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Consumers are watching movies on their smartphones and checking voice mail on their television sets, all the while chatting with friends on their computers.  Can any of this be called “television” anymore?  During The Cable Show’s closing general session yesterday, industry heavyweights answered this question from a variety of perspectives.

Thursday General Session panel at The Cable Show 2010

(L-R) Moderator Liz Claman, Matt Blank, Ari Emanuel, Tom Rogers, Tom Rutledge, Ev Willams.

“We’re still defining this as television.  I think we need to redo a couple of definitions.  We have to redefine what we do as content,” said super-agent Ari Emanuel, CEO of William Morris Endeavor Entertainment.

The bright lines among the various communications platforms are definitely becoming blurred, all the panelists agreed.  “Think about what an iPad is,” said Tom Rutledge, COO of Cablevision Systems. “Sometimes it’s a television; sometimes it’s a set-top box; sometimes it’s a remote control; sometimes it’s a computer; sometimes its a TiVo.”

Social networking, perhaps more than anything else, is turning around the old model of one-to-many programming transmission, but at the same time can help drive viewers to traditional TV viewing.  Twitter users spend a lot of time talking about the TV shows they watch, Twitter’s Founder & CEO Evan Williams said, with tweets fueling TV programming discovery and consumption.  Twitter, he noted, “really thrives with aliveness.  It can really bring back this idea of shared events.  Half of the interest is that everyone is enjoying it together.”

In some respects, social networking is just reflective of old media consumption.  “There’s nothing new about the social aspects of media.  People gathered around radio listening to an episode of The Shadow,” Showtime Networks CEO Matt Blank said.

But don’t think that what applied to one medium can easily transfer to the new media, Tom Rogers, CEO and President of TiVo warned.  “It’s much more complicated than getting what’s on the PC to the TV.  You have to have a TV-centric way to do this.”

After all, the vast majority of TV viewing is still done in traditional fashion and the industry must keep the TV set in mind.  “You can build a machine to move anything from one part of the infrastructure to another part of the infrastructure,” Rutledge said.  “If you have a television program on the Internet, it can be on the big screen TV.  You have to think about how you’re in business.”

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In a late morning session on Wednesday, legal advisors for all five FCC Commissioners discussed the Commission’s regulatory plans.  Sherrese Smith, advisor to Chairman Genachowski, said the Chairman’s “Third Way” approach for grounding FCC authority in the wake of the recent Comcast decision represents a return to a bipartisan consensus about the agency’s proper role in overseeing the Internet.

Brad Gillen and Rosemary Harold, advisors to Commissioners Attwell Baker and McDowell, respectively, took issue with that statement. Gillen and Harold suggested that, contrary to Smith’s assertion, this is not a return to the status quo.  Harold noted that no part of cable modem service was ever regulated under Title II, and that broadband ISP service offered by telecom companies was also never regulated under Title II.

Harold said the FCC must prove:  a) that the market has changed, and b) that “forbearing” from 42 of the 48 sections of Title II is necessary.  Both, she believes, will be challenging.  Gillen added that the two commissioners in the minority still believe that, notwithstanding the Comcast decision, there is a path forward under Title I.

A possible advocate for Title II reclassification with less forbearance than proposed by the Chairman would be Commissioner Copps.  His advisor, Jennifer Schneider, said Copps would consider forbearance but that he has had concerns about the use of excessive forbearance in the past.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski spoke to the cable industry this morning at The Cable Show, applauding the industry for the massive capital investment made in creating broadband networks across the nation.  During a conversation with NCTA President & CEO Kyle McSlarrow, Genachowski said “We wouldn’t be here talking about broadband, talking about adoption, if not for the pioneers of the cable industry.”

