Magazine article Variety

Cable Scrambles to Play Catchup

Magazine article Variety

Cable Scrambles to Play Catchup

Article excerpt


Top brass at the industry's annual confab acknowledges the need to be more nimble and innovative

EMBRACE OR ANNIHILATE? Both sides of the cable biz's split personality regarding Internet video technologies and services took the stage at this year's Cable Show in Washington, D.C.

In one corner was Comcast. Topper Brian Roberts used his keynote slot at the cable biz's annual confab in the style of a Silicon Valley product reveal to tout X2, a new guide that will span TV, tablets, smartphones and computers to deliver smarter recommendations, Web content and apps, and a voice-activated remote control.

Comcast's firm belief is that it Can beat challenSers like Apple, Amazon, Google and Intel in the living room with it elegant, simple and powerful TV experience. The operator also showed a "cloud" TV service, which will sling live TV and DVR recordings to Internet-connected devices in subscribers' homes and provide virtually infinite storage.

Roberts offered a mea culpa for the ugly and clunky cable guides of yore, asserting that the new Comcast is focused on hardware and software innovation. "Guilty as charged," he said. "We haven't made it as easy as we need to."

But in a more defensive thrust, the industry has been planting landmines around its perimeter to keep insurgent Internet players at bay. Time Warner Cable chief Glenn Britt disclosed during an analyst sesh at the show that the operator has programming contracts designed to prevent would-be "virtual cable operators" from licensing cable programming.

Programmers also are of two minds about the potentially disruptive rise of online video. Overall, new tech has been a boon for traditional TV - roping more fans into hit series rather than driving them to cut the cord.

Thanks to subscription VOD services like Netflix, ratings for 70% of AMC Networks' scripted series have increased in subsequent seasons where TV historically had gotten long in the tooth, said AMC prexy and CEO Josh Sapan, speaking on a panel. "We've seen these escalations on these TV shows," he said. "They have been enabled by this disruption."

Even over-the-top video boxes like Roku's can help the cable TV industry, according to Steve Shannon, G.M. of content and services. About 70% of Roku's 5 million-plus users are cable customers, and about three quarters of them ascribe new value to the pay-TV package because of the TV Everywhere apps on their Roku box, he said.

Still, Sapan said, online viewing could someday hurt traditional cable: "There's always the specter of friends turning into foes, or growing up to be foes."

Cord-cutting, while small today, is a real phenomenon as more pay TV subscribers dropped their service in the past 12 months than have signed up, industry analysts have reported.

TV Everywhere is the industry's great hope for keeping people paying for pay TV amid oceans of online video, by letting subscribers watch current-season fare across multiple screens. …

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