A Nostalgic Stroll Through Dust of Western Shows Past

For technology people, the status of this week as the marker for the last Western Show is bittersweet.

The bitter is the void that's created, just as with any unfortunate parting. The Western Show is (was) a reliably active technology event. Saying goodbye to it doesn't mean technology will stagnate, because technology doesn't know how to stagnate.

But it does mean we, as an industry, will be exposed to industry-specific technology advances differently next December, and the next December and so on.

The sweet is the recognition that many of us can have our Thanksgivings back. For lots of people — conference organizers, exhibitors, trade press — getting ready for Western involves a crazy level of detail, similar to planning for a wedding.

Except, in this case, the wedding is wedged between two major holidays: Thanksgiving and Christmas. Even the bravest party planner would call that nuts.

Most won't miss the timing intensity of the Western Show. But technology hounds will miss its payoff: A last, good shot of technology news and actions to end the year.

Because part of a technology writer's job is to not forget the past, this week's column remembers some of the "firsts and notables" of previous Western Shows.

Stuff Happened

The obvious and most recounted Western Show biggie was John Malone's promise of "500 channels" in 1992. The Tele-Communications Inc. chief uttered the prediction in the context of digital video compression, but his words were taken literally, with people wondering if they'd someday actually channel surf past channel 429, 430, 431.

Then there was the big Imedia Corp. craze, in 1995, when Malone wandered through the CableLabs' CableNET area, finding a little startup with big plans for 24-to-1 video compression per 6-MHz channel. A deal was done on the show floor, and showed up on the front page of The Wall Street Journal
a week later.

And, in 1997, Malone orchestrated a $4.5 billion group order for 25 million digital set-top boxes, a move other MSO technologists still remember as "the blue light special."

The quest for cable modem interoperability, later named "DOCSIS" (for Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification), was born at the 1996 Western Show, when Cable Television Laboratories Inc. gathered muckety-muck cable technologists in a briefing room to discuss the idea.

A year later, Cisco Systems Inc. debuted its "universal broadband router," or "UBR." It's in the "big" category because it quickly gained massive market share (upwards of 80%) as the headend component used by MSOs offering broadband Internet service.

And let's not forget Microsoft Corp., which isn't a new entry to cable headlines. In 1994, Microsoft made front-page Western Show news, luring six more cable operators into its "Insight Architect" program for interactive television.

Also in 1994, Cablevision Systems Corp. said it would deploy 20,000 digital, VOD-capable set-tops made by AT&T Corp. by the end of the following year.

Big because it happened and it works, Cox in 1994 gathered reporters to talk tech about its new "ring in ring" fiber deployment strategy, which dramatically reduced outages and increased network "up time."

Bad Stuff, Too

More recently, cable operators involved in Excite@Home Corp. sat on pins and needles at the 2001 Western Show, awaiting a ruling from U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Thomas Carlson. By lunchtime, Carlson ruled to allow the broadband Internet provider to terminate its contracts with its MSO partners, which created a crazy maelstrom of cutover activities in the following weeks.

In 1996, the biggest seller in Anaheim was raingear. The convention center's basement flooded. Tele-Communications Inc. had just laid off a pile of Denver-based workers. The mood across the street from "the happiest place on Earth" was decidedly dampened.

Ted Turner, ever the quip machine, showed up strong at several Western Shows. Perhaps his most memorable antic came in 1995, when he held up clenched fists and made a sustained meanie-face, saying "I'm looking forward to squishing Rupert [Murdoch] like a bug."

Intel Corp., still active in the cable-modem market in 1995, distributed press kits that included a CD. Trouble was, the CD disabled reporters' PCs. Staffers quickly posted signs in the press room, warning that the CD "will seriously damage your computer system." Oops.

And, Tele-Communications Inc. honcho Leo Hindery delivered his famously weird "spinning triangles" remark at the 1997 Western Show. Describing a triangle of benefits aimed at cable customers, he began drawing tight circles in the air with his index finger, and said that the triangle was about to start spinning, faster and faster, and customers would go through it — "into a magical world."