(R-L) Kyle McSlarrow, President & CEO, National Cable & Telecommunications Association and Julius Genachowski, Chairman, Federal Communications Commission

But the discussion quickly turned to the elephant in the room: the concept of imposing some Title II (or common carrier-type) regulations on broadband providers as envisioned in Genachowski’s recently proposed Third Way approach to broadband regulation.  The FCC suggested the idea of a new model of regulating broadband service, the so-called Third Way, that it hopes addresses legal deficiencies in FCC policies as identified by a U.S. Court of Appeals decision.

Genachowski said “Nothing that’s happened in the past few weeks changes one iota the policy goals and outcomes that the Commission and I have been clearly and transparently articulating for many months now.”  Genachowski said his main motive in deriving the new approach is to provide the FCC with the appropriate legal foundation for implementing the ambitious agenda spelled out in the Commission’s recently released National Broadband Plan.  “That court decision [U.S. Court of Appeals, DC Circuit in Comcast v. FCC] damaged the legal foundation underneath” the National Broadband Plan, Genachowski said, adding that “It created a problem, not one that I desire.”

Characterizing the recent announcement of the Third Way approach as a “pre-beginning” to solve the problem, Genachowski claimed that the approach is modeled on a regulatory philosophy – namely one applied to mobile voice services – that has worked for a number of years.  Addressing criticisms that the FCC is yielding to certain corporate interests, particularly Google, by working so hard to regulate broadband services, Genachowski said “This issue isn’t about Google.  This issue is about the next Google, the next eBay, the next Amazon.  It’s about speakers that don’t want to be censored on the Internet.”

Many of Chairman Genachowski’s remarks are reflected in this post he wrote on Blogband, the blog of the FCC’s National Broadband Plan.

If there’s one key recurring topic at The Cable Show this year, it’s that the disruptive power of technological innovation is accelerating, upending business models and spawning rapid-fire strategy changes for both cable operators and content producers.  The question of how to harness this power to keep pace with consumer expectations got a lively airing yesterday during an A-list General Session devoted to the topic of how to manage the wave of “media everywhere” while maintaining healthy business models.

The Cable Show 2010, Wednesday General Session

Wednesday

For the most part, the assembled leaders were in a state that was jokingly referred to as “violent agreement” over the notion that the revolutionary changes in technology promise greater consumer benefits while offering the prospect of greater revenue streams.  “The pace of innovation is speeding up and you can’t pretend otherwise.  Competition is speeding up, and you can’t pretend otherwise. We want to be in the vanguard of technology of where the consumer wants to go,” Comcast CEO Brian Roberts said.

Leslie Moonves, President and CEO, CBS Corp., couldn’t agree more.  “Every single piece of technology that has come into being is a friend to content.  The more places you make it available, the more you get paid for it.”  Jeff Bewkes, Chairman and CEO of Time Warner Inc. also believes in riding the wave of technology’s progress.  “I think there is more good than bad in this.  If you just stay at 50,000 feet, the people who are viewing all over the world are watching it more in  every category.  They are spending more money on it.  The hits are more successful than they were before,” he said.

Not everyone, however, wholeheartedly embraced the idea that technology’s accelerating innovation is an entirely good thing.  Tom Rothman, CEO of Fox Filmed Entertainment, repeatedly struck some cautionary notes.  “I actually don’t believe it is ultimately good for content creators and distributors for everything to be everywhere at once,” he said. “All those transitions through the years have all been managed by windows.  I think windowing is going to be required by all sides of the equation… but I think it’s going to be hard to do.”

Interactivity, social networking and the proliferation of new devices are the three major developments driving the revolution.  Netscape Founder and General Partner of Andreessen Horowitz Marc Andreessen used gaming upstart Zynga as a model for how these developments are changing content while creating new business models.  Zynga makes content available for free, hoping to upsell users once they’re hooked, and it has adapted its offerings to new device platforms including the iPhone and iPad.  “The lesson I would draw from that is that format changes are possible once you get interactivity,” he said.

