Steve Burke had two items on his agenda when he took over as the National Show’s chairman: Make the conference shorter and include more non-cable folks. By John P. Ourand The cable industry’s recent consolidation of trade shows doesn’t bother Steve Burke one bit. The president of Comcast Cable never liked having his people away from the office too long. That’s why Burke pushed to have this year’s show cut from three and a half days to two and a half days. Burke also didn’t like those panels that had cable’s chiefs talking to each other. What’s the value in that? So this year, he pushed for the NCTA to invite executives from businesses that cable is encroaching on: from high-speed data to telephony. Following is a Q&A in which Burke talks about how this year’s show evolved and his thought process behind some of the changes. CableWORLD: What’s your role as National Show chairman? Steve Burke: It’s a reasonable question to ask what the chairman of an industry convention actually does. In this instance, the heavy lifting is really done by NCTA’s chief administrative officer Barbara York and her team. My job has been to convene a steering committee, where we talk about what the goals of the show should be. CW: When did you meet? Burke: We met a few months ago and came up with the idea that we have a unique opportunity this year because the show is in San Francisco for the first time in a long while. San Francisco is right in the middle of Silicon Valley—the technology center of the United States. That provides the ability for us to showcase the technical side of this business and have a different kind of feel at this show than we’ve had before. CW: So what’s your personal stamp going to be? Burke: This is the first time the show will be two and a half days. Traditionally, it’s been three and a half days, from Sunday afternoon to Wednesday. This time it’s Sunday afternoon to Tuesday. Our idea was to make the show shorter and higher octane. The second thought was to take the show and change the panels so that instead of just concentrating on the MSOs and cable content companies, we have a much greater emphasis on other parts of our business—high-speed data and IP phones. Tie that to the fact that we are having the show in San Francisco, and that’s why the panels are much broader than the traditional panels have been. CW: What do you mean by broader panels? Burke: If you look at Sunday afternoon, we have Paul Allen, Jerry Yang—who’s one of the founders of Yahoo—and Bing Gordon, the chief creative officer of Electronic Arts. That’s an interesting mix of people in addition to Cablevision’s Tom Rutledge—well-known to everybody at the show. That will be an interesting group for the opening panel. The next panel will be John Chambers, Bob Eiger, Jon Miller and Larry Paige, in addition to Brian Roberts. There you have the head of Cisco, the president of the Walt Disney Co., the head of AOL and one of the founders of Google—obviously a real Internet-focused, technology-focused group. That’s a different type of panel. CW: What other panels should we pay attention to? Burke: We have a panel that’s really focused on IP phone with Glenn Britt, Len Lauer—who the president of Sprint—Jim Robbins and Rob Glaser, the head of RealNetworks. And then for our final panel, we have the heads of two networks, News Corp.’s Peter Chernin and NBC’s Bob Wright, and Jeff Bewkes from Time Warner and Jeffrey Katzenberg, the head of DreamWorks. That’s an impressive group of speakers. In addition to the traditional cable focus, we have a much greater focus on technology, the Internet, IP phone and Hollywood. Part of delivering that group of people is the fact that we happen to be in California, right in the center of high technology and not too far away from Hollywood. CW: It seems that the panels are more specific rather than broad in that there’s no panel that brings all the cable CEOs together to talk a little bit about everything. Burke: Right. The panels are designed to be more specific. They also are designed to highlight the fact that the cable industry is right in the middle of the broadband Internet revolution and everything that’s going to go on in terms of IP delivery of phone service. The panels are more specific in one sense. But the people who are on the panels and the topics they’ll be discussing are broader than their traditional focus. CW: Why make the show shorter? Burke: Traditionally, the show has been an exhausting process. Particularly with show being on the West Coast—where the majority of people are going to have longer travel to begin with—we wanted to make sure that the attendance was high from beginning to end and that we pack as much activity into the two and a half days as possible. We’ll see. It’s the first time we’ve ever done it, but I’m confident that it’s all going to work out. CW: Will the Comcast networks have a booth this year? Burke: Yes. CW: Why? Burke: It’s an incredibly efficient way for a cable network to reach a large group of decision makers. In our case, we’re going to have some announcements that we’re going to be making on the content side, which is an added reason to be at the show. Obviously, there are less deals done at the National Show than there were five or 10 years ago. Most people believe it’s an efficient way to reach a lot of decision makers. Therefore that justifies the investment. CW: In recent years, there’s been a real consolidation of trade shows. Is that a good trend for the industry? Burke: Focusing people on the National Show is a good thing. Concentrating our resources and having one fantastic show that people focus on and bring resources to will make that show stronger. And that’s good for the industry. People are extremely busy. Look at our company. We have more new products and more new initiatives than we’ve ever had before. Taking people out of the office for two and a half days is better than taking them out of the office for three and a half days. And having them go to one big show is better than having them go to two or three smaller shows. It serves everybody well to have one great event and have it be as high-octane as possible. CW: Taking that question to an extreme, do you foresee a time when an event like the National Show may outlive its usefulness? Burke: I don’t think so. The show always has been so successful and the energy and the activities—as witnessed by the attendance this year, which is going to be strong—and the kind of speakers we’ve been able to attract suggests to me that this show will be around for a long, long time. CW: Do you foresee anything taking the place of the Western Show, which was always viewed as a second National Show? Burke: The hope is that a lot of the activity and interchange that has gone on at the Western Show will go on at the National Show. CW: Would you support adding a consumer aspect to the National Show? Burke: We talked about doing that. We’re going to have some elements of this show that are much more consumer focused than ever before. It’s problematic. It’s difficult to manage. It difficult to figure out if you open the floor up to consumers the first day or the last day. What about exhibitors that don’t have a consumer element and want to break down their exhibits and go home? How do you keep it alive and vibrant? It’s something we talked about and maybe something for future shows. CW: How would that take shape? Burke: The idea would be that you open either the first day or the last day for consumers. CW: What’s the overriding message you hope the press and financial analysts take away from San Francisco this year? Burke: The cable industry is at an interesting juncture. We have a tremendous amount of our growth coming from high-speed data and Internet applications and a great new growth engine in IP phone. Our future is bright. We’re in the center of a lot of exciting new business opportunities. We want to get that message out. During the last couple years, Wall Street and the consumer press have looked at cable and concentrated on competitive threats. All of those threats are real—there’s more competition now than there’s ever been. Along with that increased competition, there is a greater opportunity now than there’s ever been to launch new products. When you add the two together, we have an expansive and optimistic view of what’s going to happen to the industry over the next five or ten years. That’s the kind of message that we’re trying to get out. The business has gone far beyond traditional analog cable. We intend to be competitive and grow in a number of different directions and are optimistic about the future. If we can get that message across, then the show will have been a success. CW: Who’s going to be talked about more: the telcos or Rupert? Burke: Hopefully the conversation is going to be more about what cable companies are doing to make themselves more competitive, what we’re doing to differentiate our products, improve our service and continue to grow. The real focus should be on what we’re doing to prepare ourselves to take advantage of opportunities instead of just focusing on the negative, glass-is-half-empty threat. CW: Which topics do you expect to be discussed most: VoIP, HSD, ITV? Burke: There will be a lot of discussion about IP phone. But there are a number of other subjects that we think are important: the continued broad rollout and success of on-demand programming—whether it’s FVOD or DVRs. The advances that we’re making in terms of high-speed data, as that product gets even more penetrated. We’re getting to the point where some time in the next year, 40% of our cable subs are going to have a high-speed data connection. That’s incredible, given the fact that the business didn’t really exist seven or eight years ago. And what we’re doing to enhance our high-speed data product—both on the speed side and the portal side—that’ll be a topic of discussion as well. CW: It seems that the disputes between programmers and operators have settled down recently. Are things getting better on that front? Burke: There’s an awareness on everybody’s part that trees don’t grow to the sky. And that cable companies are going to have restrained price increases to our customers and cable channels need to have restrained price increases to us as well. If you look at our programming cost increases, they are much lower than they were a few years ago. Most people understand that the model has changed. The discussions between programmers and operators are going well. CW: What’s your favorite convention city? Burke: San Francisco. CW: Why? Burke: It’s in California at a time of the year when you look out the window in Philadelphia with six inches of snow on the ground, the idea of spending some time in San Francisco sounds great. Aside from the fact that it’s a six-hour flight, San Francisco would be at the top of everybody’s list every year. I love the fact that the cable industry is convening in the technology heart of the United States.