NCTA 2014: L.A.-Hosted Cable Show Pushes Hollywood but Technology Tops Agenda

Courtesy of NCTA
Michael Powell

Programmers line up a slew of high-profile talent, as Comcast uses the week to roll out enhancements designed to move beyond just providing entertainment.

A lot of well-known Hollywood creators will appear this week at the National Cable & Telecommunications conference and market, which runs Tuesday through Thursday in Los Angeles. They include Mad Men executive producer Matthew Weiner, Revolt network founder Sean Combs, A + E Networks president Nancy Dubuc and Sons of Anarchy producer Kurt Sutter. The NCTA has made it a point to get Hollywood front and center at the cable industry’s biggest annual convention as it is in Southern California for the first time since 2010 -- and only the second time since 1996.

“We like to come to Los Angeles which helps put an incremental focus on content creation and value of content to the overall cable model,” says NCTA CEO Michael Powell. “L.A. affords us the opportunity to celebrate content as part of the ecosystem that we are supporting.”

That may be the frosting but the cake at this conclave isn’t Hollywood glitz; it’s technology that is transforming how people communicate, are entertained and stay connected. It’s more about people like Matthew Strauss, Comcast’s senior vp and general manager of Xfinity TV, the largest U.S. cable operator’s brand for digital cable, broadband, telephone and other services.

“In the earlier days, this show was really a showcase for the networks and the programmers to show off their new content, or it was a place for distributors to get a better understanding of what new networks were being developed,” says Strauss, who has attended for more than 15 years. “Over time it has evolved…until it’s really as much about technology and innovation as programing, which is why it’s become such a critical industry event.”

He means the real action is now about the innovations in technology rolling out at a rapid pace. That is why the busiest booths among nearly 300 exhibitors sprawled across the L.A. Convention Center will not be programmers, but rather the big technology companies, including Comcast, which in the last year has remade its onscreen interface with subscribers. Comcast is rolling out an incredible number of new choices to viewers designed to provide more value as well as personalize and individualize the TV experience in ways that weren’t even possible until recently.

At the NCTA convention in Washington, D.C., a year ago, Comcast offered a sneak peek of its new onscreen navigation system. Today, that’s available to all 22 million residential and business customers nationwide. When they turn on their TV set, customers see live TV schedules, shows they’ve recorded, movie and TV programs they bought and recommendations based on their viewing history.

The enhancements Comcast will unveil this week are intended to move Xfinity to the next plateau, as not only an entertainment experience but as the control center for the home. And increasingly all this content also is available on mobile devices, tablets and other devices.

“It’s this notion of starting to see the TV not only as a way to personalize the video you get from traditional sources like cable networks and premium services, but also to see TV as a hub for sharing personal media among family and friends and unifying the various devices we all have,” says Strauss. “We have a home security product where you have the ability to control the thermostats in your home or the lights or even video camera monitors. Right now this can be controlled through the web or an app, but we're going to also allow that to be controlled through the television.”

No area is exploding more than video on demand. Once a little-used backwater in the cable universe, it is now a shooting star that has expanded beyond catalog movies to include new TV shows and films before they’re available on DVD. Strauss says 70 percent of their customers now access VOD programs every month. One feature Comcast is pushing hard allows subscribers to watch the entire season of any of the top 50 current TV shows, even if they don’t have a DVR. Two years ago Comcast offered all episodes of half a dozen top series. This year it’s offering almost 400 current series -- free to subscribers.

Strauss insists they are doing TV programmers a favor. He says research shows binging -- watching a whole season at once -- actually increases viewers' interest. “As shows become available on demand,” says Strauss, “we’re seeing a correlation between increased (live) ratings for those shows in Comcast homes compared to non-Comcast homes.

In the next wave users can access not only info about the shows and reviews, but also social media chatter about what is trending and which shows are being most discussed online. This week Comcast introduces its customers' ability to take video anywhere they go, at a child’s baseball game for instance, and then stream it live to their home TV or other devices.

Of course, some among the more than 7,000 attendees come to L.A. for NCTA to discuss programming. For instance, Crown Media Family Networks, which includes the Hallmark Channel, has actually increased the size of its booth display in recent years. “The show provides us an unparalleled opportunity to showcase our brand and our incredible programming developments in a way that is not possible in any other context or at any other time of the year,” says Bill Abbott, Crown’s president/CEO. “It also allows our affiliate partners to interface, and engage with our two distinct networks up close.”

Eric Sherman is attending the NCTA convention for the first time in several years. During his career he worked for MTV and Fuse, but in recent years was a personal manager for singer Steven Tyler and others. Since last October, he has been CEO of the Veria Living cable network, a health and lifestyle channel backed by India’s Zee Group.

Although available on Cablevision, Dish Network and Verizon Fios, the channel has had difficulty gaining wider distribution. That is, at least in part, because with consolidation among distributors, and rising retransmission costs, smaller networks are being squeezed out or forced to take lower fees. Sherman declines to say how many homes Veria Living currently reaches.

Networks like Ovation and The Tennis Channel have been involved in battles to get carried and then to get the right channel position on systems. Sherman plans to have conversation with other channels about these issues. “I don’t know what the outcome will be but it’s in all our interests to discuss our shared concerns,” says Sherman. “Having all of us in the same place at the same time gives us an opportunity to get together and share thoughts if nothing else.”

There’s more to the NCTA than cable, says Powell: “I almost hate the word ‘cable’ because the industry has really evolved into a pretty sophisticated set of communications offerings. We represent 25 percent of all phone services in the U.S. We’re the country’s leading provider of high-speed Internet services…. The character of the industry has evolved and I think it’s reflected in the nature of the show.”