Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes sounded an optimistic note for the cable industry Tuesday at the NCTA Cable Show in Chicago, reminding the audience that cable programmers and distributors were alive and well — and doing better than ever.
“Let’s cheer up. This is not the music industry; this is the cable industry,” Bewkes said on a panel that also included high-level executives from Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cox Communications, Viacom and News Corp. Bewkes was responding to a line of questioning from FOX Business Network anchor Liz Claman about how the industry was going to deal with competition from upstart online distributors like Netflix or YouTube, and sought to remind everyone that despite fears of competition and cord cutting, everything — including the quality of programming, number of subscribers to pay TV services and most of all profits — was looking up for the industry.
That said, Bewkes and other panelists agreed that the cable industry can’t rest on its laurels — and in fact, both cable distributors and programmers need to work harder than ever to meet consumer demands. At the center of this work is TV Everywhere — an industry-wide initiative to make cable content available online and across a wide number of mobile and connected devices. Bewkes, who helped spearhead the TV Everywhere initiative with Comcast two years ago, reiterated the need for the industry to “take every channel on television and put all of it on demand,” effectively making the content available whenever and wherever cable subscribers wanted to view it.
While most agreed that they need to embrace new platforms to reach consumers where they are, some panelists cautioned that these initiatives had to be collaborative, and they had to be respectful of their programming rights. News Corp. COO Chase Carey said programmers needed to continue working with distributors to make content available in new and interesting ways, but the parties needed to make sure that those initiatives were done according to agreements they have in place. “Rights are our backbone,” Carey said.
Viacom CEO Phillippe Dauman echoed those sentiments, saying, “It’s important for our continued success for us to continue to collaborate to serve the consumers so that both sides emerge happy.”
Dauman’s request for more cooperation comes after his company sued Time Warner Cable over the operators’s iPad app, which streams live video feeds to the tablet in the subscriber’s home. Viacom claims that Time Warner Cable didn’t negotiate for the rights to stream Viacom’s channels over IP or to mobile devices; meanwhile, Time Warner Cable claimed in its legal response that the iPad is just another screen in the home and shouldn’t be treated differently than a TV.
One other reason for the disagreement is that video streams viewed over the iPad aren’t currently measured by Nielsen, which means that ad-supported networks like Viacom’s MTV or Comedy Central don’t get credit for viewership that happens on the device. Dauman reiterated those concerns on the panel.
To make these initiatives work, however, there was the underlying belief that both programmers and distributors needed to be more proactive in ironing out the details. Comcast Cable president Neil Smit said one advantage his company has seen since the merger of its programming assets with NBC Universal is that he can call NBCU head honcho Steve Burke and create more flexible programming options that can help increase ratings and the value the cable operator provides to its subscribers. To take advantage of the opportunities available, he suggested programmers and distributors need to talk and work together more often.
Despite a couple of quarters of declines in the overall multichannel video provider market last year, cable execs said they didn’t see cord cutting as a major concern. Dauman said it was “truly remarkable” that during the worst economic crisis he and the other panelists have seen in their lifetimes, the cable industry fared as well as it did. “The last thing people cut back on is their pay TV subscription,” Dauman said.
Time Warner Cable CEO Glenn Britt highlighted the lack of housing creation as the main reason for declines during a six-month period last year. That said, Britt cautioned that there are segments of the population for whom the rough economy means they can’t afford pay TV services. According to Britt, the industry needs to work together to find ways to serve those customers with more flexible programming options.