Comcast is well aware of the need to adapt services and content to new platforms.  Brian Roberts showed a demo of Xfinity Remote, his company’s latest effort to get ahead of the technology curve.  Xfinity Remote enables customers to access program guides and view content on the iPad — or control TV viewing choices via the iPad – and comes complete with social features including the ability to invite friends to share the same viewing choices in their own homes or on their own devices.  “This liberates us from the cable box and puts it in the power of the consumer,” Roberts said.

Despite the rush toward interactivity and new platforms, at the end of the day the story and the caliber of the content still matter, the panelists agreed.  “The fundamentals of storytelling are the same whether you are looking at Avatar… or watching an episode of Family Guy on a mobile phone,” Rothman said.

A stroll around The Cable Show floor reveals at least a dozen interactive TV services built on a specification called EBIF, or Enhanced TV Binary Interchange Format.  EBIF is the central building block for Comcast’s eye-popping new service, Xfinity Remote, built for the iPad and designed to allow customers to view content on the iPad as well as communicate with their set-top boxess.

But EBIF is not a reference to a specific interactive TV application, according to a group of content and cable executives who are forging new two-way TV applications with the technology.  Speaking here on a panel entitled EBIF Nation:  The Building of a New Interactive Platform, Comcast’s Senior Vice President of Product Development Mark Hess outlined the variety of applications developed with EBIF, including a home shopping application, onscreen Caller ID, DVR recording, viewing reminders, and more.  “We know we can make it work in a variety of situations,” he said.

The most immediate use for EBIF is to drive revenue growth, enabling advertisers, the traditional revenue source for TV programing, to find new and innovative ways to generate leads, hit target audiences and gain more granular data on consumer reactions to campaigns.  One key purpose of EBIF is to “link all of those silo’ed interactive systems of consumers to advertisers… completing the loop,” Canoe Ventures CTO Arthur Orduña said.

Time Warner Cable has a great track record so far in helping advertisers reach audiences with EBIF applications, said Time Warner Cable EVP & President of Media Sales Joan Gillman.  In New York City, Chase Manhattan has been recruiting customers with an EBIF-powered pitch to impressive results.  In the Los Angeles market, traditional direct mail campaigns are on the wane due to the operator’s success with two-way advertising, according to Gillman.

While Canoe Ventures developed EBIF to help its cable backers provide content partners with a convenient way to add interactivity to linear programming, some traditional content providers are still hesitantly testing the waters.  Despite its success in using EBIF apps with its recent Olympics coverage, NBC-Universal is wrestling with the cost and  the need for ongoing customization of the new technology for less widely viewed programming.  “We’re still in kind of a tricky place.  We can’t say we have a clear interactive TV strategy because the market has to churn more,” Michael Aaronson, Vice President of Digital Platforms at NBC-Universal said.

“I got introduced to these two dirty little words called ‘user agents,'” Aaronson added, referring to EBIF client applications that reside in set-tops.  “It’s not ‘build once and deploy it everywhere.’  It’s ‘build once and modify here and modify it there.'”

These growing pains are all part of the process, Orduña said.  “The fact that there are early day issues making sure that there is a single app on multiple user agents is a very good sign.  You have to test them and you have to test them with respect to interoperability.”

Don’t get too hung up on the technology, Gillman advised.  “It really does at the end of the day come down to building audience.  EBIF is another production tool.”

Internet Protocol-based (IP-based) service delivery is the wave of the future for the cable industry, a shift that has fostered an overhaul in the underlying technical architecture of cable networks.  But the industry still has a lot pioneering ahead in order to efficiently deliver the wide range of IP-based services envisioned for the 21st Century.

A crew of industry tech innovators delved into some of the all-important underlying details of the transition to IP-based service delivery today during a Cable Show technical forum entitled Cloudy, with a Chance of Breakthrough:  New Models for IP Service Delivery. The good news about the transition to IP service delivery is that the power of cable’s transmission capabilities is radically multiplied because reduction of content to streamable data bits enables the more rapid and efficient delivery of all kinds of diverse content.  The challenges arise, however, because a bit is a bit is a bit and it’s hard to tell one bit from the next without sophisticated forms of identification.

