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Brian Roberts Demonstrates Next Generation Xfinity TV Experience

Amid all that has been written about Brian Roberts buttoned-down and tight-as-a-drum demo of Comcast’s new Next Generation Xfinity TV, I offer these few additional observations.

  • Once again, Roberts have proven to be a surprisingly effective pitchman and presenter, particularly on camera, and seems to be comfortable in that role in a way many CEOs simply aren’t.
  • After listening for three days to a number of Cable Show speakers equate the word “cloud” with “security risk,” it was nice to see Comcast place the word back in a favorable light.
  • From a design perspective, one thing that really jumped out to me is the guide’s pull-down menu. A lot of experts this week talked about the importance of new applications and product wrinkles that relied upon and leveraged established consumer behavior. Given that, is there any more well-established humanbehavior these days than moving a cursor across a screen that walks, talks and acts like a website?
  • This is just a hunch, but watch what the new Xfinity cloud’s Pandora application does for the internet’s “music genome project.” Pandora is one of those web-based services that, once someone’s tried it, becomes addictive.

My sense is, all it needs is broader exposure (and access) to elevate its standing in the public consciousness and to have it start to gain traction with even casual music consumers. And, let’s be honest, if there’s one thing an application on a Comcast state-of-the-art, billion-bits-a-second cloud guide would qualify as, it’s broader exposure.

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I wasn’t sure what to expect from Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Paula Zahn; shame on me for that.

I should have known Oprah was not going to talk about reach and penetration.  She wasn’t going to talk about launch dollars or affiliate fees.  She wasn’t even going to talk about advertising revenue or cable households.

She was going to talk about one thing, and one thing only; the power of the Oprah brand.

In fact, right up front when asked by Zahn about the Oprah brand, she prefaced her answer with the admission, “I guess I have to admit it, I am a brand now.”

What made Oprah’s talk with Zahn so perfect was because, just like everything else in her ever-expanding empire, she poured so much of herself into it.  The Day Three General Session opening act was part The Oprah Winfrey Show, part girls’ night out, and part old-time revival meeting, with the Queen of Daytime preaching to high heaven about her passions and the things that have made her successful.

And it was great fun.

Among the highlights:

  • Oprah, who has the uncanny ability to make every person she ever interviews (or even meets) seem like her friend, calling David Zaslav, “Zas” and “Z Man.”
  • She told the audience that if she had to do it all over (starting a network) she would have built it one night at a time, nesting shows and building viewers on a night-to-night basis, rather than launching 24/7 right off the bat.
  • After shuttering her old show, she said she needed some “time away from the trenches.”  Oprah then said, “After Australia we came back and I thought that’s it. It’s over. There’s nothing more we can put under your chair.  There’s not another thing we can give you.”  She then looked over the the General Session hall full of thousands of chairs and hundreds of Cable Show attendees, took a beat and said, “That goes for y’all too.”
  • After Oprah admitted that patience was not a virtue she had in deep supply, Zahn smiled and quipped the same could be said for a lot of cable executives.
  • Oprah admitting the two guests she wishes she had gotten during the run of her show were two notorious killers; Susan Smith, the young mother of two who murdered her small children, but who first claimed they’d been abducted, and Mr. White Ford Bronco himself, O.J. Simpson.  “I have a dream of O.J. confessing to me,” she told the crowd.  “And I’m gonna make it happen.”
  • Her hellfire-and-brimstone tone, telling the audience that her greatest gift is her ability to connect with people, and then saying the world doesn’t need just another cable network.  It needed a network “where hearts could be opened” and “lives could be inspired.”  A network where viewers’ lives could become “more enhanced, more awakened, more alive.”
  • She followed that up with: “I have committed everything I have to this cable venture. It is my heart… my soul… everything,” before looking out into the audience and saying,  “And I wouldn’t bet against me.”

FCC Chairman Genachowski and Michael Powell, President & CEO of NCTA speak before the Wednesday General Session at The Cable Show 2011.

Even though I was already looking forward to the Day Two General Session, featuring the one-on-one conversation between Michael Powell and FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, I was surprised at how much I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Here were two men clearly at the top of their games, representing a wonderful study of both parallels and opposites: both lawyers, but with different backgrounds and political leanings; one a successful entrepreneur from the private sector now working as FCC Chairman, the other a former FCC Chairman now representing an industry launched by some of the most successful entrepreneurs in the world has ever known.

As I watched the two men, I noticed how much fun each seemed to be having.  Both smiled regularly throughout; both spoke freely and rarely if ever paused to measure their words; even their respective body languages seemed to indicate that both men were being open and honest with each other – and us.

As for the content, I found that once again the notion of broadband as an agent of social and economic change ended up being the headline.  Just as Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel yesterday called for the cable industry to help bridge the bridge the digital divide, Genachowski focused much of his attention on the very same subject.

He said there were three major gaps when it came to broadband: the deployment gap, the spectrum gap (today’s mobile devices are spectrum hogs, compared to the basic cell phone of yesterday), and the most critical of all gaps: the adoption gap.

