Report from Chicago NCTA Gathering

MEDIA RIVALS BACKSLAP AT CABLE CONFERENCE

'I Can't Imagine Being a Competitor' Says Mel Karmazin

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CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- Declaring themselves more partners than competitors, five of the country's most powerful media moguls told the opening session of the National
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Cable & Telecommunications Conference that "the world is our oyster."

CNN Moneyline anchor Lou Dobbs was technically the referee of the "Leading the Digital Revolution" forum that opened the event here. Bill Gates, chairman and chief software architect of Microsoft Corp.; Mel Karmazin, president and chief operating officer of Viacom; Richard Parsons, CEO-chairman of AOL Time Warner; and Brian Roberts, president-CEO of Comcast Corporation were the panelists.

Harmonious panel
But there wasn't much to referee as the harmonious panelists agreed with one another about virtually every media issue from the future of broadband to the deregulation of media ownership.

"I can't imagine being a competitor with any of these guys," Mr. Karmazin declared.

"In the last three months, we have done significant transactions," Mr. Parsons said. "If you get out of the '70s and '80s paradigm about competition, yes, we compete on more fronts now, but we can cooperate more effectively to expand the pie for consumers."

This mood of cross-corporate consensus comes on the heels of favorable corporate media news -- the Federal Communications Commission's deregulation of media ownership, which will allow one company the ability to own up to three TV broadcast networks in a major market as well as newspapers and more radio stations, a move all of the assembled executives applauded.

The marketplace rules
"Let's pull fences down on regulations," Mr. Parsons said. "Let the marketplace determine. Parts of our business will be advantaged, and others disadvantaged, but let the marketplace rule."

The cause of their optimism lay in the promise of broadband and high-definition TV delivery, which the executives feel will create even greater cooperation between the companies and will lead to changes in the current government-regulated standards of broadband width in digital cable lines.

"We really need to push this," Mr. Roberts said. "Seventy-eight percent of networks are HD capable."

"In this industry, the really revolutionary thing will be doing everything on Internet platforms," Mr. Gates predicted. "Not broadcast, but streaming video into the home."

The poster child for HDTV
"We are the poster child for HDTV," Mr. Karmazin boasted about his company's TV properties. "We have some CBS in HDTV. Showtime in HDTV. The NCAA in HDTV. And we just reaffirmed our commitment for next season to do all our programming in HDTV." CBS is Viacom's main broadcast TV station, which airs National College Athletic Association sporting events, and Showtime is its pay cable station.

Another important topic was content security. The executives expressed deep concern about their music and entertainment content being stolen by illegal downloading sites such as Napster and Kazaa.

"Music can be stolen if you don't create enough flexibility," said Mr. Gates, referring to legal downloading options such as one developed by his company. "If you don't provide enough flexibility in licensing your products you will get this illegal activity."

Where's Rupert Murdoch?
Messrs. Roberts and Parson pointed out that cable is here to stay. "Cable will be the preferred and more robust platform." However, the shadow of Rupert Murdoch, CEO of News Corp., lay heavy on the session. At one point, Mr. Dobbs called out: "Where's Rupert Murdoch?"

Good question. Mr. Murdoch's company recently acquired General Motors Corp.'s portion of DirecTV, the satellite distributor, an immediate and dangerous competitor with cable. His presence on the panel might have put a damper on the trusting, collegial atmosphere at this meeting.

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