Cable Must Avoid Turning Into a Commodity

At UBS Media Conference: Time Warner Cable's Glenn Britt

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NEW YORK ( -- If Glenn Britt's appearance at the UBS Global Media & Communications Conference is any indication, Time Warner Cable is one property in the Time Warner portfolio ready to stand on its own legs, should the expected spin-off under new CEO Jeffrey Bewkes take place in 2008.
Glenn Britt
Glenn Britt

In a question-and-answer session with investors, Mr. Britt, the cable company's CEO, detailed the actions Time Warner Cable has taken to challenge its competitors' offerings in wireless and channel carriage, as well as its marketplace-leading role in video-on-demand ad models.

Cable vs. satellite
He's also bullish on what differentiates cable companies from emerging satellite players such as DirecTV and Echostar. "The good story about what's going on with [high definition] and DirecTV is they're trying to do different things," Mr. Britt said. "But I fear they're going to turn into commoditizing products."

If the cable industry continues down the path of commoditizing its features rather than selling its strengths as a content provider and media company, he said, "we'll all go down the drain together, singing merrily. We all are struggling to create a different branded identity from each other."

Speaking of brand identity, one investor asked Mr. Britt what he made of recent plays by telecoms such as Verizon and AT&T to fill the gaps in triple-play entertainment (an all-in-one phone, broadband and fiber-optic TV service) with their own cable services. Mr. Britt said Verizon's carriage represents a 38% overlap in key markets like Dallas and Los Angeles, AT&T's 45%, so from a distribution standpoint the threat they pose is relatively small at the moment.

The focus on triple-play packages
"I'm not surprised they've focused [their marketing on triple play]," he said. "We didn't have triple play in some of those markets, and clearly they have different strategies. But I'm not sure what the return on investment is on Fios, maybe that's for investors to question. ... And AT&T has clearly had some trouble with scaling U-verse ... and with getting the technology to work. There's a whole suite of services we have that we call enhanced TV, and we'll keep innovating and try to stay ahead of our competitors that way."

Earlier this year, Mr. Britt introduced the Start Over feature to Time Warner subscribers, a first-of-its-kind option for cable that allowed users to restart a program after arriving late into its live airing. "If you come home at 9:15, someone could push select and start [a show] as though it's 9:00." An added bonus to advertisers: the fast-forward option is disabled.

Start Over is currently available in seven of Time Warner Cable's 20 markets, with other features like Look Back and Catch Up since being introduced. In the case of Catch Up, a programmer such as ABC could allow viewers to view all episodes of the current season of "Gray's Anatomy" -- complete with new ads, so the messages are refreshed. The revenue-sharing model for Catch Up's ads "will have to be worked out with the programmers," Mr. Britt added.
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