There’s a relatively new autumn ritual in New York, and while it might not be as pleasurable as leaf-peeping in Central Park, it’s becoming just as entrenched. Each fall, cable operators bypass the DigitalLife show, and each fall cable’s competitors put in an appearance.

The creation of computer magazine publisher Ziff-Davis, DigitalLife is essentially a Consumer Electronics Show for consumers. More than 52,000 attendees (up from 30,000 in 2004, the show’s first year) and 1,100 journalists poured into the Javits Center last month to sample the latest high-definition TVs, wireless services, video games and websites. Also in attendance: Verizon, which brought FiOS TV to the floor, attracting a huge crowd of consumers and reporters. At least one of cable’s competitors has exhibited during the past three years, starting with overbuilder RCN and DBS hand EchoStar in 2004.

Cable’s perennial absence is impossible to overlook, and is redolent of the industry’s relative lack of presence at retail outlets. Attendees are increasingly multicultural—the early-adopter demographic operators covet for sales of high-speed Internet, digital phone and other advanced services. DigitalLife also gives local operators the rare chance to position themselves in public as digital culture trendsetters alongside the likes of Microsoft, Intel and Apple.

Monica Vila, DigitalLife’s VP, argues the show is a must-attend for operators. “Here’s a forum where you can make the case with consumers for new product,” Vila says. “And here’s where you can get some ink from the press.” That argument apparently isn’t working with local N.Y. operators. Time Warner Cable, Cablevision and Comcast declined to exhibit, although Time Warner provided programming feeds to several exhibitors.

“Our people reviewed this, as they do any kind of marketing opportunity, and for a variety of reasons, decided it was not a vehicle we wanted to pursue this year,” says Mark Harrad, Time Warner Cable’s SVP of corporate communications.

Operators bypass DigitalLife either because of the cost, or because they believe the turnout wouldn’t convert into enough sales, according to CTAM president and CEO Char Beales. Exhibiting at the event costs $49 per square foot, with the smallest booth space 100 square feet. “For Verizon, DigitalLife might be one of their only marketing options for FiOS. Because the service is available in a limited number of areas, they can’t use broad-reach media,” Beales says.

Still, from the perspective of the person on the floor, it looked like a missed opportunity.

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