Peter Kafka

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Disney CEO Bob Iger at the Cable Show: “You Can’t Slow the Pace of Technology”

igerAt one point this month, there had been speculation that Disney CEO Bob Iger would use his speech at the cable industry’s annual convention to announce a deal with Hulu. Instead, Iger used the forum to try to placate his cable partners, which generate an enormous revenue stream for his company, while explaining that he was going to move full-steam ahead when it came to putting some his stuff online for free.

Iger did express cautious optimism about the online video plans that Comcast (CMCSA) and Time Warner (TWX) have been floating. Both imagine a world where cable or satellite subscribers get extensive access to TV programming on the Web, as long as they can prove that they are paying customers. But Iger also made it clear that he was going to go ahead and move his content online on his own terms. He didn’t need to mention Hulu, but it couldn’t have been clearer.

[Addendum: Quick reaction among my press colleagues is that Iger was more skeptical than optimistic about the Comcast/Time Warner plans. The key distinction: Iger is saying that stuff ABC broadcasts–which the cable guys don’t pay him for–will be available for free online and not part of whatever walled garden Comcast/Time Warner wants to set up. Other content, though, is up for grabs.]

Unfortunately, Iger only presented the keynote address and didn’t stick around for the following panel: Glenn Britt/Time Warner Cable (TWC), Greg Brown/Motorola (MOT), Dinni Jain/Insight Communications,  Thomas Rutledge/Cablevision (CVC), Amy Tykeson/BendBroadband. I’ll come back to that one later.

Here’s my live coverage of Iger’s speech. The following notes are paraphrased unless they’re within quote marks.

References Walt Disney himself and his love of technology. He loved TV, embraced it wholeheartedly. “If Walt were alive today, he would be devoted to ESPN, he would be incredibly proud of the Disney Channel…and he would see cable as a wonderful world….Let me state the obvious. Cable television is vitally important to our company.”

Running through Disney’s cable assets: Disney Channel, ESPN, etc. Disney needs cable to survive and is bullish on cable. Lots of love for cable. [Detecting theme here.]

Let’s pretend cable doesn’t exist. Let’s pretend I make this proposition: I will offer you lots of TV, drama, etc. Lots of great stuff, in HD. What will it cost: $60 a month, or 20 cents an hour. Your response: “That’s Comcastic. Where do I sign up?” Iger’s point: Cable’s great, and we need to explain to consumers how great it is.

“As an industry, we have to look past technological threats, and we basically have to consider technology a friend, not a foe.” Many opportunities. “History is full of lessons for people willing to learn them.” Radio battled TV, TV battled cable, movie business fought VCRs, etc. “You can’t slow the pace of technology.”

Online content, new medium platforms and authentication. “The consumer is king, not us, the content provider, and not you, the distributor.” We have to be mindful of that. They’re telling us they love content, they love access and playability, and they want great navigation. “They view the computer as an entertainment device.”

Explains iTunes deal from 2005. We moved to iTunes a couple years ago to remain relevant and to begin to expand and diversify revenue streams. Ultimate monetization unknown, but that’s OK, but we believe content providers will eventually be fairly compensated.

“I also had an ulterior motive. I wanted to challenge the status quo.”

Regarding “authentication” [Time Warner/Comcast plans]: May be an “interesting” opportunity for consumers. On the other hand, preventing people from watching any shows online unless they were cable subscribers would engender a backlash. Important not to take away online video programming that’s already out there, and not to throttle access.

“We’re open to hearing more….But we’re curious about its practicality,” in terms of technology and other factors. And worried about potential backlash from consumers. Also thankful that some cable guys now working to combat piracy. Thanks for your time, and good luck.

That’s it for Iger. I’ll summarize the rest of the panel later on. Important thrust of Iger’s comments: Here’s our logic in putting more and more of our stuff on the Web for free: Because that’s what consumers want. So don’t complain to me about my Hulu deal.

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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik