It’s customary to write analytical pieces after a big convention, making an attempt to draw takeaways and lessons learned. But the Cable Show in Chicago last week didn’t really gel around any one theme. If anything, the intriguing lack of discussion about last year’s hot topic—3DTV—was perhaps more telling than any of the industry trends that did get attention during the whirlwind, three-day gathering. Is 3DTV dead? Perhaps not, but it’s definitely in a deep coma—at least until the consumer electronics makers discover how to economically churn out 3DTVs that don’t require bulky glasses. That’s a few years away. In the meantime, Smart or Connected TV is all the rage. But will we all eventually get bored with that as well? Hard to say, but the CE camp will no doubt keep testing flavors of the month until one sticks—and connected TVs’… connectedness to the larger “app” trends driving sales of smartphones and tablets bodes relatively well for the concept. Consumers want apps. They didn’t necessarily want 3DTV—nor did they really ask for it. It could still take off eventually (and it’s good that major players like Discovery, ESPN, Sony, etc are in the space and well-heeled enough to wait it out). But its short-term prospects are sketchy.
To be sure, the general 3D trends aren’t encouraging. For example, more people bought 2D tickets than 3D tickets for Warner Bros’ recent “Green Lantern” summer tentpole movie—and the 2D/3D sales percentages have been getting worse across the board for the last few months. Perhaps people get enough 3D by just, uh… looking around… because, you know… the world is kind of already in 3D. When we watch TV or go to the movies, we’re looking to escape. And as strange as it might sound, perhaps the 2D landscape of a typical movie simply helps us feel more detached from reality than when we’re surrounded by images coming at us in three dimensions. And consider this: The vast majority of movies and TV shows are shot in 24 frames per second even though it’s far more realistic to shoot in 30 frames per second—or even 60 frames per second. Why 24P? Because we like the slightly off and eerily unrealistic feel we get from watching something that doesn’t look quite like the real world. It might be a stretch to extend this to 3DTV or 3D movies, but it’s worth exploring—at least until someone proves that 3DTV has staying power beyond the initial novelty of the last couple years.
Like the last few Cable Shows, this one also featured a lot of tech talk. But the tech-ness seemed supercharged this year. Even Oprah couldn’t upstage Comcast chmn Brian Roberts, who demoed the next generation of set-top navigation that jettisoned the MPEG/QAM world of the past and appeared to embrace an IP future. To be clear, what he showed was not “cable over the Internet” but rather “cable using Internet Protocol.” There’s a big difference (ask our own resident guru Steve Effros if you have any doubts), but the bottom line is that cable appears to now embrace the idea that some of these over-the-top services simply use more elegant and user-friendly navigation systems than anything cable has created within the confines of its legacy infrastructure. Roberts’ demo was perhaps the most significant in years because it ushered cable into the 21st century and told the world: This industry isn’t about to shrink into the night, allowing others to control the content future. Cable may eventually become a dumb pipe as some predict, but Roberts sounded a call to arms signaling that the industry has perhaps one chance to maintain its relevance. And that chance is right here, right now.
Overall, the Cable Show was a wonderful chance to see old friends, make new ones and check in on trends that will drive the business in the coming year and beyond. As always, it was too hectic, too packed with events and panels, and simply too vast to make any of us feel anything but exhausted as we braved that ridiculous traffic on the way to the airport on Thurs. But we’ll do it again next year. And we’ll love it.
(Michael Grebb is Executive Editor of CableFAX).