My grandfather, in fact, a now long-retired coal miner, is the epitome of the company man (just think of Tennessee Ernie Ford's song "16 Tons," and you'll get the picture). So I've got a bit of a feel about the turmoil the strikers are going through, especially the long-timers — proud of their association with "Big Brown" but increasingly concerned about how that association is changing.

I introduced my column this month in this way for two reasons. First, being a good company man, I'll be relocated back East in the land of cheese steaks, Liberty Bells and William Penn's heirs. Second, in reviewing what's happening in the industry today and in looking at trends that will shape my market focus on the East Coast, I see a lot of good company people leaving their organizations or being moved out, and I wonder about the changing association between the companies in our industry and their long-timers. Is it an increasingly competitive environment, differences in market philosophies, financial pressures, different perspectives on when to adopt new technologies, conservative vs. aggressive growth-styles, or some other reason? The answer is, probably all of the above.

"It's time to play the Feud..."

After surveying the landscape and spending some time pondering (good company men ponder, you know), I believe we're in what I call the "Family Feud" era of telecommunications industry development. There are myriad examples when you think about it — internal (look at TCI), intra-industry (TCI [again] vs. seemingly the rest of the industry regarding upgrade strategies), media giant squabbles (News Corp. vs. Echostar, Time Warner, etc.), the regulated vs. regulator (seemingly everyone vs. the FCC, cable operators vs. franchising authorities), etc.

Well, you remember how Richard Dawson used to solve family feuds — with a survey, and the one who correctly determined the respondent preferences won. Because at the heart of the moves and countermoves being made in the industry is the desire to sell services, information that provides a good handle on the service purchaser's preference may be the key to moving us all beyond the "Family Feud" era.

I've done a significant amount of survey work on subscriber preferences, and I believe that there are several major trends that bear watching. They also point squarely toward architectural components in both the near and long term that can help develop the markets indicated by these trends. Some of the major points can be summed up as follows:

  • Digital compression is not the whole answer — Yes, subscribers want more of the same types of programming but, according to surveys, that is not nearly the sum total of their expressed needs. They also need options in the way programming is acquired, they need new types of services and they need improved picture quality. Thus, digital compression can only be a piece of the architectural puzzle, with physical plant and capacity upgrades, fiber optics, extensive system segmentation, etc., being equally important pieces.
  • The reports of video-on-demand's (VOD) demise are greatly exaggerated — Some market research and trials of VOD indicate that subscribers may be just as happy with near-video-on-demand (NVOD), especially when it comes to pay-per-view type movies. Sifting through the larger body of research, though, would suggest that as you offer more programming choices through VOD (such as programs from a vast menu-driven programming library), and as the decreasing cost of VOD technology over time may make it more pocket-book friendly, then the favorability rate increases sharply. Additionally, even the term "VOD" is still fuzzy for most subscribers and potential subscribers. In fact, in one series of surveys, replacing the terms "video-on-demand" or "movies-on-demand" with a phrase like "programs you want to watch, when you want to watch them," increased the favorability rate tenfold. Thus, the industry should continue to place an emphasis on future VOD offerings in the development of current architectures and current terminal equipment specifications.
  • Access to data has to be part of the equation — The industry's institutional and business users want to provide it, residential subscribers want to access it, and companies like Microsoft want to invest in it, so it's easy to do the math on data-over-cable applications. As subscribers increasingly desire electronic access to a wide range of services, as the costs of Internet access devices continue to go down, as such devices become as easy to use as the telephone and, correspondingly, as Internet use increases while TV net use starts to fall, the industry must have the architectures and services in place to take advantage of these shifts in the marketplace.

Can a strong focus on service purchaser preferences reduce family feuding and move the industry forward? The number-one answer is yes. Just look at old adversaries Apple and Microsoft. They wouldn't have recently buried the hatchet unless they thought it would help both of them better meet service needs (and thus drive revenues).

Well, I'm off to the City of Brotherly Love, and when I get there, I have to buy a new computer. Who knows? I might end up with a new MS Mac or Microtosh or whatever they're gonna call it. And I hope that those "Big Brown" trucks will be back on the road to deliver it.

Contact Tom Robinson at: