As Bill Gates walked the floor of the NCTA show last week, he expressed surprise at the amount of activity. "This is a big show considering that the number of buyers is so small," the Microsoft chairman said to Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, who accompanied him.
"It's really become a technology show," Roberts responded. "TV programmers used to dominate."
Gates put his finger right on the biggest issue facing the National Cable & Telecommunications Association's annual convention, the lobbying group's major industry showcase and revenue source. As operators have consolidated, networks and equipment have found the expensive trade-show booths less important. NCTA said attendance dipped 5%, to 16,700 from 17,500 last year. Two years ago, attendance exceeded 24,000.
The association wouldn't say how much square footage was leased, but plenty of vacant space was curtained off.
Vendors' response was mixed. The CEO of one network that had taken one of the larger booths complained that traffic was painfully slow: "If we weren't giving things away, there would be nobody here."
But Fox Cable affiliate chief Lindsay Gardner said the network group's big presence is important. To hype Fuel, its new action sports network, Fox erected a skate boarding half pipe complete with a trio of raffish skateboarders.
"There is no substitute for distributors' coming and touching the new channel," said Gardner. "When our Detroit rep goes to meet with Buckeye Cable next week, [the operator] will be more positively disposed to the channel."
Microsoft TV came to the show with its new Microsoft TV Foundation to show off.
"We had a chance to meet with all the cable operators here and even have meetings with lover-level staffers from both programmers and operators," said Microsoft TV Group marketing and communications director Ed Graczyk. "As long as the right people are here, it doesn't matter how small the show is. It doesn't help us do business if we're busy demoing products to our competitors."
Charter Communications CEO Carl Vogel, looking particularly at HDTV products, was entranced by Pace Micro Technology's prototype of a cigarette-pack-size digital converter that could cost less than $75, vs. the $200-plus for current units. "I like anything that we can add to our system without a lot of capital."