Well, it's funny now: At the 1987 Western Show, show planners were ebullient about attendance. "We're bursting at the seams," said a CCTA organizer — of the 5,000 expected attendees.

Also funny in hindsight: In 1980, Robert "Terry" Holt, who worked for a bucket truck company called Mobile Lift Inc., came up with a series of folk songs for cable. One, "The Tech's Hymn," spun a tale of a lineman's heaven.

Zenith came out that same year with a programmable VCR – with a suggested retail price of $1,350.

And Odd Stuff

In 1995, just as CableLabs was mobilizing the cable modem interoperability work that would later become DOCSIS, four hardware vendors drew their own interoperability circle. Hewlett-Packard Inc., Intel, AT&T Network Systems, and Hybrid Network Technologies allied under a "Broadband Link Team" shingle (and yes, sandwich metaphors were flying). They promised a full, written specification within a month.

Few technologists will forget a similarly doomed effort, one year later: When Jim Phillips, a senior exec at Motorola Corp. (before it bought General Instrument), worked diligently to make his cable modems the de facto standard.

In 1998, Sony Corp. plunked down $187.5 mil. to get closer to General Instrument, taking a 5% stock stake. Not to be outdone, rival Scientific-Atlanta Inc. signed a letter of intent with Microsoft to figure out how to put WinCE and WebTV on S-A's set-tops. Neither effort produced much more than headlines.

That same year, a Forrester Research report predicted that seven of 28 program networks would make 80% of their content interactive by 2001. Uh-huh.

In 1994, big-name companies including AT&T, IBM, Northern Telecom and H-P all stated intents to build and sell digital set-top boxes. None went mainstream.

Familiar Stuff

From the "Some Things Never Change" Department, two entries. First was the yellow badges worn by Western Show attendees in 1998, that read: "Digital Must-Carry: Unfair, Unconstitutional, Un-American."

And, in 1997, a Western Show headline touted, "Ops Divided on OpenCable Initiatives."

As a sign of the times in the '80s, the 1980 Western Show served as a backdrop for the franchising plans of nearby Santa Ana, Calif., with 65,000 homes. Nine companies were vying for the honor: TelePrompter Cable TV, Storer, Six Star Nielson Cablevision, Santa Ana Cablevision, Cross Country Cable Ltd., Colony Cablevision, California Cablesystems, United Cable Television, and American Television and Communications (ATC.)

At the 1987 Western Show, Home Box Office delivered the results of its research into HDTV. The findings: 70% of premium, 41% of basic, and 33% of non-cable subscribers would be willing to pay more for HDTV programming.

Also at that show, HBO debuted a videotape titled "The Cable TV/VCR Hook-Up Guide." The hour-long tape included a coupon for a $10 rebate on HBO or Cinemax subscriptions.

QUBE aficionados convened for a 10-year reunion at the 1987 Western Show – the service originally launched on December 1, 1977.

What Now?

A random and very unscientific poll of technologists, conducted in preparation for this column, shows a strong sentiment for technology events that bookend the year. Put another way, most techies steadfastly believe there is room for multiple cable tech events each year.

The reasoning: Technology changes. Quickly. Being innovative means at least trying to make sense of it.

There is good news amid the bummer of the Western Show's retirement. The always strong CableNET, which began in 1993 with a small group of vendors with gigantic wares, grew into a truly useful one-stop-shop for new technologies at Western. It will move to the National Cable & Telecommunications Association's annual National Show — so that's good.

Maybe something will emerge to fill the end-of-year tech void created by the last Western Show — or maybe not.

Maybe the industry will shift its year-end tech appetite by one month, to the Consumer Electronics Show, which always happens in early January. The SCTE's Emerging Technology event always happens in January, too — so that's also good.

If nothing else, people like me will have fewer and fewer reasons to send Christmas cards out in January.

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