Comcast grabbed the leadership crown, now must wear it

Jim Barthold

Next week, for those three or four companies who have not yet hired a PR person to tell me so, is The Cable Show--the industry's annual lovefest/chip-on-the-shoulder gathering.

As usual, you can expect the industry's top executives to espouse how great cable is (if the government would just stay away) and its mid-management level engineers and marketers to tell you what's on tap in the backrooms to keep cable great.

In between there will be numerous industry vendors and vendor-hopefuls hawking the wares that they believe will either make them the next Cisco or the next start-up that Cisco wants to buy.

It would be the same-old-same-old, except that this year has to be different. Comcast (Nasdaq: CMCSA), the homecoming king, will be wearing its new NBCUniversal crown for the first time in a public gathering. That crown puts Comcast at the top of the industry pyramid for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it's the only cable operator that can charge and pay retransmission fees. It's also the only cable operator that can charge admission to a theme park featuring Harry Potter, the only cable operator that can take a cut from theaters that charge people to see a Harry Potter movie, and the only cable company with a headquarters in Philadelphia--for now.

I threw in that "for now" to try to rile things up a bit. After all, when Bill Daniels popped up in Denver the cable industry flocked to be near him. It's hard to understand why Ralph and Brian Roberts aren't drawing the same attention for Philadelphia. Some think it might be because Comcast is more comfortable in New York (where NBC holds court) or Washington, D.C., where the MSO collects former government workers the way some kids collect baseball cards.

But that's a digression. The new Comcast would be the leader for the new cable but for one thing: It has never prided itself on leading the industry. If a Comcast executive said it once, another said it four times: Comcast prides itself on being a fast-follower ... the company that sees someone else succeed with an idea that follows up with its own version.

This is an attitude that a leader can no longer afford. Comcast is seen by others inside and more importantly outside the industry as the ultimate cable company and the leader on any number of technical and regulatory issues. Of late, though, the only one Comcast seems to be leading is Comcast.

In the past, The Cable Show was a font of information from any of the other non-Comcast companies about such innovations as IP voice, ultra high-speed data and even wireless, all of which Comcast would one day adopt. This year, bets are that everyone will be listening to what Comcast has to say.

So far, Comcast has offered direction on how it will handle programming and retransmission. It's revealed its careful bandwidth management policy and strategic employment initiative at its new broadcasting arm.

The cable industry, though, has a hole in its donut: There's nothing in the space where the fourth bundled service, wireless, should be. Amid all the hoopla and predictions and self-congratulatory messages next week, that is an area that will need to be more fully addressed by the industry and, by default, its leading company. It will be interesting to see if it is.--Jim