One key to solving some of the IP service delivery challenges is metadata cell encoding, according to Michael Adams, Vice President, Software Strategy, Solution Area TV at Ericsson.  In short, metadata cell encoding could be a crucial step in managing the diverse kinds of content flowing over cable’s IP pipeline by signaling to the welter of consumer electric devices the nature of the content bits (the metadata contains the necessary identifying information), allowing the multiple types of TV “screens” to know which bits of data are right for which devices.

In a “TV Everywhere” world, consumers could get frustrated finding the right kind of content amid the masses of options, Michael Kazmier, CTO of Avail-TVN said.  That’s why Avail-TVN is advocating the creation of a central database of the various kinds of IP-based content.  This mediated, federated source of content would be a meeting place of sorts that identifies the content and outlines its features.  “If the consumer can’t find what they’re looking for, you have failed as a service provider,” Kazmier said.

Not all challenges arise from providing more detailed information about the data streams.  Gaming, for example, is evolving into a “now” service for cable, offering  up the prospect of real-time or near real-time interactions among players.  But latency, or the time between when a piece of data is sent and when it is received, could undercut the “now” characteristic needed for a successful gaming service.  “The challenge in video gaming is to make the latency short enough to create the feel of real-time gaming,” said Charles Jablonski, Vice President of video gaming company OnLive.

Even as technology accelerates viewing choices, consumers drive the programming process and it’s the job of operators and programmers to satisfy customer content demands on whatever platforms they choose to use, top industry executives agreed during The Cable Show’s 2010 Opening General Session today.  When it comes to navigating and managing the abundance of new delivery methods, “I think we have to pay attention to the consumer,” Time Warner Cable Chairman, President and CEO Glenn Britt said.  “Let’s let the consumers tell us when they’re ready.”

Opening General Session at The Cable Show 2010

A line-up of top execs kicked off The Cable Show 2010.

With VOD, the Internet and mobile technologies driving a host of new content consumption complexities, “My job in my company is to enable all that for my customer,” Pat Esser, President of Cox Communications said.

“We are not going to be able to dictate how consumers enjoy things,” Kevin Tsujihara, President, Warner Brothers Home Entertainment Group said.  “They will tell us what they want and how they want it.”

Whichever way the technological winds blow, one thing is clear: Consumers will increasingly demand far more than lean-back linear programming and will demand greater interaction alongside traditional video.  As it is, traditional TV viewing is already increasingly accompanied by two-way interactions, particularly social networking, Viacom President and CEO Phillipe Daumann said.

Reaching out to new platforms is now mandatory as a marketing strategy.  “We have to do that so that the Mythbusters brand remains exciting,” Discovery Communications President and CEO David Zaslav said. He said that story and compelling personalities must come first, with the interactive elements following.

Instead of posing a threat to cable, the simultaneous consumption of content across multiple platforms and the diversification into new delivery methods is “the biggest opportunity that we’re seeing that completely blows our mind,” Tsujihara said.

The next big thing – and a hot trend on the The Cable Show floor – is 3D TV, with the assembled executives pointing to the excitement that 3D technology generated at the Consumer Electronics Show in January.  “I think it’s an opportunity for all of us.  It is a real big opportunity today to delivery something that you can’t get outside of movie theaters,” Tsujihara said.  Gaming could be the factor that propels 3D into the home, Esser said.  “Young users and gaming could drive this faster than most people anticipate.”  Zaslav concurred adding that “Gaming is fantastic in 3D, which will push the sets into people’s homes.”

Keith Lee, CEO and Co-Founder of “real-world” gaming company Booyah underscored the importance of gaming in the new media mix, explaining how his company aims to drive viewer engagement through “compulsion loops” so that people keep coming back.  Indeed, Booyah’s focus on depth, rather than breadth, of content has resulted in 20% of users providing 80% of the company’s revenues. Lee argued that a compelling online gaming experience ought to be like chess: Easy to learn how to play, but difficult to master.

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