Competition, Authentication Top Topics at Cable Show

Roberts, Rutledge endorse big merger, Skipper bristles over ESPN claims
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The industry gathered last week at the Cable Show in Los Angeles and with Time Warner Cable signage everywhere, the operator’s pending acquisition by Comcast was top of mind.

During a general session with Comcast CEO Brian Roberts and Charter CEO Tom Rutledge, Showtime CEO Matt Blank joked: “It’s great to be up here with the entire cable industry.”

Roberts defended Comcast’s TWC deal, noting that Facebook has 102 million users and Netflix has 32.5 million subscribers. “We’re trying to give the industry the opportunity to have a footprint regionally and hopefully nationally,” he said. “There is a public benefit for consumers in making the scale and innovation and service better with these larger clusters .”

Also defending the deal was Rutledge, whose company had also tried to buy TWC. When Comcast snatched the prize away, Charter initially criticized the deal, but Rutledge’s tune has since changed.

“I think it’s a great deal for the industry, a smaller deal for Comcast and great for Charter,” Rutledge said. What changed his mind? In part, a deal in which Comcast will spin off 4 million subscribers to Charter for $20 billion. “It changes the landscape. It’s a different deal than I was describing earlier.”

It Don’t Come Easy: The slow rollout of TV Everywhere was again a subject of discussion at the Show. What was interesting was hearing executives talk about their own experiences as consumers.

Turner Broadcasting, as part of Time Warner, was one of the first programmers to push TV Anywhere. But last Tuesday, Turner Broadcasting CEO John Martin described how complicated authentication can be.

“I have three homes with three different cable providers and I don’t know any of [my user names and passwords]. I don’t have TV Everywhere because I can’t figure out how to use it,” Martin said.

“We have to work together, we have to make it easy, we have to make it consistent. I think the idea over the next five years is to dramatically improve the availability and robustness of video-on-demand. That’s the biggest opportunity we can create together.”

Skipper’s Turf War: John Skipper, cochairman of the Cable Show and president of ESPN, was rooting for the home team during the opening general session.

Noting that companies such as Netflix, Yahoo and Google are coming after cable’s subscribers and ad dollars, Skipper declared, “Shame on us if we don’t protect our turf. We have a better product with more value that is cheaper on a per-hour basis. We’re allowing them to set the tone of the conversation.”

Skipper also defended ESPN, often cited as the poster child for out-of-control programming costs.

“We’ve created the product with the most value and it’s the most expensive product on the market. In surveys, cable [subscribers] are asked which network is most valuable; it’s always ESPN. We work very hard to try to create value. We were first in the market with authentication, the first with HD, the first with 3D. The single greatest buttresser of the pay-TV package is ESPN,” he said.

He also dismissed what he called the “canard” that only a few people watch sports while “grandmothers are paying for it” thanks to bundling. He said 115 million people watch ESPN every week. “No matter how many times [IAC chairman and Aereo backer] Barry Diller says it, it’s just not the fact.”

What Price Cable?: Jerry Kent, CEO of Suddenlink Communications, said rising prices were something the industry had to worry about.

“I’m concerned we’re going to reach a tipping point and price some distressed household out of the market,” he said. Kent added that MSOs have to come up with more affordable packages: “Unless we do that, our friend in government might get involved. Or operators are going to have to make tough decisions about what programmers they will carry.”

Dubuc Talks Talent Gap: Nancy Dubuc, CEO of A&E Networks, said the competition for creative talent has never been greater: “Where are the next generation of creators going to come from? I see a lot of smaller production companies selling for astronomical prices. The next generation is opting to go to YouTube or Vice. How do we attract them to our platforms?”

Future Shock: Rob Marcus, cochairman of the Cable Show as well as CEO of TWC (at least until Comcast completes its acquisition of the company) was asked for the millionth time about his future during a general session.

“It’s way too early for me to start planning the next chapter. I’m focused on running the company until the closing,” he said.

The industry gathered last week at the Cable Show in Los Angeles and with Time Warner Cable signage everywhere, the operator’s pending acquisition by Comcast was top of mind.

During a general session with Comcast CEO Brian Roberts and Charter CEO Tom Rutledge, Showtime CEO Matt Blank joked: “It’s great to be up here with the entire cable industry.”

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