BY STACI D. KRAMER What a difference a year makes. Last year, a cluster of cable CEOs and other industry executives ventured into enemy territory at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. I’m not sure what they expected. What they got was a wake-up call. After years of Waiting for Godot, HD was no longer a maybe. It was here, and they could either grasp the opportunity or be left behind. As Cox CEO Jim Robbins puts it, “Being at this show last year was a real head-knocker in terms of where our best customers were going and we weren’t there. We are now.” This year they came back en masse — chairmen, CEOs, COOs, CTOs, marketing execs, the heads of CableLabs, CTAM and NCTA. They brought along a 360-degree mind shift, a plug-and-play deal that wouldn’t have been possible without that first trip, and a sense of momentum in their relationships with the consumer electronics industry. Instead of enemy territory they were on common ground. (Not the easiest ground to traverse, either. One retailer booked an hour between appointments and still missed three.) Both groups deserve a nod for the work of the past year, but so much more has to be done. Retailers have to learn how to sell the various cable services and hardware. It’s hard enough for people who sell cable full time to explain the differences between set-tops, digital versus satellite picture quality, 1080i and 720p. The challenge of getting customers into the right match for them, whether it’s DBS or cable — sorry, but cable isn’t always the right answer — combined with often spotty training, and increasing options complicates the task even more. On the cable side, more options bring more potential and more responsibility even with an emphasis on self-install. Customers who are willing to pay for the frills usually don’t want to know how something works. They just want it — whatever it is — to work. MSOs need to work with the hardware manufacturers on the front end to make sure the equipment does the job when it goes to the stores. They need to work with retailers on education as well as on marketing, efforts many already have underway. They also need to improve communications with customers and within their own companies. I got home from CES, flipped on my computer and waited for my recently acquired always-on cable modem connection to click in. Nothing happened. The next day I realized the cable was out, too. The video had been disconnected without notice while I was away. Turns out I still had two accounts — the new bundled HSD/video account and a leftover video account with a $21 balance that I didn’t realize existed. Until the billing software is upgraded, the system wouldn’t be able to service my video needs without that phantom account. The phantom bill was marked overdue and the account was disconnected. To Charter’s credit, the snafu was resolved by a supervisor (who didn’t know I was a reporter) within two hours of my first call. But it was, to borrow Jim Robbins’ term, a “real head-knocker” for me. I’d written about Charter’s billing plans in St. Louis but until last weekend didn’t realize the effect they could have on a customer. I’m not trying to pick on Charter; I happen to live in territory they acquired from AT&T Broadband and are upgrading as quickly as they can. The experience was both frustrating and a reminder of how many different pieces have to fit together smoothly to make sure the customer gets the product and cable keeps the customer. Add in retail and even more pieces have to fit. Go2Broadband, the CableLabs initiative to help match consumers with broadband providers, paved the way for the initial plug-and-play agreement, showing that retailers and MSOs could work together as industries. But that agreement literally only goes one way. Negotiations start this month for two-way plug-and-play. Meanwhile, the two have yet to agree on labeling conventions for the new generation of television sets. As clunky as that sounds its value can’t be overestimated. If all goes well, by next holiday season the new models will be on the shelves and MSOs will be fielding calls from customers who just got a new set. Unless the labeling is right those customers might not be very happy. These and other details have to be resolved against the backdrop of the months-long FCC approval process. It won’t be easy. And it won’t be long before it’s time to go back to Las Vegas.

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