A la carte was expected to be the phrase du jour at this week’s NCTC conference, but it was trumped by a couple other dirty words-retransmission consent. "The real issue in Washington is not a la carte but retransmission consent. It can be used as a club to have us launch incremental services again and again," Cequel III’s Patty McCaskill said during Wed’s closing session, prompting a hearty round of applause from colleagues. While a la carte’s prospects look nebulous at best, the discussion it has created has built a nice set-up for ACA to broach the subject of retrans consent when Congress considers a rewrite of the ’96 Telecom Act next year. And this looks like an area that could earn more support. When once horse dies, jump on the next… Highlights from Day 3: McCaskill and fellow panelists Jim Gleason of New Wave and Tyrone Garrett of SEMO were all in agreement that premium channels offer little to no cash flow, saying they carry the nets because customers want them. McCaskill questioned whether the dozens of multiplexes were necessary in the age of VOD. — When do you close a system down? Cequel is in the process of shutting down systems with 50 or less subs (one system on the chopping block has just 2 subscribers) between now and the end of the year. New Wave, which has been operating for 10 months, considers closing systems if they’re under a couple hundred. Basically, you convert them over to DBS and walk quietly out of town, said McCaskill, saying the battle was lost before the new blood got there. — Independent operators are just as excited about VoIP as their larger counterparts. In the smaller communities that New Wave serves, almost any call is a long distance call under SBC, Gleason said. That’s why he thinks a 1-price VoIP calling plan will take off. — Garrett offered up a nice success story. In ’99, SEMO had 5 separate headends serving 1600 customers. By June ’04, the plant had been upgraded to 550 Mhz with 1 master headend. It’s now offering digital and HSD, with plans to offer phone this fall and HD and DVRs in ’05. Revenue has increased 50% since ’99 to $95K a month, and it has 1846 expanded basic subs, 348 HSD subs and 344 digital customers.