The Cable Show: It's deja vu all over again

Jim BartholdThey're forces of nature: Every year the swallows return to Capistrano; the vultures return to Gettysburg; the jellyfish return to the New Jersey seashore; and the cable industry returns to The Cable Show with vows that this is the year convergence will happen.

Of course, it's also the time public relations professionals with no experience in the cable industry descend upon the remaining half dozen or so remaining cable journalists with entreaties that their newest employers "really like your work" and "would love to get together with you at the show." In response, the half dozen or so trade journalists respond, "That's nice, but you know there are 51 other weeks in the year when we can do this." Generally, the sound at the other end of the phone is akin to hearing a child's pool inflatable uninflate ... ssssssssssssssssssssssssshhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

But we digress--as we are wont to do. Every year the cable industry gathers and, it seems, every year the big discussion is "convergence." It used to be that cable was talking about converging its video services with these new high-speed data modems and telephony--not VoIP, you understand, but digital phone.

Today, convergence is all about multi-screens--taking the video content that has been relegated to second class status by those high-speed cable modems--and putting it on any number of new, non-cable devices, like tablets, smartphones and even PCs--at least for those dinosaurs who have just tossed away their last Selectric.

This year's show--at least according to the initial slew of news releases that have used cable's high-speed broadband networks to land in mailboxes of those remaining trade journalists--will be rife with network devices, media gateways and security and trafficking peripherals all surrounding the move toward converged linear and IP-based networks across multiple screens.

The Cable Show, to be fair, is a different beast these days. Since there are even fewer relevant cable service providers today than there are trade journalists, the big programmers see no reason to waste all those carriage fees they get putting on the ritz to convince operators to put their channels on their lineups. Thus, no one is talking about the HBO party, the Disney giveaways or the Showtime celebrities. If these players have booths at all, they're subdued.

No, this show, like the last few, is about technology; about making a push for the latest convergence gear that will make cable once again the dominant player in a home where IP has overwhelmed linear video and where the iPad (or Xoom) is just as important as a second or third TV.

To prove the point, the show relegated Oprah Winfrey and Jill Biden to the third and final day--also known as travel day--in an effort to keep people around. Apparently it didn't work so, last week, at the last minute, it added a further teaser. Comcast Chairman-CEO Brian Roberts, one of the few people in the country right now who might actually be as powerful as Oprah, will be on hand Thursday to "demonstrate Comcast's next generation video product."

The last-minute addition probably has more to do with keeping people in the Windy City a little bit longer and keeping the show floor even moderately filled than it does with any breaking news. Still, Roberts is being a good soldier for the cause, and will probably show off a set-top box that-wait for it-converges high-speed broadband and linear video.

After all, it's that time of year again. The cable people are returning to The Show.--Jim