In April 3-5, 2005, the National Cable and Telecommunication Association held its annual show in San Francisco. This year's show was a day shorter than last year's show, and in the spirit of Convergence sounds more like other Convergence Conferences. For example, they had Larry Page of Google on stage with Jeffrey Katzenberg of DreamWorks agreeing that iPod is a swell product.
The slogan of this year's show was Cable Puts You In Control. This slogan was previously used in their campaign to make parents aware of free channel blocking. I think it works even better as recognition of the extraordinary amount of media control flowing to consumers.
Cable's competitive situation remains strong. The Telco's are trying to enter the television business, but are not strong competitors and are having trouble getting rights to content. Satellite is still strong, but new OD (On Demand) services should give Cable a significant advantage.
The Government is less of a worry now. The FCC approved Cable's request to delay retail STBs for another year. Cable also got its way on the DTV Must-Carry issue. The a la Carte issue has become quiet. The FCC will probably become more active on Obscenity this year, but currently that action only affects Broadcasting, not Cable. The NCTA took the BrandX case to the Supreme Court. The decision is expected this summer.
President Bush elevated FCC Commissioner Kevin Martin to the position of Chairman. Martin joined the Commission from the White House, where he served as a Special Assistant to the President for Economic Policy and was on the staff of the National Economic Council. Chairman Martin was interviewed here. His responses were very cautious. His first priority at the FCC is staffing. He must replace the staffers who left when Chairman Powell left. Commissioner Abernathy will be leaving the FCC as well. That leaves two vacancies that the Bush Administration must fill. I think this may cause the FCC to remain somewhat inactive for a time.
V-chip has not been very effective, but it is likely that the Congress and FCC will continue to push it because they do not have a better solution and they are getting pressured by the Religious Right. It used to be that the FCC would receive 100 complaints about obscenity and violence per year. Last year it received over a million complaints. Most of them were form letters, and I suspect that most of them were from people who did not see or hear the original broadcast. Even so, the FCC must respond to the complaints.
The President, I think, has the right idea: "I often told parents who were complaining about content: you're the first line of responsibility. They put an OFF button on the TV for a reason. Turn it off."
I tried to find opinions on when the Bidirectional Plug and Play specification will be completed. The most optimistic answer was "this summer" from Vidiom Systems, an OCAP developer. Most other opinions were on the order of "maybe next year". There is a battle between the MSOs who want uniformity and the CE manufacturers who want differentiation. Also, as the amount of software in the box increases, the problems of bugs and software upgrades and versioning increase. These problems still need to be solved.
Cable is beginning to recognize that the CableCard was a mistake. The card itself is very expensive. The service cost associated with interoperability problems have also been expensive. It does not work well in products containing multiple tuners (such as DVRs). CableLabs may now be looking at downloadable security in the next generation, so that Cable security will work more like Internet link encryption, not requiring separate hardware.
The Satellite companies have been very smart in using HDTV retailing to acquire customers. They put displays in retail stores, and allow retailers to sell Satellite receivers and services. Cable has been attempting to do the same thing, but has been much less less effective. Cable has some problems:
The MSOs are large national organizations, but they are really federations of local cable operators. Many of those local operations have their own billing and management systems. It is not easy for a retailer like Best Buy to automatically activate Cable accounts.
Often, cable promotions are designed and executed locally. It is difficult for a national retailer to adapt to a large number of local promotions. They do better with national campaigns.
Retailers are sometime allowed to provide and install STBs, but they are not allowed to provide and install CableCards. That means that the customer is forced to pay for an extra installation visit if they buy DCR equipment. Cable wants to discourage people from buying DCR equipment. That works against retailers when they try to sell it. TimeWarner, for example, says that DCR/CableCard is "an impaired experience today". They will provide CableCards only because they are required to. How many CableCards have they installed? "Not a lot."
The Cable companies are not carrying all HDTV programs in HD. Often they will downrez them to SD to conserve bandwidth. This practice destroys the value of the HDTV sale that they are using to sign up Cable subscribers.
Consumers would like there to be a common interface through the whole house, so that the TV in the bedroom works the same way as the TV in the livingroom.
Jeffrey Katzenberg of DreamWorks mentioned a videoconference system that they put together. It uses high quality HDTV systems. It also uses IM (instant messaging) and other modes of communications. They believe that high quality, multimodal technology provides for better communication.
There was lots of talk about 11 year olds, and how they can watch TV and engage in multiple channels of IM at the same time. People are finding new ways to communicate with each other. One of the ways people communicate is by sharing content.
People love all of the choices that are being made available to them now. Choice and variety are much more interesting than the interactivity provided by ITV.
Advertisers will trade control for context. Instead of trying to dictate that you will watch their ad at a particular time, they will instead try to make the ad available when it is of possible interest to you. This is a radically different advertising model.
DVRs and STBs can collect better data than Neilson can, which could also significantly change the way that advertising works. Neilson's surveys can be replaced with accurate censuses.
A highly valued TV feature is the ability to plug in a laptop. Since home networking isn't real yet, the best way to get programming from the Internet to the livingroom is by plugging the laptop into the TV.
Lean forward: the computer screen.
Lean back: the TV.
The third screen: mobile.
People are still confused about HDTV, but things are improving. Of people who do not own HDTV, 31% had heard of it in 2003, 40% had heard of it in 2004. Of the people who own HDTV, 1/3 do not get HDTV programming and know it, 1/3 do get HDTV programming, and 1/3 think that they get HDTV programming but don't.
Television is now a replacement market. When people make a decision to get a new TV, it is usually motivated by furniture, not programming. Roughly 5% of households say they would buy a $1,000 HDTV this year.