NCTA execs see slow show, slam ESPN rates


Attendance at this year's national cable convention in Chicago next month should be down by about 15%, said Robert Sachs, president of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA) on Tuesday.

Sachs attributed the downturn in mail-in registrations to a sluggish economy, the recent dotcom beating and the attrition of several major technology companies, including Lucent, Nortel and Cisco. That said, programming attendance hasn't dropped off at all, Sachs said. "The program networks continue to make this their priority venue," Sachs said.

Last year, attendance at NCTA's annual event was 32,000+; the association is looking for approximately 30,000 attendees to show up and 248 companies to exhibit in 282,000 square feet of exhibit space. Besides previously announced panels, Sachs listed several prominent Washington players who plan to speak at the conference. FCC Chairman Michael Powell will give the key note speech on Monday, followed by Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), who will speak at a policy luncheon that day. FCC Commissioners Harold Furchtgott-Roth and Gloria Tristani will appear on Tuesday. Mayors from several cities also are scheduled to appear that day.

During Tuesday's press conference, NCTA convention chairman, Charter Communications' Jerry Kent, expressed frustration with ESPN's rising programming rates and blamed much of cable rate hikes on such programming increases. "Programming costs increases are probably one of the top things I worry about," Kent said.

Observers place ESPN's new rates at about $2 per subscriber, nearly 20% more than what ESPN was previously charging. Kent suggested the government could help out by allowing cable operators to offer expensive sports programming on an a la carte basis. Expensive channels such as ESPN oppose being carried as a premium channel, like HBO, because they get more exposure and can charge higher advertising rates if they are carried in cable operators' basic programming packages.

Although Kent discussed remedies during Tuesday's briefing, Kent and Sachs said the cable industry has no plans to ask Congress to change any laws. - Paige Albiniak