LAS VEGAS - CEA President Gary Shapiro tried his level best to instigate a fight among the competitors at the Power Pipes panel here at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), but execs from Time Warner Cable, Cox Communications, Verizon Telecom, EchoStar, DirecTV, and Hearst-Argyle Television were on their best behavior and declined to take even the juiciest bait.
Shapiro opened by asking each panelist who they compete with, which produced some seat squirming until someone quickly came up with the noncommittal "we compete with everyone" line.
Shapiro subsequently asked the panel if there were one law or regulation each could magically make disappear, what would it be? This could have produced some great theater, given that nearly every company represented on the panel has accused at least one other of having unfair regulatory advantages.
But acting like Stepford Execs, TWC CEO Glenn Britt, Cox President Pat Esser, and Verizon Telecom President Virginia Reusterholz all gave versions of the "all we want is a level playing field" speech.
Once that subject was raised, however, EchoStar CEO Charlie Ergen was wistful, bordering on bitter, about the government disapproving the proposed merger between EchoStar and DirecTV in 2002, especially after the same administration just approved the merger of AT&T and BellSouth. He made it clear he'd revive the deal if he thought he could get it approved.
Shapiro tried sprinkling a few last grains of salt in the regulatory wound, asking about network neutrality. Esser acknowledged that communications companies may yet have to deal with net neutrality legislation, but insinuated net neutrality policy is pointless given that "nobody knows what it means."
When Shapiro asked about HDTV, every panelist agreed HDTV is an important and growing service, but Britt said it was not a business - not something you can charge much, if anything, for. Eventually, he said, all content will be available in HD.
Ergen saw it as a lesser priority for EchoStar, because the majority of his viewers were more interested in basic TV service. He characterized his customers as "people who still had VCRs blinking last year. I'm from the south, so I can say this: we're not the brightest people," Ergen said, adding, "But seriously, we do real good with basic TV. Just channel-load down, and keep the price down."
Esser, Britt and Reusterholz all noted the bundle is in transition out of its initial appeal - the convenience of multiple services on a single bill. Next, it will be about the ability to move content across platforms.
Still playing the rabble-rouser, Shapiro asked the satellite representatives about not being able to deliver the triple play or the quad play on their own networks.
That caused Ergen to grumble about how that was a risk, but DirecTV President Chase Carey said he didn't think people cared if they got all their services from a single provider, that satellite TV remains complementary to the other services it could be bundled with, and that it was all an opportunity.
Most of Carey's comments during the panel were similarly deftly bland, prompting Shapiro to wisecrack that Carey "is a man who has worked for Barry Diller, Rupert Murdoch and now ..." Shapiro raised his eyebrows and let his voice trail off, getting a laugh as the audience connected the dots between he-who-must-not-be-named and John Malone, who just gained control of DirecTV.