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Last week, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association admitted to a third-quarter dip in cable modem and digital-phone rollouts. Then there was some more bad news: the already ailing Classic Communications Inc. had filed for Chapter 11 protection.

Juxtapose that against the threat of a pending EchoStar Communications Corp.-DirecTV Inc. merger — which would create a 16.7-million-subscriber direct-broadcast satellite competitor to cable — and the landscape looks a little murky.

But not to Cox Communications Inc. CEO Jim Robbins. The company's mantra — or the "Holy Grail," as he said — remains "voice, video and data."

For our question-and-answer session on page one of this week's issue, Multichannel News
finance editor Mike Farrell took Robbins' pulse on the state of the cable industry as it prepares to somehow wend its way through the not-so-friendly skies to attend the California Cable Television Association's Western Show in Anaheim, Calif.

The show has already taken its lumps. Almost all of the cable programmers have abandoned the venue, and many other non-programming executives will stay home because of economic or terrorism-related concerns.

But Robbins is bringing his troops to Anaheim for a general managers' meeting that the company usually holds in January. He'll use the Western Show to jump-start the process of spelling out Cox's 2002 goals and objectives to employees.

Robbins shared his thoughts about trade shows in general and stressed the need for all of them to rethink their reason for existence. "I think hauling exhibitors in there and corporate suppliers and programming suppliers is a huge waste of money for those guys," Robbins said. "They finally agreed. They said, 'Hey, we ain't gonna do it anymore.' "

That they are not: Attendance at this year's Western Show might be about 10,000 people, compared to levels of 25,000 to 30,000 in previous years, according to industry guesstimates and not the CCTA's official count.

And 10,000 attendees are nothing to sneeze at, if that's indeed how many actually make the trek to Anaheim. Cox and other MSOs will send their system-level executives — and that's actually very good news for both this show and the upcoming 2002 National Show in New Orleans.

Let's be real. As a rule, cable operators have not gone to the Western or National show in recent years. Instead they've opted to attend regional shows to connect with the rest of their industry — or were only allowed to go to gatherings in their areas.

Because the CCTA has made attendance attractive to cable MSOs this year by paying their way, for the first time in many moons, real cable operators will actually walk the floors and attend sessions. That is definately a coup.

I take my hat off to Cox and other MSOs who will make this journey. It is not business as usual; it's a time to firmly put one foot in front of the other in order to grow the business in stressful conditions.

For this industry, that means maintaining basic-cable market share while increasing revenue with new-product offerings such as digital video, cable modems, and telephony — whether a switched-network service, like Cox's, or Internet-protocol telephony, on which many other operators have placed their bets.

So enjoy Multichannel News's Q&A with Robbins. And I hope you all walk away from it with some of the optimism he expresses so passionately. I did.