Are cable MSOs satisfied they’re just distributors of Internet content? They likely find it hard to sacrifice cash flow for a start-up social network, which, in olde English, means "not yet a business."

But long before the birth of cable’s generic name, the C in CATV stood for community. Its function was to unite millions of viewers excluded from TV signals by the FCC’s arbitrary licensing. Sounds like the model that spurs new media. Ironically, broadcasters and content owners — too angry at cable to acquire it when it was young — are preempting operators in this new Computer Access TV. As Richard Siklos noted in the The New York Times, (Jan. 21), News Corp., Hearst, Sony, Disney, Viacom and the big TV networks have either bought websites or are starting new ones.

They "sound like logical extensions of existing media brands," Siklos wrote, "because . . . media companies are all about attracting and keeping audiences and then figuring out ways to bring them closer to marketers." Isn’t that cable’s M.O., too? And, as Hearst Digital VP Chuck Cordray told Siklos: "It’s a new way of fulfilling a mission magazines have fulfilled for some time, which is creating communities of interest."

It’s true that cable leaped to the Internet when modems sprouted 10 years ago. But the industry never noticed the irony in the Web users’ first hit consumer magazine: Wired. Now, really wired video distributors are facing "wired" video users in network neutrality lobbying.

The crude model of Internet and user-generated content — "give it away and they will come" — was anathema to cable until Comcast recognized its application in VOD. In the same Jan. 21 Times, Geri Fabrikant relates how Mel Karmazin, while head of CBS, rejected Brian Roberts’ bid to play free CBS product on demand. Given the rapid (and logical) evolution to free downloads for eyeballs, and the tidal wave of online communities, Comcast, Cox, et. al. (alone or in concert) may yet notice the missing arrows in their quiver.

As Comcast COO Steve Burke told Fabrikant, cable "is like a layer cake . . . The bottom layer is growing maybe 4-5% a year. If you want to be a company that grows 13-15%, you have to keep adding layers." Indeed. The icing in cable’s recipe has long been its ability to add new products to the mix. But commanding the attention of the world’s younger generations will be the defining media issue of our time.

Inevitably, it’s all about competition. Birdless in the U.S., Rupert Murdoch still has MySpace. DirecTV’s new managing owner, John Malone, may yet have HisSpace. Will the MSOs get TheirSpace?

Analyst/investor Paul Kagan, chairman/CEO of PK Worldmedia, Inc., Carmel, Calif, owns shares in Comcast, News Corp., CBS, Viacom and John Malone’s Liberty Capital. Information in his columns is not intended to be a solicitation to buy or sell securities.

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