INTX 2015: Powell Hates (the Name) Cable

National Cable & Telecommunications Association president Michael Powell said Tuesday that he hates cable, the name that is, because it does not capture all that his industry has done to build out broadband.

Powell opened his collar, as well as the rebranded and reimagined INTX 2015 show in Chicago, with in a Q&A interview with Re/Code's Kara Swisher.

A Silicon Valley informality and attitude was part of the message. An opening video with Peter Max-like cartoon forms christened INTX a "mash-up at the crossroads of entertainment" and pointed out that some of the ideas NCTA had solicited from the public about the broadband future included downloadable cupcakes and telepathic telecommuting.

But Powell seemed serious about moving his industry beyond cable toward what convention co-chair Alfred Liggins had called a uniting of "friends and frenemies."

"Once upon a time there was the cable show," the narrator in the video said, as if to place that show in a book whose pages were now turned. Powell suggested the future of video was going to be multi-screen and holographic, and meant competing with real life, which meant the connected communities and video apps that are the currency of young people's interactions. 

Swisher took aim at the "cable" name, saying it was kind of like talking about a "motorized horse."

"I hate the name," Powell said. "I do think it has a proud history but I think it has to be retired in some way because I think your past can be apart of your glory but it also can be a weight around your ankle. And it also doesn't fairly capture what they do."

And while he may hate the name, he loves the record of building out broadband.

He said the industry had "successfully deployed the most sophisticated infrastructure in the history of the world in the fastest amount of time of any technology in the history of the world, and increased the capacity of that at exponential rates."

He said it should be more centered around its association with the Internet and less with its history of the disruptions it made when it revolutionized broadcast TV.

NCTA has been making the point of all the investment and speed in Washington even as FCC chairman Tom Wheeler has talked about speeds not being up to par and ISPs being potentially anticompetitive gatekeepers in need of regulating.

"It matters what you call yourself, it matters what you call yourself. It matters that I voted not to wear my tie..."

Powell would not say who he thought was the most powerful new player among the digital "frenemies" NCTA is courting, or at least eyeing. But he did identify those he said should be "intensely followed." He said those included Google, not only because of its dominance in search, though he made the point that they were always looking for ways to "index, tag, scrape and identify anything in the digital space through their algorithms," saying that was "a very powerful function."

Powell has warned that power could draw the FCC's gaze given its Title II focus on keeping the virtuous Internet cycle virtuous.

Powell called YouTube a "fascinating property."

He said Amazon was also one of those must-watch companies, in part because video was not the prime directive. "They are using video to drive very, very profitable businesses. So, Amazon wants me to be a Prime consumer and buy shaving cream as well as watch a television show."

He also pointed to ground-up digital disruptors like Snapchat, Periscope, Vine and Meerkat. He said there was an amazing amount of creativity in that space, though he was not sure "how much of a business it is or isn't." He suggested that his audience needed to at least familiarize themselves with those disruptors. "I think you owe it to yourself to look....I know that it is meaningfully differentiated content and behavior that you would be foolish not to be an observer of."

He said he thought his industry had responded to the digital disruption of new services, but said that response needed to be "accelerated with a new kind of urgency."

He said that the digital business was making exponential leaps, with the audience passionate about community and friends, and to have "real life be entertainment."

"What is competing with traditional television is real life, the ability to document, share, and propagate that," Swisher asked what the industry does given that "people are not linking to cable, are not having a relationship with cable in any way, have bad feelings toward it or don't even use it."

Powell said that it was important to get to where that audience was, which was on multiple, intimate screens. He said "round one" had been porting content to those devices. He then suggested the next step is figuring out how to be a "companion" to self-published content. "I don't think it is enough to ask the consumer to constantly change ecosystems and go from watching Periscope to watching Game of Thrones."

Periscope, a live video app that allows users to see the world through someone else's eyes—or smart phone, as it were—prompted Powell to bring up the issue of privacy and what it means in the digital space.

"I have been playing with Periscope and Snapchat," he said. "What I am always intrigued by is not the people doing it but the people being caught while they're doing it, the people who didn't agree to be broadcast around the world. I think society is going to be working through the meaning of that for a long time. I think that potentially has a negative side."

While most of the talk was about broadband, he said it would be premature to declare the demise of traditional video.

Powell pointed out that there were still 102 million multichannel subscriber households. "That is not going to drop down to five overnight. I still think there is high-quality, premium type programming—live events—driven by an infrastructure that has proprietary quality of service commitments that cable infrastructure does."

On the quality of customer service, Powell said he thought the industry got it. He agreed that the network neutrality proponents played the customer service card well. "Words and messages don't work if you’re not liked," said Powell, a former soldier, who said he did not subscribe to the philosophy ascribed to General Patton that "I don't have to be liked to lead."  He said that would be foolish and that if that customer relationship is "frayed, you are just ripe for every public policy fight to be turned against you just based on reputational fatigue."

He said the good news is that the industry is aware of the issue, is not "delusional" about it, and is making efforts to change that perception through the quality of the product and improved the experience.

Powell suggested that the Internet had made that job harder by raising consumer expectations. "They want it here, now, on any device, unfailingly reliable and to innovate every six, not 18, months."

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.