Western Show Preps for Last Hurrah

Cable's heavies remain on board for final gloves-off gathering

Even the group orchestrating the Western Cable Show isn't sure how it will play out in Anaheim, Calif., Dec. 2-5.

This year's Western Show -- cable industry's cutting edge technology showcase at the peak of its 36-year run -- will be the last. As in years past, the major hitters of the cable industry will be there, discussing the latest developments in the business, including HDTV, VOD, DVR, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and lingering interactive TV visions.

Nonetheless, the California Cable & Telecommunications Association, which hosts the international convention, admits that the atmosphere will be different -- a polite way of saying smaller.

CCTA has shied away from independent forecasts that 8,000 to 9,000 people will attend -- somewhat below last year's crowd of 10,000, and well below the 30,000 participants during the late 1990s, when cable's broadband rollout attracted telecommunications and high-tech newcomers as well as day-trippers from nearby Hollywood.

ONE COZY SHOW

Boosters are spinning the intimacy of the compact format (one exhibit hall versus the three or four halls of previous years). Others contend that the final show will be a nostalgic experience -- although some wonder if it is justifiable and affordable in the constrained cable economics of 2003.

For reasons that perplexed many cable industry executives, CCTA announced last summer that this year's Western Show would be the final one, acknowledging that the fast-consolidating industry couldn't financially support several major trade shows each year. The early decision to abandon future shows prompted many companies to withdraw or downsize their participation.

Stalwarts such as Motorola Broadband and Scientific-Atlanta just signed up for exhibit floor space in late October -- barely six weeks before the doors open at the Anaheim Convention Center. Consequently, the companies, which collectively supply at least 80 percent of the cable industry's installed base of set-top boxes and related equipment, will each be in a relatively small exhibit space along opposite sides of the show floor. In past years, Motorola and S-A had mansion-sized exhibits that were the first booths at the front of the hall.

Motorola's focus will be on its connected-home devices and the broadband infrastructure that provides the backbone for advanced services such as DVR and HDTV. Like most other exhibitors, Motorola will concentrate on previously announced products rather than unveil new devices in Anaheim.

S-A will emphasize its Explorer 8000HD, which incorporates all the features of the Explorer DVR set-top box plus HD capability. S-A will also demonstrate a multi-room DVR featuring a home-server network that works with existing set-tops. The box can handle music, games, VOD and the emerging subscription services.

Although the California event ostensibly focuses on specific regional issues, the Western Show is a year-end counterpoint to the spring National Show run by the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA).

For the past decade, the Western Show has taken on added technical significance thanks to the CableNet pavilion, a showcase for emerging technologies, coordinated by CableLabs.

About 45 exhibitors will share space in the CableNet pavilion this year, making it the mainstay of the show. Companies ranging from Microsoft and Lucent Technologies to tiny start-ups will have their only show floor presence under the CableNet tent, which will house about one-third the approximately 135 exhibitors registered. Overwhelmingly, the participants are demonstrating components and tools for broadband services.

IMAGINETHAT

Using the theme "Imagine That" for its 11th annual showcase, CableNet will feature more than a dozen exhibits of interactive technology, including an end-to-end display of OpenCable Application Platform (OCAP) technology from Advanced Digital Broadcast, Inc. and a whole-house video and multimedia distribution system from Entropic Communications, a San Diego-based chipmaker.

In addition, Go2Broadband, in conjunction with the Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing (CTAM), will demonstrate a consumer Web site used to support the cable industry's latest service offerings at the retail level.

Jerry Yanowitz, a CCTA vice president overseeing Western Show plans, points out that the event is "still getting strong support from the tech community." Twenty-eight new exhibitors are showing up for the event, Yanowitz said, many of them focusing on set-top box components or network infrastructure tools.

CEOs & CTOs GALORE

CCTA recruited (some skeptics suggest "bludgeoned" as a more appropriate term) the largest MSOs' chief executives and most of their chief technology officers to attend the show, scan the hardware offerings and perhaps identify new applications.

On the opening day panel "CEOs Set the Agenda," CNN's Larry King will chat with the top MSOs' top guys, including Time Warner Cable Chairmand and CEO, Glenn Britt; James Robbins, president and CEO, Cox; Brian Roberts, president and CEO, Comcast; Tom M. Rutledge, president, Cable and Communications, Cablevision; Bill Schleyer, chairman and CEO, Adelphia and Carl Vogel, president and CEO, Charter.

The panel is billed as a "no-holds-barred" discussion about programming rights, DBS competition and technology rollout plans.

The following morning, another passel of top executives will explore five-year plans.

Participants include Bill Bresnan, president and CEO, Bresnan Communications; Rocco Commisso, chairman and CEO, Mediacom; Robert Miron, chairman and CEO, Advance/Newhouse; Ted Rogers, president and CEO, Rogers Communications and Michael Willner, president and CEO, Insight.

HDTVMEETSVOD

Among the 30 other sessions scheduled is one that examines "Bred for Bandwidth: HDTV meets VOD." Executives from Cox Cable and vendors N2Broadband, nCube and Optinel will explore the simultaneous provisioning of HDTV over on-demand platforms.

The cleverly titled "Deconstructing Rupert: Competing in the New Satellite Era" will assess the competitive challenges from DBS.

Other sessions will deal with on-screen navigation, copy protection, multicultural marketing and VoIP-a particularly lively topic as cable beefs up its effort to compete with legacy telephone companies.

Members of the Federal Communications Commission staff, including legal advisors, will participate in a session about the "FCC's View of the Digital Transition."

The Western Show, which has taken on an international flavor in recent years, is also attracting global cable operators, part of the U.S. Department of International Buyer Program (IBP).

Commercial experts from U.S. embassies around the world will bring delegations of pre-screened buyers to the trade show in an effort to increase international business opportunities for U.S. companies. CCTA has not indicated how many off-shore participants will take part in this initiative.

Whatever the reasons for the declining importance of the Western Show (such as the fast rise of a spring trade show run by the Society of Cable & Telecommunications Engineers), the annual Anaheim show continues to attract loyalists and an exhaustive line-up of products.

Some veteran cable and cable-tech devotees may indeed turn up for a final glance at the long-running tech show.

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.