.-all pretty much missed their target sales figures. And last week, the people who measure these things had already declared this holiday season to be the worst in a decade, even though the final retail figures won't be available until Jan. 4.

At the risk of sounding like a Monday-morning quarterback, the signs have been there since April, when the NASDAQ took its dramatic and long-sustaining plunge. Now, the question is this: Given all the economic roadkill in 2000, how badly has consumer confidence been shaken?

Closer to home, we can tell you what some of our readers think-and about their spending plans for this year-based on Multichannel News' annual editorial survey, which was mailed in September and is now complete.

When asked how they felt about the future of the cable industry this year , only 51 percent of respondents said they were "very optimistic." That figure is strikingly down from last year's survey, when a whopping 72 percent said they were "very optimistic."

That's not terribly surprising, considering the pounding cable stocks took this year. They're down an average of 20 percent if you factor out AT&T, which drags down the whole sector with a set of problems unique to itself.

Still, that 51 percent figure on operator optimism about the future from 2000 is markedly down from 1999, when 67 percent of our readers said they were very optimistic.

To find a lower number, we went back to 1997, shortly after the enactment of the Telecommunications Act. Back then, only 38 percent of our respondents had said they were very optimistic about the cable industry's future.

We have found that particular yardstick-how operators feel about the future of the industry-has tended to correlate with outlays for plant improvement and product launches over the past few years.

Regardless of how operators feel about the outlook for cable, spending to upgrade plant and launch new services this year remains bullish. MSOs are continuing to duke it out with new entrants in this very competitive telecommunications arena.

That's not out of whack with the National Cable Television Association's year-end report, which estimated that 81 percent of U.S. cable homes passed by cable are now 750 MHz or better. Our research numbers were in sync with what the association had found.

And in terms of how many cable homes now have activated two-way-capable plant, our research numbers also mirror the NCTA's findings.

Yes, our research also pretty much jibes with deployment of digital video and cable modems.

But the NCTA had no year-end figures on the deployment of interactive television, which is not terribly surprising, given the long laundry list of new product rollouts that operators are sorting through.

While the NCTA said "development of interactive TV moved rapidly during 2000," the association bulleted only a handful of market trials already underway and provided no hard-core numbers.

Our reader research shows that ITV deployments might be further down the road than the NCTA suggests. Only 6 percent of our respondents said they plan to launch those services within a year. Another 11 percent said they would launch ITV within three years.

While our reader surveys tend to be small-with 200 or so respondents-they are nonetheless statistically projectable. But as with any research, none of it can actually predict future behavior. So take these findings with a grain of salt.

But let's hope that the 51 percent who were very positive about the future of cable are right that the glass is half-full, not half-empty. A happy and prosperous New Year to all of you from us.

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