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Western Show hitches ride with broadband

For the Western Show, the pre-show focus hasn't been on who will be there as much as on who

be there: Showtime Networks, Starz Encore Group and Playboy TV all made news by dropping out of next week's show. The loss of those three exhibitors, however, had a domino effect on the floor plans and allowed show organizers to bring in an additional 58 companies.

"There's a great shift of new blood coming onto the floor," says Paul Fadelli, head of public affairs for the California Cable Television Association. "And those programmers that dropped out will still have a relevance and presence at the show. It may be sponsoring some panels or taking part in panels, and that's something we feel good about."

The exit of exhibitors is often seen as a precursor to the death of a trade show, but that doesn't appear to be the case with this year's show, which will be held Nov. 28 to Dec. 1 at the Los Angeles Convention Center. Instead, it's the simple reality that established cable programmers can probably better utilize their resources (which for a trade show can typically run between $500,000 and $1 million) by putting them somewhere else.

Of course, losing several big names (HBO has already announced that it will not exhibit at next year's show) is always a hit to the ego and appeal of a show. For attendees and other exhibitors, the lack of an HBO can cause other exhibitors and attendees to ask themselves, if HBO doesn't think this show is important, why should I? However, it's the rare network that is in the position that HBO is in.

"The decision is very simple," says HBO spokesman Jeff Cusson. "It's a business decision that really has to do with the cost and transportation of the booth. We'll still be there with our staff every year and work with the CCTA."

Beyond the cost of the booth is the simple question of diminishing returns. Shows are a useful way to draw attention to one's offering, but companies like Showtime and HBO can get plenty of attention with or without a booth.

"The networks are already well established, so what do they go to the show for?" asks WorldGate Chairman and CEO Hal Krisbergh. "Operators who already want their service have it, so they have to ask themselves why are they exhibiting? The technology companies and those on the front edge of change are in an explosive area, and that's why they're coming to the show."

One of the new faces at this year's show will be Akamai, a company known in the Internet space for edge servers but just now dipping a toe into the cable waters. One of its acquisitions this year was of InterVu, a company that did exhibit at last year's show, but this is Akamai's first official foray into the cable universe.

"To learn what the cable market wants is probably the most important reason for us to be there," says Akamai Director of Broadband Network Strategy Will Biedron. "We have a very solid handle on what the general Internet industry needs and how we can fulfill those needs. And we believe that many of those needs exist in the cable sector, but we haven't had enough conversations with all of the pieces and parts of the cable industry to know that conclusively."

It may not be such a coincidence that a few top programmers have departed a show themed "Broadband Wagon," which puts the emphasis on technology. For many cable operators, competition from DBS has spurred efforts to find new ways to keep customers, and the differentiation is not going to be programming. Instead, the winning hand for cable may lie in the interactive services that are possible with digital set-top boxes and the deployment of cable modems.

"Our show reflects the industry," says Fadelli. "A lot of folks see the direction the industry is moving in terms of additional revenue streams. We're not necessarily tooting a horn telling people to get on board, because we think they're on board and moving in that direction. So we're going to discuss what broadband means and what the advantages and disadvantages are."

The theme can be seen in the programs, seminars and technical sessions. "The programs are hitting the competitive issues dead on, whether it's the interactivity or video-on-demand and diversity issues. We try to read the polls for where the industry is, and these programs are pretty good in making our industry more competitive."

Of course, interactive services cannot live on technology alone. Content will play an integral role in the successful deployment of interactive offerings. "Content is part of the recipe of what it takes to converge with the technology," Fadelli points out. "And with digital in a lot of markets, the pressure is off programmers to tap dance for the cable operators at our show."

So it could very well be that the Western Show and other cable shows will take a turn to technology for a couple of years as cable operators sort through their interactive options. But both Fadelli and Krisbergh believe that the cable programmers that are taking a break this year will be back.

"All of the programmers have made it clear that this is a year-by-year decision," says Fadelli. "It may come back onto their marketing scale again, and that's fine with us."

Krisbergh believes that, when content producers need to start touting their interactive offerings, they'll return to the show. "When interactive technology explodes and the architecture is in place, you're going to see the programming side come back in spades. If they don't, they'll be in trouble. But the shows today don't represent anything other than a simple financial justification to spend a million dollars."