Oprah, Media Moguls and Netflix Talk on Tap for Cable Show

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The 60th annual industry gathering in Chicago kicks off Tuesday.

NEW YORK - Conversations with Oprah Winfrey and FCC chairman Julius Genachowski, as well as panels with media moguls, such as Comcast chairman and CEO Brian Roberts, Time Warner chairman and CEO Jeff Bewkes, News Corp. president, COO and vice chairman Chase Carey, Viacom president and CEO Philippe Dauman, and Time Warner Cable chairman and CEO Glenn Britt, are on the schedule of this week’s Cable Show in Chicago, which runs Tuesday through Thursday.

Technology issues, such as cable operators’ responses to the continued growth of Netflix’s streaming video service and their often controversial iPad apps, are expected to be in the spotlight, among other issues.

"The most important item that we will be exploring is the continuing evolution of the portable, personalized video experience and how that compares to other online video applications that could potentially be competitors to cable," said cable veteran Jerry Kent, one of the co-chairs of the Cable Show and chairman and CEO of small operator Suddenlink Communications.

Heading into the industry gathering, Comcast late Monday unveiled a strategic partnership deal with Skype that will enable Comcast customers to communicate with family and friends through HD video calling on their TV set.

“TV has evolved into a social experience, and Comcast and Skype will be delivering a product that personalizes the TV experience even more, and brings friends and family together through the biggest screen in their homes," said Neil Smit, president, Comcast Cable.

Another theme of the Cable Show will be "that despite the recession, cable has continued to grow revenue and invest in our infrastructure driven by broadband, telephony and other services," Kent said. "We really are transforming from cable companies that used to be video-centric and are now full telecommunications, or really infrastructure, providers as much as media companies."

Even though cord cutting fears have subsided in recent months, Kent said that broader focus on cable operators' portfolio of businesses will be emphasized at the Cable Show.

"What people are starting to realize is that the focus on video losses in the industry is overblown," he said. After all, last year there were over 2 million foreclosures in the U.S., and "it’s hard to sell video to a foreclosed home that is empty."

Hosted by the National Cable & Telecommunications Association and its recently named head Michael Powell, a former FCC chairman who will give a State of the Industry speech, the 60th annual gathering of cable companies, cable network representatives and technology firms this year carries the slogan “Everything Possible.”

Miller Tabak analyst David Joyce also expects cable executives to discuss – on stage and in social settings – such things as embracing the iPad and online video services “as part of the broadening triple play offerings to attract and retain customers,” interactive advertising and the possible introduction of usage-based billing for broadband services, “related to the growth of Netflix."

While Time Warner’s HBO has made its HBO Go service available in cooperation with TV distributors to help retain customers longer-term, Viacom has been among cable network owners that have raised concerns over cable operators’ attempts to make channels available via their iPad apps without additional payments to the network owners.

Netflix may not always be mentioned outright at the Cable Show, but it is likely to shape some of the messages at the event. “Netflix as a competitive VOD provider will face tougher competition from the cable operators who will highlight their amount of VOD content and who will try to get more content availability,” Joyce said.

The Cable Show kicks off Tuesday morning with a welcome from convention co-chairs David Zaslav, president and CEO of Discovery Communications, and Kent, followed by a speech from recently named Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, the brother of WME co-CEO Ari Emanuel.

Fox Business Network’s Liz Claman will then moderate a panel with Bewkes, Dauman, Carey, Britt, Comcast Cable unit boss Neil Smith and Cox Communications head Patrick Esser that will look at the industry’s presence and future under the title “Disruption Central: A Roadmap for Reward in a Shifting Marketplace.”

Later in the day, Comcast CFO Michael Angelakis will moderate a discussion among Wall Street experts about the competitive positioning and growth outlook for cable firms.

After Genachowski’s appearance on Wednesday, Winfrey, who has been working with OWN CEO and Discovery Communications COO Peter Liguori on strengthening the Oprah Winfrey Network, will make her presence known.
And Roberts and Cablevision Communications COO Tom Rutledge will be part of a panel discussion about how cable firms will use their broadband platform in the future to remain competitive.

Several analysts said that heading into the Cable Show, Comcast, the largest U.S. cable provider, remains their favorite sector stock. Its shares have declined since hitting a 52-week high of $27.16 in early May.

Wunderlich Securities analyst Matthew Harrigan likes the stock because of what he expects to be “big upside on NBCUniversal over time.” Plus the company’s “cable operations also have good [subscriber] momentum relative to peers and are undervalued.”

Joyce called Comcast “the cheapest [cable stock] and the thought leader,” even though there is also value in TW Cable, Cablevision and small small firm Knology, he added.

Mergers and acquisition activity could also be a topic of debate in Chicago this week given recent acquisitions of smaller cable operators and Charter Communications' decision to explore a sale of its LA cable system.

“I do expect industry consolidation to continue,” said Kent. Beyond the availability of financing and private equity looking to put money to work, “scale is becoming even more important in business today” to cover programming cost increases and new technology, he said.

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