LOS ANGELES -- Attendees at the "Media Everywhere" panel at The Cable Show must have felt a sinking sense of déjà vu as the discussion with industry bigwigs including Comcast's Brian Roberts, CBS Corp.'s Leslie Moonves and Time Warner's Jeffrey Bewkes larglely rehashed the same concerns over financial viability that plagued content creators and distributors at this time last year.
Moderated by former FCC chairman Michael Powell, who has segued from the federal payroll to Providence Equity Partners, the panel pondered the brave not-so-new world of alternative screens and whether the proliferation of screens and technology presents a "great threat" or a "great opportunity," in Powell's words.
"It's reality," said Roberts, stating the obvious. "So you've got to turn it into an opportunity. In my opinion, video wants to be on any device, any time." The key, he added, is creating a business model that consumers want to use and that allows all content providers and distributors to get paid.
In a video segment at the panel, Roberts demonstrated a prototype iPad App that lets users control their cable box. The Comcast Xfinity remote interfaces with set-tops allowing subscribers to easily search television content from the Apple device. A pop-up keyboard lets users search for content by name, as opposed to scrolling through hundreds of channels on their set-top. Users can switch channels via the iPad's touch-screen guide and also invite a friend to watch what they're watching, a popular staple of social networking sites.
Roberts conceded that Comcast needs to step up its tech innovation, and his iPad demo filled that bill, though he did not say when the app would hit the market.
"I think the strategy of the cable operator side of Comcast is not to make the big bet but to be the big enabler," he said. "The creative community adapts [to the technology]. So, too, do the providers. The major goal is giving you all of the [content] that you want to watch but on a device you want to watch it on."
Video content providers have learned plenty from the music industry, said Bewkes. But the issue is not to adapt to the mobile marketplace or die; it's how you protect content and distribution so that you don't kill your business.
"We all know that it's possible to take every show and every channel and put them on every screen in your home and every screen in your pocket," said Bewkes. "And it's a huge advance."
But Bewkes cautioned that content indiscriminately disseminated will only erode the bottom line, and he put out a "call to action" to his colleagues and competitors in the industry: "Get your VOD robust, get your interfaces stronger and better and bring them to your television systems, and then take the whole thing and put it on broadband."
But Tom Rothman, chairman and CEO of Fox Filmed Entertainment (the studio behind blockbuster Avatar), sounded a contrary note.
"I actually don't believe that it's ultimately good for content creators and distributors for everything to be everywhere all at once," he said.
Windowing has been an essential control for content distribution and has worked effectively with cable and movies. But, added Rothman, effective windowing will continue to be challenged by the plethora of distribution platforms.
Bewkes added that Time Warner has worked hard to advance authentication but the technology is not there yet. And, of course, sending more viewers to digital platforms where ad revenue remains insignificant is a delicate balancing act.
And Moonves summed up the debate, getting the last -- and most pointed -- word.
"Whenever they say it's not about the money, it's about the money," he said. "It's what keeps you up at night."