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Cable Marketers Scout Trends at CES

LAS VEGAS -Comcast marketing executive David Watson enjoyed checking out a new set-top from Motorola Inc., while AT & T Broadband's Doug Seserman came to scope out home-networking gear.

The MSO bigwigs were part of their own network. More than a dozen top cable marketers came to the latest Consumer Electronics Show as part of a tour led by Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing senior vice president of marketing Seth Morrison and CTAM senior technology advisor Leslie Ellis.

In the group: AT & T Broadband senior vice president of marketing Seserman, Comcast Cable Communications executive vice president of marketing and customer service Watson, Time Warner Cable senior vice president of new product development Kevin Leddy, Cox Communications Inc. vice president of marketing Joe Rooney, Cox Communications executive vice president of operations Maggie Bellville and Charter Communications senior vice president of marketing and programming Mary Pat Blake.

For competitive intelligence reasons, the marketers made stops at the show booths of direct-broadcast satellite providers DirecTV Inc. and EchoStar Communications Corp. But for the most part, they were looking for products they could sell to their own customers, either today or down the road.

"Our goal was to help educate the senior marketers about the new consumer-oriented products coming to market," Morrison said. After he returned last week, he added that he felt "very positive" about the group's attendance at the show.

Morrison said other cable executives should pencil the CES onto future calendars.

"If you're at all involved in product development, it's definitely an important stop, and it's a great way to learn now about the hardware our consumers are going to be using over the next few years," he said.

But Morrison also warned that CES is so big-it drew more than 120,000 visitors this year-that some advanced planning is required. If you can't make the show, spend a few hours at a local retail store.

"The industry needs to learn more about consumer electronics and needs to be cognizant about what's happening," he added.

On the show floor, Pioneer New Media Technologies Inc. executives' spiel included the fact that Pioneer's history in cable and consumer electronics could serve as a bridge between MSOs and retailers looking to carry cable products.

Pioneer this month unveiled its "Keys to Success" cross-marketing program: cable operators could get back 1 percent of the funds they pay for Pioneer's "Voyager 3000" digital set-top boxes to use for cooperative advertising, Pioneer cable division director of marketing Dan Ward said.

The funds can also be used as "Pioneer Bucks," good towards Pioneer audio and video equipment such as DVD players and home-theater equipment. Cable operators can choose whether to use the products as customer acquisition and retention tools, employee rewards or to help equip a digital cable display in MSO-owned stores or bill payment centers.

Looking for new digital set-top vendors was not among Comcast's top priorities at the CES because the MSO enjoys good relationships with its current vendors, Watson said. "We're focused on things that will add additional value" and anything that makes consumers' lives easier, he said.

Home networking was of major interest to cable operators at the show, said Watson, who added that more needs to be done to make sure standards are compatible.

Watson said he liked the new digital-cable box with built-in DVD player shown at Motorola's booth. The box-which also incorporates an audio/video receiver with surround sound technologies including Dolby Digital and Dolby Pro Logic-will ship in September at a suggested retail price of $849.

Without retail subsidies from MSOs, stand-alone digital set-top boxes would be too costly to merit retail shelf space, Motorola Broadband Communications Sector director of market development Dwight Sakuma said.

Motorola plans to ship a three-disc DVD player and digital-cable box later in the fall. The combination boxes will allow consumers to access premium-cable, pay-per-view, video-on-demand and DVD movies from a single remote. Consumers also benefit because there are fewer set-top boxes to connect to their home-theater systems, Sakuma said.

Scientific-Atlanta Inc. had a smaller presence in a "Digital Living Room" area that displayed all sorts of next-wave devices, such as electronic picture frames that can download family photos from the Internet. S-A vice president of marketing and business development Ken Klaer said retail is not yet a big focus for the company.

S-A showcased video-on-demand technology, as well as the Kodak Picture Channel, a partnership with Eastman Kodak Co. Cable customers can use the channel to view electronic photo albums, order print pictures for delivery via mail and share photos with their families electronically.

Participating cable operators get a revenue cut from any photos ordered over the service, said S-A turnkey applications director of business development Louise Wasilewski.

The companies plan to launch technical trials of the Picture Channel during the first half of this year, with a market launch to follow in the second half.