Cable Rings Them Bells

Tis the season for every Tom, Dick and Harry to prognosticate about what's in store for cable in the New Year. But while everyone has an opinion about the cable industry's fortunes going forward, there are three trends that are sure to take hold with regards to content distribution.

But first, a quick look back:

Aside from the first-quarter writers' strike playing havoc with network programming schedules and the pesky economic downtown causing chaos with just about everything else, cable had a pretty decent year in 2008, from a content-distribution perspective.

Ad-supported cable networks are on pace to continue their domination of the broadcast networks with regards to primetime viewership share, while cable continued to gain accolades for its original content — witness 17 primetime Emmy wins this past September and 37 recent Golden Globe nominations.

So what's going to happen in 2009? Here are three trends that programmers, viewers and operators will watch closely:

The video screen will become even smaller: Remember when network executives thought viewers would not watch television on a 15-inch computer screen? Well, 2009 promises to see an explosion in viewing on the mobile platform. Already, people are spending more hours watching video on mobile phones than they are on the Web, according to Nielsen Media Research, and with 65% of all mobile viewing being done by people between 12 and 34, that trend is only going to grow over time.

With networks looking to maximize revenue for their content, you'll see more live content popping up on your cellphone.

VOD will go HD: MSOs in 2009 will look to magnify their on-demand advantage over the satellite providers by offering more VOD content in HD. It's no longer enough for an operator to offer thousands of hours of standard-definition VOD programming. Consumers plunking down thousands of dollars for their HDTV sets want maximum value for their purchase, and operators like Comcast will look to provide it — the MSO currently offers more than 1,000 HD VOD titles. As more content providers film their original series, specials and documentaries in HD, MSOs will allot additional bandwidth to exhibit such content, building greater value for their digital and VOD packages.

Cable builds a scripted arsenal: When FX's venerable drama The Shield launched in March 2002, you could count on one hand the number of scripted series on cable networks. Fast-forward just six years, and cable will end the year offering nearly 30 scripted series, with only a few handful not returning in 2009, including The Shield, which called it quits after a successful seven-year run. With the broadcast networks shying more and more away from scripted fare — NBC recently announced it's bagging such shows during the once-vaunted 10 p.m. time slot (think ER) for a Jay Leno-hosted variety series — cable will only see a continual increase in quality dramas and sitcoms.

For sure, the cable industry has its challenges going into the New Year. But from a programming standpoint, 2009 should be another innovative and banner year for networks, operators and viewers.

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.