Messianic Intensity: NCTA 2000

You had to be in a Hurricane-induced coma to not realize early on that retransmission consent was going to be the theme of this year's National Show, given that The Walt Disney Co. and Time Warner Cable were still heaping more salt on wounds that had not yet healed.

Cable's robust broadband pipe and all of the new gizmos and software that would enhance the industry's ability to deliver enhanced services were supposed to be center of the plate for last week's event in the Big Easy.

The corridors were abuzz with attendees taking sides on who behaved more badly: Was it Time Warner yanking ABC off its systems in seven markets for a day-and-a-half? Or was it Disney, trying to hold up the MSO for ransom and possibly derail that company's merger with America Online?

At the general sessions, it appeared that attendees were rooting for Time Warner. But the talk emanating from restaurants, bars, hallways and convention buses suggested that the industry was very divided on who the villain was.

Meanwhile, exhibit-hall attendance was less than robust on day one of the show and the days that followed. Yes, there was plenty of talk about breakthrough technologies, but there were countering worries about anticipated delays of components that were supposed to enhance the already long-delayed shipment of digital set-top boxes.

But for whatever reasons-probably industry consolidation-there wasn't as much tire-kicking, let alone buying, on the floor as in years past.

National Cable Television Association president Robert Sachs was upbeat in his opening address, hailing the awesome progress various MSOs had made in delivering advanced broadband services. And indeed, they are laudable.

But Sachs could not and did not ignore what was on everyone's minds: that unwelcome hot potato of retransmission consent.

Sachs railed that it was time to revisit the retransmission-consent provision of the 1992 Cable Act. He called it a culmination of the broadcast industry's political wins, adding that it was not serving as a mechanism that worked in today's marketplace.

But the opening panel that followed Sachs' address was truly a snore, shedding only a glimmer of light on the difficulties in today's marketplace of the escalating feuds among cable operators and programmers.

CNN's Bernie Shaw anchored it, and largely, it was Milquetoast. Shaw let his panelist yap on for a full 20 minutes about U.S. trade with China, when all in attendance wanted to hear about other things more aligned with their own problems.

But then again, Shaw, a TV journalist, had a script that he stuck to. Frankly, I wonder why the NCTA still invites big names, with no in-depth industry knowledge, to moderate such important sessions.

But even on Shaw's panel, his participants could not ignore the retransmission wars. And of course, Time Warner Inc. chairman Gerald M. Levin, who was on that panel, had to say something about the ongoing battle that could change things for all MSOs and programmers, considering that he was at the heart of this heated and escalating battle.

Levin stated his case, saying that broadcasters were targeting cable operators with "almost messianic intensity," putting cable operators' feet to the fire if they did not carry popular TV stations as they tried to fend off expensive carriage deals.

The next day's general session fared far better. Time Warner Cable chairman Joe Collins, along with executives from five other MSOs, took the bull by the horns and addressed the topic of retransmission consent head-on.

They could hardly ignore it because moderator Sallie Hofmeister, of the Los Angeles Times, was a well-mannered bulldog who wouldn't let any of them off the hook, especially Collins.

Collins did not duck the subject or other topics Hofmeister brought up, like rate hikes, dipping cable-stock prices and the industry's ability to deliver on its promises of new, enhanced services.

Many in the audience agreed that it was one of the most enlightening panels ever held at such a very public forum. And that's because unlike a TV journalist who just follows the script, Hofmeister did her own homework and demonstrated that she had mastered her topic.

Mastered is an understatement: She approached that group of MSOs with her own messianic intensity, and she shed more light on the industry's problems and future successes than anyone ever expected.