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You Had to Be There: Memorable Moments from 40 Years at the Cable Show

It could have been the technology promises that “seemed like a good idea at the time.” It might have mentioned National Cable Television Association president Tom Wheeler and general counsel Brenda Fox doing “porn patrol” in the early 1980s, shutting down video displays that were too explicit for the exhibit hall. Or this list could have included myriad tales of Ted Turner’s “outrageous” behavior, a topic on which many of us can wax extensively.

Given my own “interactive-TV” predilection, I could have loaded this list with early examples (Warner-Amex’s QUBE, Cox’s INDAX) or later attempts (Liberate Technologies, Open TV). But the following “Top Ten” roster is a broader view of personal favorites from NCTA conventions, based on subjective perceptions of defining moments in a growing industry.

In deference to the nine times, the Cable Show has set up in New Orleans, I added a “lagniappe” - a little extra from the gleaming programming visions, technology promises and policy realities that were showcased during the “National Show” each spring.

1972: FCC chairman Dean Burch was wandering alone after dinner through the Chicago Conrad Hilton Hotel lobby. My boss, his friends and I (a cub reporter at my first big convention) were sitting there, but no one had the temerity to invite Burch to join us. We later learned he was actually looking for someone to talk to - back in the day when the FCC chairman actually mingled with regulatees, not surrounded by a protective entourage.

1978: The monsoon-like rains came on get-away day. Flooded French Quarter streets curtailed the convention’s finale, and I (lucky to catch one of the last flights out that day) have never encountered a rockier take-off.

1979: Turner, with a somewhat perplexed Daniel Schorr beside him, announced that a full-time cable-news network would begin operations one year hence. Disbelief ensued, until CNN debuted about 55 weeks later.

1979: Jimmy Carter’s “virtual” presence marked the only time a sitting U.S. president appeared “live” at an NCTA convention. The president’s remarks came in via satellite, which required placing an uplink on the White House lawn - very advanced in that era.

1980: Premiere, a pay TV network came and went quickly. Four studios, using Getty Oil money, create a premium network of their own to rival HBO and Showtime. Premiere threw a great party (as it had done the previous year), but never launched. A couple months later, the U.S. Justice Department filed a successful antitrust suit, calling Premiere “an illegal conspiracy” to monopolize the cable market.

1982: John Coleman and his financial backer, Landmark’s Frank Batten, pulled a lever at the Weather Channel booth, and the non-stop meteorological forecasts began.

1982: Show me a guy with dust on his shoes, and I’ll show you someone who was at the CBS Cable party out in the desert. An ersatz souk city was classiest venue that the culturally-oriented offshoot of the “Tiffany network” could create near Vegas. CBS Cable’s upscale concert/dance/arts programming mix ended about seven months later.

1993: In an era of convergence dreams, Time Warner Cable, Silicon Graphics Inc. and AT&T unveiled details about the “Full Service Network,” an interactive TV venture. At a press conference, TWC executives were at one side of the podium table, SGI and AT&T execs at the other end. As the press corps filed down a center aisle, they picked seats as if attending a wedding: cable reporters in front of TWC’s Jim Chiddix and his colleagues, Silicon Valley tech reporters on the side where SGI’s Jim Clark, AT&T managers and their teams sat. The Q&A was similarly bifurcated. After a particularly geeky tech question from across the aisle, a savvy cable reporter whispered to me, “‘WTF’ does that mean?” Note: by late the following year, Clark had left SGI to join Netscape, which created the first Web browser, and many of TWC’s interactive concepts eventually migrated to the Web. FSN struggled on briefly.

1999 (or it could have been any year during the bubble): Liberty Media’s John Malone strolled the exhibit floor, surrounded by a scrum of investment analysts and reporters eager to see which booths the mogul would stop to query, hoping to catch an insight into where he - and by extension, they - might invest.

2003: Madness on the exhibit floor as Michael Jackson appeared at the booth of Major Broadcasting Cable Network, owned in part by his brother Marlon. The King of Pop planned to create “several programming projects” for the urban-oriented channel over the next 18 months. MBCN morphed into the Black Family Channel the following year and ceased operations in 2007.

2009: Although the policy-wonk throngs form Capitol Hill and Federal agencies may have overlooked it, the rollout of EBIF (Enhanced TV Binary Interchange Format) was the geek centerpiece of the show. Particularly impressive was an in-booth explanation by top execs Brian Roberts of Comcast, Richard Green of CableLabs and Robert Clasen of Starz. Green did most of the talking.

2010: Brian Roberts demo’d a Comcast iPad app, barely four weeks after the Apple tablet hit the market. It was a “wow” moment, since many attendees at the keynote session had not yet been in the same room with an iPad.

2011: The first booth front-and-center in the exhibit hall was NBC Universal’s. NBCU had become a Comcast subsidiary about four months earlier. Some old-timers recall when the first booths at the exhibit hall entry were Motorola on one side and Cisco (neé Scientific-Atlanta) on the other.

It was another sign of the changing times. As always.

Gary Arlen is president of Arlen Communications LLC, Bethesda, MD, a long-time analyst and a frequent contributor to Multichannel News.