Cable executives opened the annual National Cable Show in Atlanta Sunday by spending a fair amount of time walking down memory lane, discussing what elements caused cable to become such a breakthrough medium and what lessons could be learned for today.
The discussion was led by Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, an acclaimed book that explores how little changes can trigger dramatic effects in fashion, ideas and product sales.
Gladwell introduced the session by focusing on radio, contending the medium was transformed by a single event‑the very first broadcast of a sporting event, the 1921 fight between Jack Dempsey and George Carpentier. Radios had been selling slowly, but after the sportscast, buyers started lining up at radio dealers.
What that sportscast did was change people's conception of radio. Because radio was touted as an outlet for news and classical music, it was "Technology that people had dismissed as being irrelevant to their lives," Gladwell says, adding, "You find that active reframing at the beginning of every revolution."
What was the tipping point in cable that transformed it from being a sleepy carrier merely retransmitting broadcast stations to a breakthrough consumer product? Discovery Communications Chairman John Hendricks cited what is probably what most cable executives would: Home Box Office. Hendricks recalled in 1975 reading an article about Home Box Office planning on going onto a satellite, for the first time bringing theatrical movies free of commercials into people's homes. Hendricks says, "It was a very immediate, this would work.”
Other executives disagreed. Oxygen CEO Gerry Laybourne pointed to MTV, because it marked the advent of niche programming. "Nobody could imagine that people would care about teenagers as an audience." CSPAN Chairman Lamb pointed to deregulation as the breakthrough, because until 1974, cable systems were largely restricted to retransmitting broadcast stations.
The executives were a little less certain in assessing how to lead the industry to its next breakthrough products, whether it’s content for wireless phones, high-speed internet or some unforseen product. Asked at a press briefing afterwards, only Hendricks would venture a guess, pointing to a twist on the digital video recorder (DVR). He believes that a breakthrough in on-demand programming will come when programmers aggressively "push" content on consumers’ DVRs in odd hours. Rather than hunting through extensive menus of product, subscribers would have preloaded "channels" of on-demand content presented to them.
One thing all the panelists seemed to agree on was their disdain for excess governmental regulation.
"We seem to do well when we're free to compete...our darkest days [are] when the govenment steps in to change things," said Hendricks, talking about à la carte. "We're so affordable to the American consumer because of the power of the package. Where would we be in an era of à la carte?"
The panel also championed cable's entrepreneurial spirit in the early days and pushed for those in the industry to continue to take big risks in order to land big success.
"We had nothing, zero, nothing," said Laybourne of her early days in cable at Nickelodeon. "All we had was ideas and an uppity attitude and the idea that we were on the side of the consumers ...We were passionate about our audience and we would do anything to get them good stuff."