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He's Stargazing Into Cable's Busy 2004

Well that dreaded season is upon us again, as budgets and end-of-year planning monopolize everyone's day planners.

With deadlines looming, there's not even time to enjoy cable's guilty pleasures, provided by news of yet another accounting scandal, dramatic personnel changes and widespread Internet viruses that force employees to "work" offline.

Brace yourselves and take a deep breath, because it's time to ramp up for 2004.

And in doing so, let's look beyond the current events plaguing today's headlines. Issues like how next year will wrap without a Western Show, how statewide legislative organizations plan to cope without the necessary funds once collected by bustling conventions, and finally, how programmers will fare if pure talent like Roseanne Barr can't find success on ABC Family. Nay, let's instead stare intently into our crystal balls and try sneaking a peek into the future.

Now, before I regale you with premonitions and opinions, let me give you some insight into where I'm coming from. Since getting my feet wet in cable over 25 years ago by launching Zenith into the set-top box arena, I've seen the industry grow and expand much the way waves rise up to peaks, only to come crashing down under the forces of recessions, government regulation and corporate scandals.

It's in that vein that I often feel like "The Old Man in the Cable Sea," watching companies buckle down to weather the current storm, knowing that beyond this wave, there is another waiting to lift the business once again.

This is the cycle that has carried cable to its current height — or low, depending on where you stand or who you work for — and will continue to push it into the coming year. With each passing quarter, technology is taken to exciting new levels, opening doors for operators and programmers.

Yet the industry still moves much as it did 20 years ago. And it is with this technically sunny disposition that I present what my crystal ball expects to see moving forward into 2004:

  • Media ownership regulations come to a head and are resolved before the presidential primaries begin;
  • Adoption of Wi-Fi (wireless fidelity) will affect the way MSOs plan and build out their commercial business;
  • MSO-owned programming networks will more and more resemble the "retail private label" brands like Costco and Safeway — meaning less general consumer marketing and more prominent positioning to the subscriber;
  • More computer-industry leaders will throw their weight into cable and try to reshape the industry along PC interfaces and experiences, just as they did when they tried to affect HDTV standard adoption at the last minute;
  • On-screen guide companies' marketing will heat up as the weather cools;
  • Cable networks will admit they are cannibalizing their own audiences and brands, and we will see massive retooling in programming and positioning;
  • Managing video and IP transport will become a top priority among cable engineers;
  • We will see a new aggressive play for the African-American audience — on that front, the industry is where it was with Hispanic programming about five years ago;
  • Whether at the home or the headend, digital video recorder technology will redefine cable television viewer habits;
  • Through collaborative initiatives like CableCARD, cable operators and consumer-electronics companies will work together to provide technology and education to make informed decisions about digital TV and on-demand services.

I'm no psychic, but these are just a few trends I see creeping up over the horizon. Anyone taking these observations as anything more than opinion probably deserves to have lost more of their stock portfolio over the last few years than I did.

So like everything else in cable, take these predictions with a grain of salt. After all, the following notions were once prevailing industry opinions, and look where they went:

  • Large parent entities like Times Mirror Inc. and Viacom Inc. should sell their affiliate systems, because telcos are taking over the industry;
  • ITV is the next big thing to happen within cable and will precede penetration of HDTV and VOD;
  • Operators will offload converter expenditures onto consumer electronics companies when cable inevitably goes retail;
  • Cable converters will eventually consist of a universal box with plug-in upgrades;
  • Pay-per-view is not a viable option, in comparison to the movie-theater experience;
  • Selling people multiple pay services likes Home Box Office and Showtime will never work;
  • The Death Star theory: Who will want to pay for cable when direct-broadcast satellite offers more channels at lower cost?

So I hope these words of wisdom help make your budget planning a wee bit more focused for 2004!