The annual gathering of cable network and distributor executives, in line with most every media and advertising industry gathering of the past two years, focused on the competition for consumers. But in addition to aggregating eyeballs to reap advertising revenue, the cable industry is also competing directly for consumers' dollars, as telecom companies roll out their own video services and time spent with broadband video threatens time spent viewing traditional cable TV.
"We've been looking at a group called millennials, which are people ages 8 to 27," said Anne Sweeney, president of Disney Television Group. "In this group 40% go home at night after work and school and use between five and eight different technologies. Then you have 40% of baby boomers who go home at night and watch TV. That's what's directing so many of our efforts in technology and content, especially as we look at our brands going forward and how they're going to be used going forward."
Ms. Sweeney was careful -- especially in the presence of thousands of cable distribution executives -- to explain that Disney's nonlinear platform programming is meant to be additive to the company's primary platform of TV networks, both broadcast and cable.
A bigger pie
Comcast CEO Brian Roberts agreed and said media companies aren't putting content on multiple devices because they think they have to completely replace existing business models. "It's about making the [media consumption] pie bigger," he said. "People say 'Oh, TV's going to be free on the Web and I won't need cable anymore.' I can't believe that's HBO's or CNN's or Anne's business model."
To be sure, the media pie is expanding. Veronis Suhler Stevenson estimates that per-person media consumption will expand by more than 800 hours from 1998 to 2008. And one of Sunday's more interesting panels, a look at how 10 tech-savvy college students from Atlanta-area colleges consume media, suggest some existing business models are in grave danger.
When asked what technological device or service they would most likely pay for after college, the cellphone topped the list. A few students suggest they could survive with cable Internet and not cable TV, and one student relayed the story of his friend who'd watched "Lost" on TV for the first time last Wednesday, but it wasn't the first time he watched the hit ABC show -- he had seen every episode from iTunes and BitTorrent.
Students downplayed the importance of having a consumer device that "does it all," explaining that the laptop is already pretty close. Another student said he was budgeting $700 to buy the iPod convergence device that rumors suggest Apple will unveil come fall. The device, he said, would be a cellphone, planner, media device and have AV hookups so users could watch iPod-stored shows on a big screen TV.
Facebook's a favorite
Nine of the 10 students used social media networks, most of them favoring the college-targeted Facebook over MySpace thanks to Facebook's more stylized design and better interface. One student drew laughter when he related how some college students were giving up Facebook for Lent.
The panel's audience filled only about half the chairs in the room, which surprised media analysts and researchers in attendance.
"I think every CEO of every company here should have been watching this panel," said Richard Greenfield, managing director and media analyst at Pali Research.
The low attendance could have been a product of scheduling: The panel was held Sunday, before many people arrived. Yesterday's opening panel, by contrast, included Disney's Ms. Sweeney, Comcast's Mr. Roberts and Time Warner CEO Richard Parsons, as well as executives from Sprint, Motorola and Cisco, and the audience packed a massive convention hall. NCTA executives expect 16,000 to 17,000 attendees this year.
When asked about all the other entities coming after cable companies, Mr. Parsons joked "everyone but the investors." In seriousness, he noted cable was the only media able to provide bundled widespread data, voice and video now. And soon, through its joint venture with Sprint, cellular service.
Mr. Roberts said he was buoyed by the explosion of broadband and credited Google and Yahoo with driving the demand for broadband in the home.
"The No. 1 broadband company is us, in terms of connecting homes, is Comcast, so thank you [Google and Yahoo]. I'd rather be in the broadband business than any other business right now. Broadband is just scratching the surface and we're sitting here with the best pipe. How great is that?"