Dispatches from the National Show

The cable industry gathered in New Orleans last week for its annual fete. Here are stories from onstage and behind the scenes.

Not Ready for Prime Time

No! Not in front of Brian Roberts! It's never a good idea to have glitches when demonstrating your new product at a trade show. But it's doubly bad for the box to hiccup when your largest customer, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, is in the house. Roberts was in the Microsoft TV booth looking at a demo of Motorola's new digital video recorder for cable systems, one with two tuners that lets users watch one channel while recording another.

Motorola has already kept Roberts and other operators waiting for its latest set-top box. DirecTV and EchoStar have been giving similar boxes to their customers for three years. That leaves systems dependent on Motorola boxes playing catch-up.

Microsoft was demonstrating how its software works with different companies' hardware. But as a video played on screen, the Motorola hardware didn't appear to be working properly: the screen was distorted with little digital "tiles." "It doesn't seem ready yet," Roberts said, walking away. "But it will be."

On Call

The folks at Turner Broadcasting were a lot more relaxed in the Big Easy after averting a showdown with EchoStar Communications at the last minute.

Anticipating a repeat of the harsh attacks EchoStar CEO Charlie Ergen launched in a similar license fee fight with Viacom (posting Mel Karmazin's home phone number in on-screen crawls, for example), Turner had a 50-member midnight crew at the ready in case Ergen decided not to carry Turner's networks.

The programmer set up a call center at its Atlanta headquarters to handle the expected flood of incoming calls. In March, irate EchoStar customers blew out Viacom's switchboard when the DBS service dropped its networks and Viacom set up four call centers to handle the deluge.

Turner was also ready to drop $3 million on attack ads on broadcast radio and TV to start airing immediately. Turner had reserved the time, sending out two sets of commercials. One set was sent out under embargo, aimed at EchoStar and the other contained normal promos for its networks.

EchoStar's signed agreement came through on the fax seconds before the May 1 midnight deadline, so Turner never pulled the trigger on the attack ads. But the network couldn't pull $1 million of ads, so TNT's NBA games got a lot of promotion over that weekend. And the staffers on the midnight watch found other ways to spend their evening.

Consumer Watchdog

TV salesmen beware. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell might intervene to help peddle digital televisions. On weekends, Powell says he sometimes drops by Best Buy or Circuit City and doesn't like what he sees. "I wish retailers knew more about what they were talking about," Powell lamented at the session. Sometimes he jumps in. "No that's wrong," he might say. If the sales staff demands to know, "Who the hell are you?" Powell explains, "Just a guy interested in the transition."

Powell's word choice prompted NCTA Chairman Robert Sachs to offer some editing. "We have a seven-second delay, so we'll clean that up for you," Sachs said. Of course, Powell helpfully reminded him, "hell" isn't on the FCC's hit list of profane words.

Billy's Back

Al Gore wasn't the only surprise political appearance at the National Show (see In the Loop, page 8). Ailing Cajun Billy Tauzin, retiring chairman of the House Commerce subcommittee that oversees TV and cable, showed up unexpectedly. After his recent surgery to treat intestinal cancer, many wondered whether Tauzin would make his traditional appearance.

He came, and got a standing ovation, in part by defending the industry. "Fair and free competition in the American marketplace is so superior to the need for government regulation of pricing and terms of services," he said.

The big surprise is how healthy Tauzin looks, given the recent surgery that left him 32 pounds slimmer. "I finally look like the pictures I've been using for the past 10 years," said Tauzin, who still faces the specter of chemo and radiation.

Getting an Eyeful

Product placement is everything. While most cable equipment firms are forced into the "gear ghettos" of the exhibit floor, a few got lucky this year. NuComm, an Ontario call-center company, was stationed directly across the aisle from the Hustler TV booth, where two buxom lasses signed pictures.

Conventioneers filled the narrow aisle, but most were eyeing the women, not the call-center company. That didn't seem to bother the salesmen at NuComm or the other companies along the row.

So, did the new location help NuComm's prospects? After a long pause, John Dickhout said, "It definitely hasn't hurt business."


Strategy Sampler

Most cable networks are flexing their muscles on original programs. Here are several networks' strategies and plans for the months ahead. Compiled by John M. Higgins and Allison Romano