This time, smaller was OK

Fewer bells, whistles and attendees, but NCTA show was no bum trip

At the National Cable Show, a wax replica of Rudy Giuliani was enough to draw a crowd. Unlike boom-time cable shows, when droves of dancers and live bands would light up the confab floor, the only stunts worthy of a traffic jam last week were an appearance by The Shield
bad cop Michael Chiklis and Madame Toussaud's wax rendition of New York's former mayor.

This year's show was short on stunts and tchotchkes (ABC Family's plastic beach bag was the crowd favorite), but organizers and attendees agreed the industry turned out in full support.

Big-name execs were purposely visible on panels, at press conferences and touring the floor. Walt Disney Chairman Michael Eisner and President and COO Bob Iger walked the hall, even sneaking in late to a session featuring ESPN and ABC Cable execs. Iger joined an all-star general-session panel on day two with MTV Networks Chairman Tom Freston, Discovery Chairman John Hendricks, Turner Broadcasting Chairman Jamie Kellner and News Corp. President and COO Peter Chernin. Cable titans like Comcast's Brian Roberts and Cox Communications' Jim Robbins highlighted operator appearances.

"Even on the third day, we have a full house at the closing session. That's a good sign," said NCTA President and CEO Robert Sachs after the closing lunch that featured top-MSO execs.

Total attendance, meanwhile, dropped 30% to a little more than 17,000 attendees. The National Cable & Telecommunications Association, which puts on the convention, said it planned for 15,000 to 20,000 people, down from 24,000 last year in Chicago. The number of exhibitors was down 20%, to about 200.

"We had to get creative. We really turned this show on its ear," said Maggie Wilderotter, chair of NCTA's convention committee and president of Wink Communications.

Most programmers, finding it hard to rationalize a $1 million-plus booth, pulled their exhibits from last December's Western Cable Show. Most have their distribution deals: 34 channels reach more than 70 million subscribers. And consolidation among cable operators means fewer people to meet with. Many technology companies that littered the show three years ago are out of business.

The NCTA moved the general sessions, panels and pressroom to the floor and introduced executive suites as a cheaper exhibiting option. The booths-in-a-box—priced between $60,000 and $160,000—featured meeting rooms and were easy to customize with signage and TVs (Comcast videogaming net G4 even squeezed in a small arcade).

The downside, booth dwellers lamented, was that the 20 suites were pushed out to the hinterlands: good for holding quiet meetings but bad for buzz.

"It's a little like being in the Witness Protection Program," quipped Court TV CEO Henry Schleiff. "But it's comforting to see some big players experimenting with this." HBO, Showtime, Comedy Central and E! Entertainment Television were among programming heavyweights joining Court TV in the suite village.

Sachs said NCTA will reconsider the layout before next year's show in Chicago; NCTA staff will go to the Windy City soon to see if this year's layout can be replicated.

"The action is on the floor, and they can't go over because they have their booth duties," said Fox Cable Executive Vice President of Affiliate Sales Lindsay Gardner. A booth, he said, gives his channels, which include FX, National Geographic and Speed Channel, a stronger presence. "It's more fun to host a dinner than go as a guest."

Still, said Time Warner Cable CEO Glenn Britt, "This is better than having them go away to the hotels." At the Western Show, some programmers paid $14,000 to be "participants" with hotel suites for meetings and access to the show.

At the booths, meanwhile, exhibitor staffs were noticeably smaller. There were fewer people greeting visitors and giving demonstrations. Many exhibitors cut booth personnel 25%. "We're here making a statement with a booth, but we evaluated every person coming and what they'd do," said Hallmark Channel Senior Vice President of National Distribution Ron Garfield. "This is not a paid vacation."