CES: Gear, Gizmos & Government

LAS VEGAS

Mark Cuban, the HDNet president famous for his maverick positions, let loose with another pronouncement during the "Content and Delivery Roundtable" at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas on Jan. 9.

"A lot of people think consumers have to be educated before they go to high def," Cuban said. "I know that's not the case."

Citing his experience selling computers in the 1980s and Internet service in the 1990s, Cuban insists that, "Every time a new technology is introduced, the media always writes, 'It's too confusing; people won't be able to figure it out.'"

"Price points will cure that," Cuban continued. "When a plasma TV gets down to $799, you're going to buy it."

Earlier that day, however, FCC Chairman Michael Powell raised the "confusion" defense in a "SuperSession" one-on-one chat with Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics Association, which runs CES.

"I think the greatest challenge to [the digital TV rollout] is the consumer's confusion of it and many kinds of standards," Powell said. "I think there's a real premium [in] making sure that those interface points to consumers are very good at helping them understand. My mother-in-law is moving into a new condo and she wants a flat panel. ...What is LCD projection, DLP?... [She is] flabbergasted by the [options]... and only wants to know one thing: Which one's better?"

Powell turned from Shapiro to the audience and begged, "Just tell me which one is the best."

The audience roared with laughter.

The gap between Cuban's confidence about pricing and Powell's plea for advice was underscored throughout CES's overwhelming array of digital television equipment and devices connected to them.

GEAR GALORE

From Intel's introduction of its Liquid Crystal on Silicon (LCoS) chips, which are promised to bring down the price of "thin, light" large screen displays, to Panasonic's introduction of its new Viera line of TV sets (some of which include the CableCard slot for digital cable plug-and-play) to countless HD-Digital Video Recorder prototypes, the show was loaded with promises of digital wonders.

Suppliers are feuding about technologies. For example, Thomson (owner of the RCA brand) points out that it abandoned the LCoS technology years ago. Samsung, which is using Texas Instruments Digital Light Processor technology, showcased a set with dramatic design in which receiver and technical components were stacked into a narrow pedestal, giving the unit an ultra-sleek appearance.

ACCESS v. DIGITAL RIGHTS

Sorting out the promises-or even comparing the features of the digital television hardware-now becomes a challenge for the retailers and front-line sales people who will bring DTV into homes. Several companies, including Philips and LG Electronics (the name of its Korean owner under which Zenith will now be re-branded), showed 80-inch PDP monitors.

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, in his sixth keynote appearance at CES, predicted that the "digital video recorder will become commonplace" as part of the broadband services and networked storage environment that Microsoft is pushing. He did not put a timetable on that forecast.

Gates acknowledged the need to "strike the right balance in managing digital rights" while making it easy for viewers to access on-demand video and other services.

"It's a very tough problem," he said and recommended, "We've got to drive the speed of [such] technology forward."

A Hollywood studio technology executive told Television Technology after the speech that Gates' reference to "digital rights management" means that the producers' message is getting through to the technology providers.

GREAT ASPIRATIONS

At a trade show known for its gadget bonanza, the ongoing debates about digital TV policy and technical standards seemed anomalous. For example, the continuing discussion about the digital TV transition timetable prompted Powell to return to the topic during his chat with Shapiro.

"You have to understand: 2006 is not the date," the FCC Chairman said in reference to the target for completing the digital TV transition. "It is an aspirational date. What the statute really says is when 85 percent of the public is capable of receiving HDTV.

"My view of that," Powell continued, "is it needs to take exactly what it needs to take, because we're talking about consumers here. I don't think we can shove new technology on consumers and tell them your government is walking in your house and mandating you go buy a $2,000 television set today."

CONTENT IS QUEEN

At the subsequent session about what it will actually attract customers to HDTV, the panelists-including cable TV and DBS chief executives plus program network heads (but no broadcast TV honchos)-there were frequent recitations of the "content" mantra.

"It's not going to be the technological difference in their ability to deliver HD," said Charles Dolan, now chairman of the new VOOM all-HDTV satellite service and long-time CableVision Systems founder/CEO, speaking about various delivery media. "It is going to be the content. We're happy with what Mark [Cuban] is doing to be moving heavily on the content side into HD."

Eddy Hartenstein, chairman/CEO of DirecTV, concurred: "It's up to us to help distribute [HD] whether we're satellite or cable, and for the content providers to realize that the infrastructure is now here. We need more original, not just upconverted, HD content."

John Hendricks, chairman/CEO of Discovery Communications, turned the spotlight on the elite audiences who are embracing HDTV programming.

"It's amazing what the top quintile in affluence... will spend," Hendricks said, referring to the 20 million early adopters of HDTV who will be equipped with appropriate hardware during the coming year. He expects four to five million of that cohort to be "multi-sourced," subscribing to cable and satellite as well as receiving broadcast HD content.

Hendricks joined Dolan, Time Warner Cable Chairman/CEO Glenn Britt and others on that panel and throughout the show in extolling the role of DVRs and the coming wave of HD-DVRs.

"People will insist on managing that media.. being able to watch what they want, when they want," Hendricks said.

Powell voiced similar expectations last year when he called his Tivo "God's machine," because it allowed him to be in control of his own programming.

In a reference to the FCC's controversial media ownership decision, Powell added, "Today, we should be working to bring those technologies and policies that spin things away from large centralized institutions with their own place to determine what you see and hear and listen to and push more power to consumers."

That led into a discussion of the broadcast flag issue, in which Powell renewed his stance to protect broadcasters and Hollywood studios.

Meanwhile out on the CES show floor and in hotel suites nearby, dozens of companies showed recording and storage equipment plus countless wireless broadband network devices that will beam digital, including HD, signals to remote screens around the house.

Gary Arlen, a contributor to Broadcasting & Cable, NextTV and TV Tech, is known for his visionary insights into the convergence of media + telecom + content + technology. His perspectives on public/tech policy, marketing and audience measurement have added to the value of his research and analyses of emerging interactive and broadband services. Gary was founder/editor/publisher of Interactivity Report, TeleServices Report and other influential newsletters; he was the long-time “curmudgeon” columnist for Multichannel News as well as a regular contributor to AdMap, Washington Technology and Telecommunications Reports; Gary writes regularly about trends and media/marketing for the Consumer Technology Association's i3 magazine plus several blogs.