Fast Track


Comcast’s Roberts to Keynote CES

By Glen Dickson

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 Vegas Convention 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.”


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.”

TNT Won’t Pull 'Law & Order’ When Thompson Declares

Now that Law & Order co-star Fred Thompson has signaled his plans to announce his presidential candidacy on Sept. 6, TNT, which airs voluminous repeats of the show, says that it has “no plans to alter its programming schedule.”

The show is scheduled to run on the cable network 23 times next week.

Thompson’s candidacy, when it becomes official, will trigger the FCC’s equal-time rule, which requires stations or cable operators that air appearances of federal candidates—even in an entertainment context—to provide equal time to other qualified candidates. Broadcast and cable networks are not subject to the requirement, but TV stations are. Although it has not previously applied to cable systems, some cable networks have reportedly taken steps to avoid triggering the rule and setting a precedent.

The NBC network says it won’t air any Law & Order repeats with Thompson in them after Sept. 1 if Thompson does make it official.

“The equal-time requirement applies when the person has legally qualified as an official candidate in a relevant state—for example, having his or her name formally approved to be on a state’s primary ballot—not merely when he/she declares his or her intent to run,” said NBC. But the network added, “If Fred Thompson formally announces his intention to run for president, NBC will not schedule any further repeats of Law & Order featuring Mr. Thompson beyond those already scheduled, which conclude on Saturday, September 1st.”

On the broadcast syndication side, Law & Order: SVU and Law & Order: Criminal Intent, which roll out in national broadcast syndication in September, will not be greatly impacted by the equal-time requirements since Thompson is not a regular cast member on either show.

Thompson exited the show at the end of last season, saying he wasn’t sure about his political plans.

—By John Eggerton and Marisa Guthrie

ABC, Unions End Talks With No Agreement

ABC and the unions representing engineers, desk assistants, news writers, and producers, among others, have failed to reach agreement on a new contract, which expired March 31.

The network says that crucial changes to the seniority system remain at the crux of the impasse, with ABC making what sources there characterize as a major concession on the issue of workers’ pensions.

No new talks have been scheduled, but both sides agreed to “keep the lines of communication open,” said the union in an e-mail update to members.

That came after an eight-day bargaining session in Chicago between ABC and negotiators for NABET and CWA. The unions said progress was made on a number of issues, but remaining impasses prevented a master agreement. The unions had walked out on talks in March, but the face-to-face meetings resumed in Chicago in May.

According to the unions, ABC presented what it characterized as “pretty close” to a final offer. NABET and CWA negotiators said that offer still included proposals “that, if adopted, would create multiple separate seniority lists for purposes of layoff,” which has been a nonstarter for the unions from the outset.

That and the issue of changes to the pension plan are the two major issues yet to be resolved.

—By John Eggerton

'Army Wives’ Finale Lifetime’s Most Watched Telecast

The finale of Lifetime’s Army Wives was the network’s most watched telecast ever and the top primetime show on ad-supported cable on Sunday, Aug. 26.

Sunday night’s finale was watched by 4.1 million viewers, according to Nielsen, outpacing the show’s season average of 3.7 million viewers.

Army Wives, which stars Kim Delaney, Sally Pressman, Brigid Brannagh and Catherine Bell as spouses of deployed military men, has been a boon for the female-targeted Lifetime. It is also among the first shows that Entertainment President Susanne Daniels developed from start to finish since she joined the network in August 2005.

The show is the highest rated original drama in the network’s 23-year-history in households and key female demographics including women 18 to 34, women 18 to 49 and women 25 to 54. It also became basic cables No. 1 drama among women 18 to 34.

Army Wives, which is executive produced by Mark Gordon (Grey’s Anatomy) and Deb Spera (Criminal Minds), returns for a second season in spring 2008.—By Marisa Guthrie