Oh snap! Cable will get around to gobbling up OTT threat

Jim BartholdIt's appropriate that an unholy confluence of events such as a cable marketing show followed by a cable engineering show in a city renowned as much for its heartiness and ability to survive as its mysticism has formed a new image--at least for me--of the cable industry.

Cable is an alligator.

OK, so maybe a week in the Big Easy, where it's as easy to find a shellacked alligator head as an open container of liquor, influenced that judgment, but it's not at all unreasonable if you consider how an alligator survives. It floats with just its eyes and nose above water, looking benign and a little stupid. Other creatures in the swamp go about their daily lives, making nests, mating, flying, swimming, running ... and the gator just floats there, breathing and looking around.

It can do this for hours, perhaps days. Then suddenly it moves and in a huge splash a deer is gone or a fish is swallowed or a heron is pulled beneath the surface to be drowned and devoured. Eventually the water calms and the gator resumes its floating; eyes and nose above water with perhaps just the slightest trace of blood around its protruding teeth.

Then there's a cable industry that floats around quietly with just its nose and eyes above the water. Everyone elsewhere is busy building out fiber networks and launching new video applications; TV set makers are hustling to fill their screens with the latest over-the-top applications and 3D. Analysts and pundits declare cable dead and hail the rise of the new breed of cord cutters who will rule the swamp.

And cable floats and watches and takes the measure of OTT.

There was a great deal of headshaking and naysaying and hand wringing about how the latest threat to cable comes not from some identifiable competitor or fellow predator but rather via an amorphous shred in the fabric called the Internet that will provide the ultimate escape hatch through which cable's subscribers will leave the fold.

And then, during the opening engineering session at Cable-Tec Expo, Motorola CTO Robert Howald put everything into perspective: "It is essential in the Internet era to have a broadband pipe."

Those who don't by now understand how cable is going to handle the threat, how the beast is going to swish its tail, churn its tiny feet, open its wide mouth and snap it shut to chow down on the Apple or Google or tasty Netflix treat, really hasn't paid attention to how the industry, ever-so-slow to move, consumed cable-ready TVs and VCRs, high-speed Internet and particularly @Home, video-on-demand, the movie rental model, and any other morsel that appeared either too tasty to ignore or too threatening to allow to live.

New Orleans, with its mysticism and never-say-die attitude and most particularly its wildlife, was such an appropriate venue to showcase both sides of a slow-moving industry that will, at any moment, snap forward again to the shock and surprise of other swamp dwellers who should know better.

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I'm in the process of compiling a list and explanation of the five scariest things that cable faces. Trust me, with my imagination and with the industry as it is in a transformational stage, I can think of five things even more frightening than Jimmy Dolan on guitar.

Don't believe me? Try my own scare story. Try arriving in New Orleans with a five-month-old Toshiba Netbook with a blank screen. Try dealing with Toshiba service well into the wee hours before the start of trade show reporting. Try finding a store to fix said machine. Try finding a PC or laptop or anything on which to write in an era when everyone is equipped with a portable computer of some sort so there aren't a lot of viable options around.

Then try delivering four days of trade show news on a daily deadline. That's scary. So face it: I know scary. -- Jim