“Let’s all cheer up—this is not the music industry,” said Time Warner CEO Jeffrey Bewkes as he fielded moderator questions about the future of the cable industry, during a panel discussion at the opening of the 2011 Cable Show in Chicago yesterday.
Bewkes was flanked on stage by a gaggle of industry heavyweights: Time Warner Cable CEO Glenn Britt, News Corporation Vice Chairman Chase Carey, Viacom Chief Philippe Dauman, Comcast President Neil Smit, and Cox Communications President Patrick Esser. And though some cable operators and programmers might have been reluctant to discuss it, at the continued prodding of the panel moderator—Fox Business' Liz Claman—most of the morning’s conversation centered on how the cable industry is gearing up to accept the Internet era.
The panelists acknowledged the threats to their business: namely that second-screen and over-the-top video could steal droves of eyeballs away if the industry isn’t vigilant. Still, the message of the executives—both those who operate cable delivery systems and those who oversee networks (and the one, Comcast President Neil Smit, who controls both)—was that as long as the industry continues to provide a service people want, in the form of programming or a well-designed delivery platform things will be all right. “In a world of a lot of choices, Snooki still rules,” said Viacom’s Dauman. “Television viewing is at an all-time high . . . [but] our viewers get to enjoy our content in many different ways.”
The elephant in the room throughout the first half of the discussion was the growth of online video providers like Netflix—and in the second half of the panel that issue was addressed head-on. "Netflix is primarily a service that provides library programming,” said Dauman, trying to wave off the video site completely. “Our industry has always been about new content.” But what about the new original series Netflix is set to debut, House of Cards? “Netflix got involved in one show that was a television type of product, but that’s not really their business and it’s not so easy to get into the content business.”
For Bewkes, Netflix is a subscription service like any other with original programming, and nothing new to the ecosystem. “There are several others that are pretty well established,” he said. “With HBO, we’ve been making original programming for years."
The upshot of it all seems to have been that even the heads of the largest networks and cable carriers in the country have no idea what the future holds for their business. “There’s a lot going on and I don’t think any of us know where it’s going," said Time Warner Cable's Glenn Britt. But, at least they seemed to all agree on one thing: serious change is coming.