Comcast's Brian Roberts to Keynote CES

The head of the country's largest operator will be the first cable CEO to headline at the electronics show
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In a sign of the increasing convergence of the broadcast, cable and consumer electronics industries, Comcast Chairman and CEO Brian Roberts has agreed to deliver a keynote address at the 2008 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas in January.

Roberts will be speaking on the second day of CES, which drew some 143,000 attendees last year, on Tuesday, Jan. 8 at 9 am. Other keynoters for CES, which runs Jan. 7-10, include Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, Intel CEO Paul Otellini, Panasonic President Toshihiro Sakamoto, and General Motors Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner.

Roberts, who runs the nation’s largest cable operation, will be the first cable industry CEO to deliver a CES keynote, according to CES President and CEO Gary Shapiro. A formal announcement of Roberts’ CES 2008 role was planned for Saturday at the IFA consumer electronics show in Berlin, Germany. But Shapiro notes that Roberts has attended CES for the past several years, along with some 600 senior-level executives from cable, broadcast and entertainment companies including Discovery, Turner, MTV, HBO, Viacom, Time Warner, Cablevision and The Weather Channel.

“One of the reasons we like having Brian Roberts come to the show is we know when he goes there he learns things,” says Shapiro. “He went there about four or five years ago and saw all the HD was shown on satellite, so he quickly turned around Comcast—almost on a dime—to focus on HDTV. That really shook up the cable industry.”

CES has become a far more important show not only to cable operators, but also to content providers in general. Disney President and CEO Bob Iger and CBS CEO Les Moonves traveled to Las Vegas last year to deliver CES keynotes detailing their networks’ broadband initiatives. Sony Pictures will have a major presence at CES this year as it shifts resources away from the National Association of Television Program Executives (NATPE) conference, where it will no longer be exhibiting.

In that vein, CES 2008 will have a “Content at CES” showcase in the Central Hall of the Las VegasConvention Center, and once again play host to the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences’ Technology & Engineering Emmy Awards.

“We have clearly positioned CES to focus on content and how you get content to the devices,” says Shapiro. “That is why cable is so significant, it’s why satellite is there, it’s why broadcast is there, and of course, wireless. It’s all the different ways of getting content into the home.”

Hot topics at the 2008 show, says Shapiro, will include digital-to-analog converter boxes designed for the digital television transition, CableCARD-enabled TVs that let viewers access premium programming without a set-top box, broadband video, and wireless mobility.

HDTV, of course, is still the biggest draw in the consumer electronics industry, and Shapiro says that the ongoing marketing battle between cable and satellite operators over their respective hi-def offerings amounts to free advertising for HDTV set manufacturers.

“If you’re a set manufacturer, wouldn’t you love the fact that you have two different industries telling you how much better they can make your set look? That’s a good thing.”

MAINTAINING THE SCHEDULE

Shapiro himself is making an inaugural keynote appearance later this week, traveling to the International Broadcasting Conference in Amsterdam to participate in a Friday session that also features Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. Shapiro, who has never attended IBC before, will discuss the increasing number of delivery platforms that consumers can choose to access content and the role of “media center” devices in the home.

Shapiro will also address the digital television transition in the U.S., which he believes is right on schedule for the Feb. 17, 2009 turn-off of analog signals. “We’re doing fine,” says Shapiro. “There is a natural, free-marketplace orientation which is going to carry most of this through.”

He says his only concern is that recent grumbling from a few consumer groups and some congressmen over how the DTV transition is being managed has overshadowed how well different industries are pulling together to make the 2009 deadline.

“There are some people trying to fuel the flames of concern under policy makers that somehow there’s going to be this great consumer revolt,” says Shapiro. “Our goal is to make sure every consumer knows about what their options are, so they can make an informed decision.”

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