NCTC Winter Confab Outlook: Walking to New Orleans for Video Insights

Small operators seeking insight and information on competition, continued industry consolidation and the power of Internet-protocol video can seek it this month at the National Cable Television Cooperative’s Winter Education Conference. If for no other reason, it’s in New Orleans.

The NCTC said more than 270 members have already signed up for the Feb. 20-21 gathering (more than the number that attended last year’s meeting in Phoenix). More than 200 exhibitor representatives have signed on for about 80 booths and tables.

Advanced video platforms will be the focus of this year’s meeting, a topic on the minds of every small cable operator looking for a competitive advantage.

“The focus will be emphasizing how to compete in the new video world. There are several components to it, a blend of technology, marketing and market research,” NCTC CEO Rich Fickle told The Wire, adding the co-op is in the middle of finalizing an RFP with 16 different companies for IP and advanced video technologies.

Click through to the WEC agenda.


“We’re looking at systems that can be used without set-top boxes and, in some cases, they can sit on top of an Android TV set-top,” Fickle said. “The choices for how cable operators serve their customers have opened up quite a bit.”

The event will also feature industry experts from Leichtman Research, CableLabs and Parks Associates, among others, addressing topics including the evolution of the U.S. video market, leveraging IP video and the connected home. The conference also offers multiple networking opportunities and a Solutions Showcase exhibit hall featuring the latest suppliers and innovators, as well as product forum presentations.

Fickle pointed to the proliferation of digital MVPDs like Sling TV, DirecTV Now, Sony PlayStation Vue and YouTube Unplugged, adding that the NCTC will unveil some market research at the WEC that will offer more insight into how consumers look at apps and the services delivered through them.

Attendees can also gauge the regulatory climate in Washington, D.C., with a Monday, Feb. 20, discussion headed by America Cable Association CEO Matt Polka. Leichtman Research president and principal analyst Bruce Leichtman will offer a look at the state of the video and broadband industries, and panel discussions from top executives at Eagle Broadband, RCN, CenturyLink, CableLabs, Cable One, Parks Associates and Buckeye Broadband will provide insight into competitive and technology issues.

Pricing and packaging of services will also be discussed, especially as skinny bundles proliferate throughout the pay TV universe.

“We have several members who have been doing different flavors of that,” Fickle said, adding that there will be panels and research released at the conference around those strategies. “It’s all about how to compete and how to drive costs down but improve the customer experience. A lot of it is done through IP, which is a different approach than we have done in the past.”


Fickle added that programming contracts, which had constrained smaller operators from offering skinnier bundles, are easing up.

“The deals we’ve done over the last few years with the programmers have changed the restrictions,” Fickle said. “It’s not what everybody wants, which is, you can package anything you want, but it’s pretty comparable to what the larger MVPDs can do.”

Consolidation, a big topic when Charter Communications was pursuing Time Warner Cable — it closed the deal in May — isn’t as high on the priority list for small operators today. While there are likely some deals left to be done, Fickle said the emphasis is on cooperation.

“There are efforts underway to find ways for smaller operators to either partner up with some of the larger companies or band together even tighter to replicate some of the same capabilities, working together as a cooperative group of entities,” Fickle said. “Some of that needs to happen. I don’t think it’s something to panic about. Probably in the next five years it needs to be pursued in earnest.”


Mr. Wheeler’s Tweets Offer Pointed Words

Former Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler didn’t take long to signal he would be a vocal critic of the new Trump administration, both at the White House and at the agency.

After tweeting “Congratulations Chairman Pai” on Jan. 20 — when Wheeler exited the FCC — by Feb. 1 he was taking aim at Pai’s decision to take the set-top box rule out of circulation. Wheeler had kept it in front of the commissioners for a possible vote, though that was highly unlikely to come from either Pai or his fellow Republican, Michael O’Rielly, who both opposed the revamp.

Wheeler and Pai had what often appeared to be a rocky relationship, exhibiting at times a strained courtesy at meetings, sparring in Hill hearings, and clearly at loggerheads over key policy and process issues.

On Jan. 31, after Pai pulled the set-top revamp item (a Wheeler centerpiece), and the day Pai presided over his first public meeting, Wheeler’s tone shifted as he took aim at both Pai and the cable industry — the latter a familiar target.

“Removing set-top box rule victory for Cable-wood over consumers,” Wheeler tweeted (Hollywood studios joined ISPs in pushing back on the set-top item), adding: “$200 million Pai Tax on helpless cable subs. Trump helping little guy??”

The chairman’s office had no comment. The Wire’s comment: Ouch!

— John Eggerton