With about a week to go before hordes of partying cable barbarians invade Chicago in search of beer, brats and Oprah, it seems appropriate to examine potential themes that will emerge this year. While never easy to determine which way the wind will blow—even in the Windy City—you can bet that a star-studded cavalcade of brooding executives will prognosticate and tea-leaf-decipher their way into our impressionable little hearts. So here’s the best guess of what’s in store for us.
  1. The Retrans Dance – Will the FCC and Congress do something, anything… about the sorry state of retrans negotiations? And frankly, should the government get involved at all? And if so, how does cable justify involvement here but not in other areas (like, uh… net neutrality) where it would rather the government not tread? With several policy panels on the schedule, including one-on-ones with FCC chmn Julius Genachowski and former FCC chmn and new NCTA pres/CEO Michael Powell, the question of how rising retrans fees will ultimately affect consumer prices could become a touchy political issue as we head into an election year.
  1. iPads, iPhones… iWantIt! – The cable industry has always taken a relatively closed attitude when it comes to technology. The thought has been, “Why outsource when we can do it ourselves?” Of course, anyone who has tried to navigate their way through VOD on a clunky old set-top knows that something’s got to give. So the explosion of iPad apps was really just the beginning. Now industry leader Comcast is testing a way to let subs use third-party boxes like gaming consoles and laptops rather than a leased set-top to watch linear TV. AT&T U-verse already gives subs the option of using an XBox360. The addition of social media capabilities on the TV—or “social TV”—is only playing into this new way of distributing content to all devices everywhere. Combine a more mature version of authentication across the cable landscape, and this monumental shift in the business is sure to dominate discussions, whether they take place among CEOs, engineers, marketers or interns. The show’s schedule is packed with panels devoted to IT, convergence and multiplatform Nirvana. It will be hard to avoid… But then again, do you really want to?
  1. Cable’s Marketing and Ad Revolution – CTAM the Cable Show is not, but don’t be surprised if questions of marketing and advertising weave themselves into many a session this year. Why? Because it’s impossible to discuss authentication, retrans fees, net neutrality, customer service, competition, the political landscape or pretty much any other issue affecting the business without acknowledging that it all ties back to how the industry is presenting its wares and its partners to the public. Competition means that no one can slack off. And there’s never been more competition than today, what with telcos, satellite, OTT providers and who knows else vying for consumers’ time and attention. Even politically charged issues like the new Broadband Map affect how the industry touts its products vis a vis other providers and content choices out there. It’s complicated, folks. And only a well oiled marketing machine can dissect the business into easily digestible chunks for the masses.
Otherwise, the Cable Show will offer up plenty of food for thought. And that’s in addition to the many other activities of Cable Connection Week, including the WICT Signature Luncheon on June 14 and the NAMIC Annual Awards Breakfast on June 16. All the wonks and techies referenced above can satiate themselves at the CableLabs Law & Technology Seminars on June 13 or at the 2011 Spring Technical Forum. And don’t forget the Cable Center’s Academic & Cable Telecommunications Forum on June 13-14 or, of course, the always classy Cable Center Hall of Fame Celebration on June 14. The town will be hopping next week, to be sure. Run a quick check on any hotel booking site, and you’ll see that the only accommodations left in Chicago next week are a few airport and suburban hotels… and a youth hostel. It will be quite a party.
(Michael Grebb is executive editor of CableFAX Daily).  

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