From Comcast's new X1 platform to connected TV apps that let cable subscribers channel surf without a set-top, next-generation interactive program guides and user interfaces were the stars of The Cable Show convention in Boston.
The industry has come a long way from the days when subscribers had to rely on channels that displayed passive, scrolling TV listings to help subscribers find something to watch. The Cable Show featured demonstrations of guides that rely on voice and motion controls to change channels. And several vendors trotted out cloud-based IPGs that rely on thumbnail images and videos to display multiple programs on a single screen, and integrate social TV recommendations.
Some of the most advanced IPGs were on display at the booths of vendors such as Alticast, ActiveVideo and Zodiac Interactive. My jaw dropped when I saw the a feature on Alticast's IPG that lets users curate a list of favorite channels to track by selecting thumbnail videos that are displayed in a carousel, and move only the channels they are interested in watching into a guide that displays multiple video thumbnails on the same screen. It's easier to understand if you see a demo in person (or check out this video I shot of the Alticast demo at the 1:20 mark).
Program guides that subscribers can access on multiple devices, including cable set-tops, connected TVs and tablets, were another winner at The Cable Show. Time Warner Cable (NYSE: TWC) CEO Glenn Britt turned heads in a general session when he predicted traditional cable set-tops would eventually become extinct. On the show floor, several vendors demonstrated connected TVs that can display cable programming without the use of a set-top, including Samsung and LG (NYSE: LGL).
While cable operators may purchase fewer digital set-tops as more consumers buy connected TVs, gaming consoles and other IP devices that can display subscription video programming, several major MSOs were kicking the tires on the super DVRs, or video gateways that were displayed by set-top vendors such as Arris (Nasdaq: ARRS), Pace (LSE: PIC), Cisco (Nasdaq: CSCO) and Motorola Mobility. Comcast (Nasdaq: CMCSA) helped propel the transition to gateway devices that operators can use to deliver programming to multiple set-tops and connected devices in a subscriber homes by launching its new X1 platform in Boston. Pace demonstrated the X1 gateway that Comcast is deploying at its exhibit, along with versions of the set-top that could be deployed by any operator.
Perhaps the biggest winner in Boston, at least in terms of commitments from major cable operators, was WiFi technology. Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cablevision (NYSE: CVC), Cox Communications opened up the convention by announcing that they would share more than 50,000 WiFi hotspots, and market the brand CableWiFi to consumers who will be able to discover that network name while scanning WiFi hotspots with mobile phones, tablets and laptops. The major MSOs are poised to use WiFi as a marketing tool to recruit and retain high-speed Internet subscribers, and the technology gives operators a solution that can compete with the 4G networks built by Verizon (NYSE: VZ), AT&T (NYSE: T) and other mobile carriers.
But Comcast and other MSOs dropped the ball in Boston by failing supply reliable WiFi access at the convention itself. The Cable Show would've been a great opportunity to demonstrate the power of the CableWiFi brand if the MSOs had asked their WiFi technology suppliers such as Ericsson (Nasdaq: ERIC) and Ruckus Wireless to blanket the convention center with enough WiFi hotspots to connect attendees to a CableWiFi network. Instead, the public WiFi network was overwhelmed throughout the convention, prompting many attendees to rely on 4G mobile hotspots to surf the web.
Technology dominated The Cable Show, a convention that focused for decades primarily on cable programming. Several major networks didn't exhibit this year, including MTV and Comedy Central parent Viacom (NYSE: VIA). Networks that did attend focused their exhibits on technology, including ESPN, which touted its WatchESPN app. Playboy and The Erotic Networks, which in years past brought adult film stars to sign autographs and take pictures with attendees, also skipped the convention this year. That made for a more family-friendly atmosphere. But the networks that did exhibit at The Cable Show still attracted big crowds, including Fox News Channel, which brought star Bill O'Reilly to its booth.
The Cable Show has gotten much smaller in the last 10 years, mostly as a result of industry consolidation. About 12,000 people attended this year's convention. NCTA used to draw more than 30,000 people to the annual convention in the 1990s.
I've been going to the annual NCTA confab since 1997. I won't forget the first convention I attended in New Orleans, where one of the cable networks offered reporters blimp rides over the city and Scripps Networks (NYSE: SNI) threw a dinner party where Harry Conick Jr. played every instrument on the stage. There isn't as much money thrown around these days at cable conventions. But NCTA has adapted well to change, and managed to drive heavy traffic to both panel sessions and the convention floor with innovations such as its Imagine Park exhibit. For me, one of the most memorable moments of the convention was watching the top debate teams from Harvard University and Columbia University face off during an Imagine Park session on the topic of whether or not the cable industry was doing enough to attract younger consumers (you can watch the shaky video I shot of the debate here).
Fewer people attended the convention than a decade ago, and there were no new cable networks launched in Boston. But the technology exhibits hooked attendees, and left many of us feeling that the industry is as vibrant as it has ever been.--Steve