Mairi Clark sees that the CCA’s cable push could be the start of the
spread of the Net via the telephone
Apart from the added programming choice and the absence of a dish, the
average consumer’s knowledge of cable is pretty limited. Certainly they
know that cable can help you cut phone bills, although you have to
change your phone number. But that’s about it.
Indeed, confusion still reigns among many about the difference between
cable and Sky and whet-her, if you get cable, you can also get Sky. And
as for the possibilities of using cable interactively and to get on to
the Internet...well, most have little conception of that.
All that may be about to change, however. At least that’s what the Cable
Communications Association hopes when it launches its first generic
campaign next week thro-ugh J. Walter Thompson. The basic brief is a
simple one: raise awareness and increase the number of subscribers. It’s
after that, though, that it gets more interesting for those involved in
interactive media, because one of the tasks of the campaign is to
convince customers that there’s more to cable than just programmes and
phones - for example, that it might offer a better alternative for
Internet users and, further down the road, for services such as video on
demand and home-based transactions. The big question then is: can cable
pull this off?
Mike Hayes, marketing director at the Cable Communications Association,
seems to think so. ‘Cable is growing faster than VCRs or CDs ever did.
We’re gaining 60,000 new subscribers a month. The whole campaign is
trying to make people realise that cable is much more than a programme
provider. We’re not saying subscribe to us for programmes, we’re saying
subscribe to us for programmes you want to watch. We offer what people
want. Nearly a quarter of homes have cable passing them. By the end of
the year that figure will almost double to 45 per cent. That’s why we’ve
only started advertising now. Not enough people had access to it
before,’ he explains.
But it’s the prospect of connecting to the Internet through the cable
company’s phone system that offers added value both to the consumer and
to the cable provider. Would consumers be more encouraged to connect to
the Internet via the cheaper cable phone systems, especially if the
apparent expense of going ‘online’ had been a hindrance in the past?
But, although using the Internet via cable might be cheaper, it wouldn’t
initially be any quicker - which is what most users want. Despite the
hype around fibre-optic cabling and cable modems, speedier access is
still a glint in the CCA’s eye.
This also raises questions about what, in the future, will be the prime
vehicle for interactivity. For example, will it be the PC - in which
case cable might be marginalised - or will it be the set-top box
through which the phone, TV and computer are all run?
Separately, some cable companies are currently conducting tests into
cable modems that can receive information 100 times faster than the
average modem, and fibre-optic cabling which can carry more information
than traditional copper wire.
The key to this is band-width. To connect to the Internet via these
means you need to have broadband access to speed up delivery. Current
telephones work on narrowband access. This broadband access requires
more technology and so will cost more money.
Andrew Curry, head of interactive television at Videotron, is sceptical
about the attractiveness of this. ‘I wouldn’t get too excited about
cable modems. We are a year to 18 months away from the accessibility of
that. Businesses will probably be more keen, as speed is what matters to
them. They do offer a very fast service but are also very expensive.’
But it’s not all doom and gloom. Mike Wood, the media director at the
CCA’s agency, JWT, is convinced that the future of cable will be every
bit as exciting as it’s promised to be.
‘Commentators are lacking vision. Technology is like the railway system.
People would build tracks almost to nowhere, yet towns and whole
industries grew around those tracks. The railways were a conduit for
industry; cable will be a conduit for interactivity.’
Although their usefulness to Internet users seems uncertain, the cable
modems will still be beneficial to other interactive services such as
home banking and home shopping. Wood thinks this is only four or five
years away. ‘Time Warner has set up a 21st-century cable system in
Orlando where people are using, on a day-to-day basis, interactive
services such as home banking, home shopping and are even ‘going’ to the
post office,’ he says. ‘Technology is becoming more and more important.
Cable will be better than the Internet. For a start, it will be much
faster. You’ll still need to plug into a computer somewhere to translate
the information on the Internet. So there’s a small technological jump
to be made.’
But, Wood adds, the key to it is entertainment. ‘People will pay for TV
entertainment. Nothing comes near to TV as the nation’s favourite
pastime. Cable offers everything the consumer needs: information,
banking, even things like ‘going’ to the doctor and buying a car. It’s
going to be huge.’
Andrew McIntosh, media intelligence manager at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO,
doesn’t share all Wood’s enthusiasm for cable but agrees that people
want entertainment. ‘There is a huge assumption that people want
interactive programming. People’s interaction with technology is very
low. They want entertainment and they don’t want to have to make
decisions about what comes next. I don’t think most people would bother
Nor does he believe that interactivity and connecting to the Internet is
a big plus for cable viewers. ‘A small minority of the audience may
embrace it,’ McIntosh says. ‘But it’s basically the difference between
ready-made furniture and stuff you have to build yourself. It is not
going to make a big difference to Internet users. People aren’t going to
start signing up in droves because of a few pence saving, not when they
have to fork out pounds 1,200-pounds 1,500 already. It’ll just make
things easier for current Internet users.’