BY ANTHONY CRUPI Let’s just get this out of the way and be done with it: This year’s NCTA confab was, to put it charitably, a sleepy affair. The booth exhibits were smaller than in years past, the term “floor traffic” demands to be qualified by ironic finger quotes and the show’s lone buzz moment was generated by a rigidly choreographed appearance by troubling entertainer/ plastic surgery casualty Michael Jackson. And that was just what could be seen from floor level. The bird’s-eye view from the café on the mezzanine provided an even more stark picture of what was on offer — almost half of the available 840,000 square feet of exhibition space lay fallow behind a cordon of blue curtains. If that all sounds like a recipe for unmitigated disaster, you probably haven’t been doing your yoga. Things were pokey in Chi-Town to be sure, but most of the tech vendors we spoke with during the show were relatively sanguine about the way it all shook out. Yes, there were grumblings about traffic, but things are tough all over. (Even Wacko Jacko scaled down on the Sgt. Pepper excesses of yesteryear — he ditched the epaulets for a relatively subdued teal get-up that made him look like a sommelier from Pluto.) While the scant supply of bodies translated into a fundamental dip in energy — one vendor rep characterized the event as “even more dead than last year” — there was plenty of voltage in the air if you knew where to look. The HD Pavilion, an area of the floor done up like the world’s most schizophrenic living room, drew more gawkers than even the Playboy booth, and not just because it featured a well-stocked bar. Dan Ward, marketing director of Pioneer’s cable and communications division, flipped through a demonstration of his company’s hi-def wares from the plush confines of one of the Pavilion’s rented sofas. A steady stream of human traffic wandered through the ad hoc room, often obscuring the view of the screen. “We were disappointed by last year’s turnout,” he said. “But we’re all over the floor. Anyone who shows up is bound to get a look at our products.” Pioneer plasma HD sets were spread freely throughout the Pavilion, and much of its related cable gear was on display in a nearby booth. As Ward showed off Pioneer’s plasma HD sets and both the 3510HD Voyager HDTV set-top and the Voyager 4000 DVR/HD-enabled unit, he suggested that Cable World stick around to meet Bill Gates, who was due to drop by the Pavilion following a morning panel appearance. We begged off, citing a drum-tight conference schedule, but later managed to bump into yet another zillionaire, Paul Allen, by the Starbucks cart on the other side of the hall. Which brings us to Overlooked Economic Indicator No. 1 — the ratio of the number of rich and/or famous attendees to regular Joes. Although we studiously avoided the Michael Jackson rush, no less an august personage than Evander Holyfield crossed our path Monday afternoon, as did head-spinning actress Linda Blair, HDNet skipper Mark Cuban and FCC Chairman Michael Powell. That has to count for something, right? Maybe not. Those of a more cynical bent pointed out a major flaw in our methodology: “They’re all B-list,” said a tech flack after we’d rattled off our list of celebrity sightings. “I’m not sure I’d give your theory much weight.” Another attendee allowed that the sudden influx of talent “may be a step in the right direction.” Mark Heslop, marketing director for Broadbus Technologies, looked at the show with a far less jaundiced eye. Because 2003 marked Broadbus’s first NCTA appearance, Heslop said he didn’t suffer from any unrealistic expectations. “We didn’t have much to compare this to, but we were happy with the kind of traffic we were getting,” he said. “A lot of high-level people came over and had a look.” Of course, with experience comes wisdom…and with wisdom, crankiness. A Cablevision staffer was overheard bemoaning the fact that NCTA has been “taken over by the big guys,” and more than one floor walker beefed about certain appointments being an injudicious use of their time. In contrast to those who were gnashing their teeth over unavailable taxicabs and fresh-coat-of-paint-on-an-old-jalopy product announcements, James Lakin was the picture of cool, calm collectivity. The president of Arris Broadband, Lakin offered a level-headed assessment of the state of the cable universe and what he expected from the remainder of the year. “Everything comes to an end,” Lakin said. “At some point, growth in revenue is based on the new services you can provide. When you reach the margins of utility, the money stops flowing in.” Lakin believes that the next big thing in the cable space will undoubtedly be voice service. “Cox and AT&T Broadband have proven that this is a model that works,” he said. “It’s all a capex issue. As the number of subs plateaus, ops are going to have to use their networks for other services.” While Comcast president and CEO Brian Roberts’s assertion that cable was in no danger of losing high-speed data customers to the telcos was met with enthusiasm during Monday’s opening session, Lakin didn’t exactly second that notion. “There’s been a lot of complacency on the part of the cable operator, and they’re going to have to snap out of it. It’s like that old Satchel Paige quote: ‘Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you.’ That’s been cable’s attitude. Don’t look back until you feel their hot breath on your neck.” Overlooked Economic Indicator No. 2 helped make that hot breath a bit fresher. Tchotchkes of all kinds made their way back to the show floor, including a nifty package of Altoid-type mints, any number of bouncing rubber balls and a bureau’s worth of T-shirts, polo shirts and baseball caps. It’s not quite as promising as a 10-point jump in share prices, but it’s a start. And though the show started with a visit from the King of Pop, it’s another music master who’ll play us out this year. When Paul McCartney wrote the characteristically optimistic “Getting Better” for the Sgt. Pepper LP, a sneering John Lennon contributed an important aside. Right after Paul sings, “I’ve got to admit it’s getting better, a little better all the time,” Lennon jumps in with a snide, “Can’t get much worse.” If there’s a better way to describe the state of cable in the here and now, we’ve yet to hear it.