Currently, only two of every three homes in America have chosen to adopt broadband. As Genachowski said, “67% is so far from good enough; we cannot be satisfied with just showing incremental change.”

He also said that full-scale adoption of broadband “will get the economy out of our hole,” noting that broadband-based Groupon added 8,000 jobs to the Chicago economy and that 80% of the Fortune 500 companies do all their job postings online – meaning that if you don’t have access to the Internet, you can’t even apply for most jobs in this country.

Genechowski said his next order of business as FCC Chair was going to be to launch a task force to explore new and innovative ways to develop public/private partnerships designed to bridge all three of the above gaps; Powell responded that the cable industry would be key partners in that effort (Fortunately, the cable industry has long focused on encouraging broadband adoption).

One last observation: I heard Mr. Powell – again, a former FCC Commissioner – say that government needs “appropriate humility” when acting on behalf of the American people.  I don’t know that he’d ever used that phrase before – I know I’d never heard him use it — but I found it so interesting and beautifully turned that I made a note of it.

As Genachowski was making a point about the FCC’s role in the shaping telecommunications policy, he referenced the very same phrase and even cited his NCTA colleague for having used it.

As noted in B&C‘s write-up of the session:

[Genachowski] said there aren’t really any “pre-cooked answers” to hard problem and that the agency needed to weigh costs and benefits that have, again to borrow from Powell as he acknowledged, “appropriate humility about what government can accomplish and what the risks are if government makes a mistake.”

From left to right: Moderator: Maria Bartiromo (CNBC), Bill Tucker (MediaVest USA), Tim Spengler (Initiative) and Bill Koenigsberg (Horizon Media).

It’s always befuddled me a little how the worlds of cable ad sales and cable operations seem to sometimes run on parallel tracks.  I know I’ve had personal conversations with cable ad sales people here in Chicago, a Comcast town, in which I use the name “Brian Roberts,” only to find it draws some blank stares.

Similarly, some of the most powerful and important people in this industry – namely, the media buyers at some of the biggest agencies in the country– are sometimes unknown to the at-large cable population.

Today, I saw an example of this disconnect.  At the final segment of the Day Two General Session, CAB’s Sean Cunningham introduced a panel of three of the most important media buyers on the planet, Bill Koenigsberg of Horizon Media, Tim Spengler of Intiative and MediaVest’s Bill Tucker, along with moderator, Maria Bartiromo.

What I found most ironic was the fact that for two days I’d been hearing people speculating on how new technology, wireless devices and mobility might influence consumer behavior. Yet, by the time three guys took the stage  – key folks who are so good at what they do that advertisers give them significant dollars every quarter to invest on their behalf – some audience members had left.

It turned out to be my single most enlightening session of the show so far.

Among the highlights:

  • When asked, generally, where the money was headed, Tucker said it was clearly moving to cable, adding that a significant portion is also moving to digital.
  • Koenigsberg agreed, saying that during this year’s upfront, cable outperformed broadcast for the first time ever.  He then added that there’s also dollars being poured into online video and “the social bucket.”
  • Spengler said demand is up, so prices are up.
  • All three called for caution moving forward. For the second half of 2011 and early 2012, Tucker said there’s a “soft patch” in the road ahead and that consumers – and advertisers – will be cautious.
  • Koenigsberg said the jury’s still out on the second half of the year and that he sensed “fear in the scatter market.”  He added that while the auto sector is strong, job growth and unemployment remain a concern for advertisers.
  • He also said that while the ad market remains strong, that strength is relative to some major cutbacks that advertisers made a few years back.  What’s more, he said the upfront’s strength should not be mistaken for a barometer of the future, which remains a little hazy.
  • Tucker said that measurement is not keeping up with technology, and it needs to – especially in a three-screen world.  He also said social media must become embraced more fully by the measuring metrics.  “The digital bread crumbs are there,” he said.
  • Spengler said it’s not who’s watching, it’s who’s taking an action based on what they’re watching: “We’re investing heavily in trying to find that data.”
  • He also said that social media are helping define brands, and that those brands are now operating, as we all are, in a mobile and social world.
  • Koenigsberg called for a common social currency.  “What are we trading on?” he asked;  “In a world in which billions are being invested, we need consistency.”

Anyone who has watched any CEO-centric General Session over the years knows that as men (and occasionally women) running companies that are, more often than not, publicly traded , there’s not a whole lot of time spent taking the gloves off and — if you’ll excuse the mixed metaphor — lobbing hand-grenades.

Given that, there was not much in the way of fireworks at Tuesday’s Opening General Session featuring Jeff Bewkes, Chase Carey, Pat Esser, Glenn Britt, Philippe Dauman and Neil Smit, all ably moderated by Liz Claman of Fox Business News.

What I found newsworthy was the relatively somber the tone of the session took, at least initially.  I suppose some of that mood was understandable.  We all know the economy remains a work-in-progress.  We know too that cable faces certain competitive challenges.  And we know that the next generation of consumers remain a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.

It was when Bewkes looked out in the house yesterday morning and said earnestly, “Let’s all cheer up; this is not the music industry,” that people did indeed start to cheer up.

In fact, noticeably.

