One of the most vociferous critics of cable also happens to be one of the industry's main cheerleaders-Torie Clarke, senior advisor for communications and government affairs for Comcast Corp. Clarke recently returned to the cable industry after a period as assistant secretary of defense for public affairs during the start of war in Iraq.
Clarke, who chaired what was easily the most candid session about the toughest issues facing cable, said: "What we don't do well is talking to real people. Why has that not changed more?"
Time Warner Cable Chairman-CEO Glenn Britt admitted the industry has a big problem. "On the marketing front, we have a long way to go," he said.
Raymond Katz, senior managing director at Bear Stearns & Co., who tracks the cable industry, said as more products come on the market, such as hi-definition, voice-over internet, data services and video-on-demand, customer confusion grows.
Many CTAM attendees recognized the advantage that satellite services such as EchoStar and DirecTV have over cable. Satellite services have a national presence and sell through retail outlets such as Best Buy. Cable, by its very nature, is a much more balkanized industry and doesn't spend anywhere near as much on consumer marketing.
Josh Sappan, president-CEO Rainbow Programming, caused controversy when he asserted consumer confusion wasn't such a bad thing. He said that with technology moving so fast, sometimes consumers found that they were in possession of services they didn't know they had.
Adelphia Communications Chairman-CEO Bill Schleyer, whose company is facing a possible sale as part of bankruptcy proceedings, added, "We do a lousy job of communicating with the customer. We have DVRs, broadband and telephony ... we can't sit back and let a customer sales rep explain it."
Dr. Phil Deutsch
Clarke also raised the issue of how Washington is intent on dismantling bundled cable programming services, noting that the issue had become wrongly tied to indecency. Lawmakers believe consumers shouldn't be forced to take edgy cable services that they don't wish to see.
One bright spot identified by panelists was the opportunity new technology offers to bring in advertisers. Judy Girard, president of Scripps' Shop At Home Networks, said that her company offered a custom programming division to help advertisers create the longer form content that will be necessary in an on-demand world.
Donny Deutsch, CEO of Interpublic Group of Cos.' Deutsch and cable show host for CNBC, opened the event by delivering a speech that split the audience in two with participants either loving or hating it. Deutsch played something of a Dr. Phil role during his keynote address offering the industry some tough love. Deutsch told cablers to supercharge their attitude to business by refusing to accept the possibility of failure.
HBO's Chairman-CEO Chris Albrecht offered CTAM attendees a lesson in what cable companies are doing right. Albrecht outlined how HBO evolved to where it is today by choosing to develop "point-of-view" programming.
While breakthrough programming such as "The Sopranos," "Six Feet Under" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm" is one element of success, marketing and advertising is just as important. "We approach marketing with the same intensity and point-of-view that we provide for our programming. It is about creating a brand to drive the network," he told attendees.