Well, it’s that time of the year when we think about what will happen in 2011… and perhaps even how and why! As always, take this with a grain of salt. But here are the top challenges, opportunities and potential stress-inducers for cable in the New Year. At least according to me.
- Retransylvania – I’ve spoken of this mythical land in previous columns, so you’re no doubt quite familiar with its frightening shores where negotiations often end only after both sides accuse each other of high crimes and misdemeanors—and then release statements pronouncing a win-win deal. In 2011, Congress will finally act to bring some sanity to retransmission consent. Big programmers do have considerable power these days—especially when it comes to negotiations with midsize and small ops. But Congress will likely force arbitration rules under certain scenarios and make it much more difficult to pull signals when deals expire.
- Authenticate This! – It’s true that Comcast and other big distributors already have some form of authentication, but 2011 be the true test of market viability. Will consumers use it en masse? Will talk of cord cutting cease? Will that cool iPad Xfinity App get featured on an Apple commercial? Time will tell on all fronts, but consumer acceptance (or rejection) of authentication could very well determine the cable industry’s future for the next 10 years, and even beyond. So yeah. It’s pretty big.
- 3DTV – Yep. It’s here. And while the initial enthusiasm seems to have waned a bit (Those 3DTVs didn’t exactly fly off the shelf this holiday season), the industry appears determined to keep soldiering on with 3D content in hopes that it will experience an HDTV-like explosion at some point. ESPN has been running a 3D net since last summer, while DirecTV and Discovery are ramping up their own efforts (Ah, the joy of watching Sarah Palin beat fish senseless in vivid 3D). Will there be more 3D nets launching in 2011? You betcha!
- Net Neutrality – The FCC put out its proposal just last week, capping off months of debate, vitriol and negotiation. But this one ain’t over yet. Powerful forces in Congress are none too pleased with the Commission for asserting its authority in an area many see as lawmakers’ domain. And in 2011, you can bet that legislation designed to either water down or nix the FCC’s action will start to meander its way through Capitol Hill. Whether it gets anywhere is anyone’s guess, but net neutrality opponents will likely find allies in the new crop of conservative-leaning lawmakers who will take the oath in the next session. Expect some pretty tense hearings in which FCC chmn Julius Genachowski will face tough questions and perhaps a few scowls from the dais.
- The Economy – So is this a challenge, opportunity or stress inducer? How about all three? The truth is that 10 percent unemployment has been horrible for cable operators trying to stave off basic sub losses, not to mention enticing remaining households to keep and even order new premium services and tiers. But this is also the time in which savvy cable operators can cement customer loyalty with value tiers, special offers and other humane packages that strapped consumers likely won’t forget when times get better. But the bottom line is that the cable industry will largely rise and fall with the economy and its consumers. Treat them right.
- Mobility – Is that mobility as in wireless? Yep. And while cable operators are only dabbling their toes in the wireless stream right now, 2011 will likely involve stepped up forays into the mobile fold. In fact, cable has no choice but to pay attention in 2011 as its main wireline competitors—Verizon and AT&T—roll out super-fast LTE networks that will in some cases rival cable-modem speeds. Heck, AT&T just snagged Qualcomm’s 700-MHz licenses left over from its failed FLO TV venture. The wireless shift is real. Many consumers who years ago cut their telephone cord to live solely off their wireless handset may at some point do the same thing with wired broadband—unless cable operators offer their own wireless alternatives. Clearwire holds much promise for the industry, as does Cox’s brave wireless rollout in its territories. But 2011 will be the year of initial execution as the market heats up (and yes, an LTE-enabled iPhone will launch on Verizon next year). Start your engines…
(Michael Grebb is executive editor of CableFAX).