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Cable Programmers Take a Shining To the Consumer Electronics Show

Two years ago, ESPN sent four people to the Consumer Electronics Show. Last year, they sent 20. Later this week, when the 2005 CES opens (Jan. 5-9), ESPN will have more than 70 people in attendance.

True, the company will be launching the HDTV feed for ESPN2, but the sharp spike in attendance is emblematic of a larger trend: cable programmers find consumer electronics a key growth area for their companies.

The interest is being returned. CES invited MTV Networks president Judith McGrath to be a keynote speaker. This is believed to be the first time a cable programming executive has delivered a major address to the CE crowd.

Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing has split its annual tour of the floor into two sessions for the first time this year, with a separate programming version scheduled for Jan. 7, a day after CTAM’s MSO marketing and business development types cruise the aisles. (Cable Television laboratories Inc. also will provide a tour for senior MSO and engineering executives.)

For ESPN, the CES has grown in importance because “we are becoming a retail-oriented brand,” says Bryan Burns, vice president of strategy business planning and development at ESPN, “totally related to CE space.”

And ESPN is pulling out all the stops. It is co-sponsoring the grand lobby stage in the main entrance to the Las Vegas Convention Center. “That’s a huge message,” says Burns.

As for the consumer gear at CES, ESPN has many touch points, including HDTV, direct-broadcast satellite, broadband and wireless devices, for not only programming but branded ESPN merchandise. The company recently announced a branded wireless phone venture with Sprint Corp. ESPN branded merchandise can even show up in boats, courtesy of its outdoor division, Burns says.

“We take all our various brands [to CES],” Burns says. “It’s how our company is embracing consumer electronics, because it is our future.”

ESPN2 launches in HD on Jan. 6, with three college basketball games. As part of the launch of ESPN2 in HD, ESPN has invited consumers to go online and vote which game they’d like basketball analyst Dick Vitale to broadcast from that day. The “Send Dick V Packing!” promotion provides three choices: the Memphis at Texas game, DePaul at Cincinnati or Gonzaga at Santa Clara. The selection was scheduled to be announced Jan. 1. ESPN2 will carry 82 HD contests in the first 83 days of 2005.

The network is also hosting a reception and screening at CES for its latest original program, the series Tilt, a behind-the-scenes look at poker, which premieres Jan. 13.

HD also is on The Weather Channel’s radar. Susan Scott, the network’s senior vice president of distribution, says her team will study HDTV trends, as it looks to add HD long form programming.

For the first time in several years, Scott won’t attend CES due to her responsibilities as chairman of Women in Cable & Telecommunications, but she’s sending a team. In addition to HD, TWC has a particular interest in home networking.

“We’re trying to get an understanding what are the options for our distribution customers because of,” she says. “I’ve also got my people going to mobile electronics areas. And we’re very interested in emerging technologies. We want to understand whether it is possible and viable to have voicemail delivered aurally via TV.”

She adds that TWC is trying to limit where its on-demand services and interactivity can go.

Kevin Cohen, senior vice president and general manager of interactive and enhanced TV at Turner Cable Network Sales, is a CES veteran. He has a long list of items on his activity list. “We’ll be seeing what’s on the horizon with time-shifting devices, in the linear and nonlinear space. We’ll see what types of success the Moxie folks are having and any new additions to Motorola [Inc.] set-tops, multi-tuner [digital video recorders], and the Hewlett Packard [Co.] multimedia center that runs the Microsoft media center.”

Also on the list: devices with WiFi built into them, Internet protocol-based set-top boxes, TiVo Inc.’s next generation set-tops and devices that access content through broadband connections. Turner has signed a deal with one such company, Akimbo Systems. “We’ll see what else is out there,” Cohen says.

“We’ll see what affiliates are looking at to expand their [video-on-demand] offerings, and what new types of VOD services are on the horizon,” he says. Cohen says he believed it’s too early to tell if telco IPTV deployments will be successful. “We’re not going to know about that for quite some period of time. The telcos have a bit of an uphill battle, just getting their system set up,” Cohen says.

Wireless has been a key technology at Turner for years, particularly at Cable News Network. The network has delivered content to cell phones and short message service phones for years. In the past year, it struck a deal to send video clips as part of a subscription service to Sprint subscribers.

Consumers can pay $4.95 a month and get access to 20 to 30 video clips a day, ranging in length from 30 seconds to two minutes, says Bill Stratton, vice president at TCNS. “We’re pleased with CNN on the phone,” he says. The network also sells short-form content from Cartoon Network and Adult Swim, for $3.95 a month each, on those phones.

There are 15 to 25 clips with each service, on the one-minute range. “We’re very pleased with how that is doing,” Stratton says.

Better wireless broadband services, including evolution data only (EVDO) and 3G, are in the offing. “At CES we’ll be looking at different form functions of devices that are out there,” Stratton says. “Screens on phones have certain aspect ratios. We want to begin to understand aspect ratios, because it’s very different from TV. That’s one of the bigger challenges.”

Cohen also will take stock of interactive TV. Turner has dabbled with a number of news and entertainment ITV functions, both on the TV and with wireless devices.

“I’m very encouraged about enhanced TV and ITV,” he says. “ITV gaming will be big opportunity in 2005,” he says, citing Cartoon Network’s gaming success in the United Kingdom. “It could become more and more a reality in this marketplace. The DBS folks are putting out set-top boxes with middleware that can do enhanced TV. There is a fair amount of experimentation with one-screen interactivity with key affiliates. It’s all about finding the right content for this platform.”

One idea is to provide some of the massive amounts of information on to ITV users. On election night alone, there were 650 million page views to, Cohen says. “We could take a relevant portion of that content and make that available while they are watching our network.”

Portable video devices are another frontier. “Arcos has a portable media player,” Cohen says, “although it’s still a little bit kludgy. There are gaming devices that also playback video. We want to understand the portable video space.”

HDTV, broadband content and VOD will be major targets for Albert Cheng, senior vice president of business strategy and development for Disney and ESPN Networks Affiliate Sales and Marketing.

“Unlike other cable shows, what CES brings for us is a view of what CE companies are trying to develop for the consumer,” Cheng says.

“The main push is HD,” he says, echoing Burns’ sentiment with ESPN2.

They are also looking into the continued evolution of mobile content, including delivery to automobiles. “We’re going to see where that’s going.”

“There is also broadband and home networking,” he says, noting that The Walt Disney Co. has the Disney Connection, ESPN Broadband and ABC News broadband content. “We get a lot of usage,” he says, across those services, all enabled by broadband.”