George Bodenheimer and Pat Esser have each been to at least 20 NCTA conventions, so they have a pretty good sense of which themes resonate with attendees. As co-chairs of this year’s annual event, they have taken the pulse of the cable industry, and identified this year’s dominant theme: intense competition as an agent of change.

Consequently, Bodenheimer, who is co-chairman, Disney Media Networks, and president, ESPN Inc. and ABC Sports, and Esser, president of Cox Communications, have masterminded with Barbara York, NCTA’s SVP of industry affairs, an NCTA convention that sports a new name (The Cable Show) and takes as its tagline: "Competition Works. Consumers Win."

Esser and Bodenheimer spoke with CableWorld contributing editor Janet Stilson about the changes in the cable business and what to expect at The Cable Show, running May 7-9 at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center in Las Vegas.

Which ideas and themes will command attention at The Cable Show?

George Bodenheimer: That almost everything is new again. It’s not your father’s cable business anymore. Look at the quad play that cable operators are putting forth now. Look at how the world has changed for programmers. They’re developing programming in different formats. Look at the advertising sales world and all the issues you have there. Look at technology. The business is evolving so rapidly. There’s no automatic pilot for anybody in the business. And if you want to see where all the latest and greatest is, it’s going to be in Las Vegas.

What makes this a pivotal time for the industry?

Pat Esser: This is a time when things are moving at a very rapid pace for a number of reasons. [New services we’ve] talked about are becoming very tangible. At the same time, competition could not be heavier. I’ve been in this business since 1979. I don’t know whether it’s ever been as competitive as it is now, or as complex as it is now. It’s just a very exciting time.

Every year in the keynote sessions, industry leaders focus on certain challenges. Which challenges will they stress at this year’s show?

Bodenheimer: Committing ourselves to increasing the value that we provide to our subscribers. [Consumers] aren’t very interested in the mechanics of technology. They want great products, they want great content and they want it delivered in an efficient manner and at a solid price. And they want it how they want it. Look at the success of mobile video and how that’s growing in the United States, and video on the Internet. So to me, it comes back to an absolute laser focus on value to our customers.

Esser: The show is there for the industry to celebrate what we’ve accomplished. The cable industry is a unique part of America, where private sector dollars that entrepreneurs have put into the ground — we’re talking about billions and billions of dollars of high risk — [brought] something to this country and our customers. We need to stop every now and then and celebrate the hard work. While that’s not really the focus of the show, the show allows us to get together, network and also tell our story. This year you’ll hear a recurring theme [about how] we’re in a highly competitive business, but competition works.

Specifically, what will be the key topics of conversation at sessions and on the show floor?

Esser:This is not in any order of priority. We’ve been talking a lot about a number of concepts. One is the transition from an analog world to a digital world. You’re going to see the implications of IP [Internet protocol] in our business and how not only content players but also MSOs like Cox are using IP technology to bring new services to the home. You’re also going to see what we call converged services — and I’ll give you my permission to use the word "flow."

‘Flow’ in what sense?

Esser: Converged is a great word. But consumers understand what flow means. Consumers want something that flows from one room to another, from one device to another that they can access from wherever they are, from some mobile location. You’re going to start to see content, applications, information flow around the home and around the market, both residentially and commercially.

What are the new additions to the show this year?

Esser: The Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau has brought its sales management conference to the show (see our Q&A with CAB’s Sean Cunningham). They have brought along one of the keynotes of the show, August Busch, the president and CEO of Anheuser-Busch. They’ve been such a leader in using new technology and the cable backbone and [partnering with] content players to bring their message to consumers. It’s exciting to bring the advertising community in, because in the middle of all this, new advertising opportunities are being formed, and having an advertiser in the room allows us to talk about that.

It’s significant that so many cable industry organizations have had a hand in organizing sessions at this Cable Show: CTAM, CAB, CableLabs, SCTE.

Esser: It’s part of the reason why we wanted to call it The Cable Show. It’s the place where things should be happening. We’ve had CableNET — that’s been there for a few years. That’s where the NCTA and CableLabs bring the next generation of broadband technologies onto the [exhibition] floor so you can see and touch products and services coming out in the marketplace in the next 12 months (see our CableNET preview on page 16).

We have something else new — the OCAP Developers Conference that will happen right at the start of the show. It’s all about the OpenCable universe and interactive TV and what happens in an OCAP [OpenCable Applications Platform] world, and what kinds of interactive services should be coming to the market. And a number of the leading thinkers on the technology side of our business have committed their time and attention to that part of the show.

There will also be a Cable Game Arena, where people who think about gaming and using our network for gamers will discuss what the business opportunities are.

Are you looking forward to any particular applications that will come into play when OCAP is deployed?

Bodenheimer: I would answer that by kicking it up one notch. To me, it’s about the increased focus on the subscriber. We as an industry must continue to focus on the consumer, and make consumers’ lives easier — easier to access products, make the products we offer more usable — whether they are on-screen [caller ID] phone numbers or navigation among the hundreds of choices. To me, OCAP is a tangible example of this industry’s increasing focus on the consumer. And that’s a good thing for all of us in the business.

Esser: OCAP creates a universal platform that companies can develop on for products and services that [allows] the cable industry to harness creativity and the expertise of other companies to drive future applications. That’s a long-winded way of saying the exciting part here is it’s a primordial foundation that you need for all the things we’ve dreamed about for the last five or 10 years. OCAP allows that, because of how the middleware works.

How does an NCTA convention today compare with one from a couple of decades ago?

Bodenheimer: I’d say the difference is the complexity of the issues, of what we’re all dealing with — from a competitive standpoint, a legislative standpoint, what the consumer expectations are. It keeps evolving, and to me that’s really exciting.

Esser: I am as excited today to go to The Cable Show as I was 20 years ago, when I attended my first NCTA show. The only slight difference is that back then I finally got together with people who could relate to what I was dealing with on a daily basis. Today it feels a little more like a family reunion. It’s sort of like going home for the holidays. But again, it’s the same thing happening. We’re sharing our successes; we’re sharing our challenges. We’ve got technology vendors helping us with issues. We’ve got content players — they’ve all got fresh ideas. It’s all about creating a product or a service that our customer wants. It’s a common goal.

George, is there any particular session that Cable Show attendees should absolutely not miss?

Bodenheimer: I’m like the waiter at a nice restaurant when you ask him what’s good, and he says "everything." There’s something for everyone at this show. I’m hard-pressed to single out any one item. I also think it’s hard to tell until you’re there and hear the buzz of the floor.

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