Bewkes then stole a line from ad man extraordinaire Hal Riney, via Ronald Reagan‘s 1984 reelection campaign, and called the times in which we’re living and working, “Morning in the cable industry.”

He then went on to laud cable’s platform and detailed how all these competing platforms have been made possible because of cable’s remarkably robust infrastructure.  “The reason you can get so many things on tablets is because of the infrastructure the people in this room helped build,” said Bewkes, at one point even prompting the crowd to give themselves a hand.

It was a small moment, but an important one, and it helped ratchet up the mood in what turned out to be a great Day One of The Cable Show.

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To read more from M.C. Antil, visit his blog at mcantil.com.

In welcoming Cable Show attendees to his incredible city, new Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel called upon the industry to bridge the digital divide between rich and poor.  After detailing the positive impact the industry continues to have on his state’s economy, Hizzoner talked about the importance of bringing broadband to all Chicagoans.

“For every percent growth in penetration, broadband creates 15K jobs,” said Emanuel, adding that of all the aspects of his city’s infrastructure, including bridges, tunnels, roads and schools, “Broadband is at the top of the list of priorities for my vision for this city’s economic future.”

In all candor, I didn’t think twice about Emanuel’s call for action, until a few moments later when new NCTA President & CEO Michael Powell got up and started ticking off some of the highlights of cable’s 60 year history.  As he was doing so, I remember thinking, “Why is he giving a history lesson to a roomful of people who lived the history – or in some cases, wrote it?”

Then it hit me.  Sixty years ago, at the very first NCTA convention, this was a very different country; one that was largely rural, significantly under-educated, and comprised of entire populations of people living outside the footprints of our major media centers.

If you trace the United States’ development into a world power, you’ll see it happened right around the time cable and independent telephone providers started to democratize not only information, but also the paths of communication that connected Americans from all walks of life.  Connecting them, in fact, in ways they’d never imagined possible.

Mayor Emanuel is absolutely right.  Rising tides do indeed float all boats.  Just as three generations ago this industry helped transform a young, largely agrarian nation into a model of democratic ideals, the industry once again has an incredible opportunity to help America re-invent itself.

If we can continue to work towards making broadband available to everyone, especially our poorest, neediest and most underprivileged citizens – especially the youngest and most motivated among them – we will be providing those people the very tools they’ll need to rise up and break the cycle of poverty that continues to act as a drag on our entire economy.

I’m not trying to get all Tom Joad on you here.  I’m simply saying that what we do in this industry is more than just a business, and what we mean to our fellow Americans continues to pay dividends in ways many of us fail to comprehend.

So, while 68,000 additional Illinois jobs and a state-wide investment of $60 billion is an incredible legacy by any stretch of the imagination, at some point down the road all those things may become a mere footnote to cable’s real gift to America.

[Editor’s note: See Multichannel News‘ write-up: Cable Show 2011: Powell: Cable Helps Power American Dream. You can read more about cable’s positive impact on the U.S. economy here.]

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To read more from M.C. Antil, visit his blog at mcantil.com.

From left to right: Sam Howe (Time Warner Cable), Ruth Gaviria (Univision), Michele Edelman (Warner Brothers Digital Distribution), Joseph Rooney (Cox Communications, Inc.), Courteney Monore (Home Box Office, Inc.) and Moderator: Char Beales (CTAM).

In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit I worked for Char Beales for over four years, and remain a huge fan.  But personal bias aside, if there was one person I’d want to produce a panel at my convention, there’s no doubt; she’d be that person.

Case in point, the Tuesday plenary session she put together with the help of her team at CTAM. Thoroughly Modern Marketing: CMOs on the Start of the Art was not only informative and entertaining, but it played to a packed house.

Beales, as is her style, put her panelists through their paces; on one hand lobbing a softball or two to get them warmed up, but eventually drilling down and unearthing some real data nuggets.

Among the highlights:

Ruth Gaviria revealing the fact that they Univision now has a staggering 2 million followers on various social media.

Michele Edelman of Warner Brothers Digital admitting to TWC’s Sam Howe:  “Sam, I love my Time Warner Cable app.  My Time Warner Cable app makes me very happy.”

Also, Edelman detailing how her studio was the first to stream full films via Facebook, adding at one point, “Dark Knight already had 4 million fans.  We just went out and claimed them.”

The two MSOs on the panel admitting the volume of time they’re currently dedicating to social media marketing is an exponential increase over the past few years: Joe Rooney of Cox projecting he’s now spending half his time on social media issues, with Howe claiming that 40% of his day is so occupied.

Courteney Monroe of HBO answering Beales’ question about social media monetization by responding;  HBOgo extends the life cycle…and that’s real money.

While Rooney answered the monetization question with a wink and a deft hand, “Since Cox is private, let’s just say it’s going very well.”

Gaviria detailing Univision’s web telenovellas, then calling them affectionately “Hispanic Hollywood.”

Howe’s humorous relating of the best tweet TWC received amid the flurry of 520K or so downloads of 80 channels worth of live TV via iPad:  “How uncable of you.”

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To read more from M.C. Antil, visit his blog at mcantil.com.

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