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CES Speakers In Hat Trick Of Surprise Departures

It’s not unheard of for a featured speaker at International CES to be suddenly out of a job for one reason or another within a year. In fact, I once wrote an editorial in TWICE on the “Curse of CES.” But never before has the curse pulled off a hat trick and accomplished it while the show’s dust was still settling on the convention center floor.

Within a month of their CES appearances, Michael Ramsay was out at TiVo; Carly Fiorina was dumped by Hewlett-Packard; and Michael Powell said “so long” to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Of the three, only Powell’s departure as FCC chairman has the potential to cause a great deal of upheaval in our industry. Just how much will depend on the views of the successor chosen by President Bush.

At his last CES appearance, where he shared a stage with Consumer Electronics Association’s (CEA) president Gary Shapiro, Powell gave not a hint of his intention to resign. To the contrary, in his comments he laid out a year-long plan for helping push along the industry’s transition to digital TV by warning cable operators he would tolerate no further delays in their meeting digital standards, and by setting final deadlines for broadcasters to complete their analog-to-digital conversion. Powell was clearly playing to the significant number of lobbyists and Washington-based attorneys on hand, who hooted, laughed and applauded some of his more arcane comments, which were clearly over the heads of the rest of us in attendance.

If the new FCC chairman proves to be any less firm on those issues the completion of the move to digital TV could be set back by years. Yes, the Bush Administration is pro-digital, but don’t expect Congress to approve financial penalties on slow-moving broadcasters. We don’t see it in major markets, but out West, where prairie dogs outnumber voters and distances between polling places are vast, congressmen rely on local broadcasters to run their taped messages to the citizenry and won’t vote for any anti-broadcaster measures.

Speaking of CES, I frankly was much impressed by Thomson’s TV presentation conducted by Al Arras, president of TTE, the company’s joint venture with China’s TCL. With its new RCA digital TV line starting at $300 for a standard-definition 27-inch direct-view model and topping at a 61W-inch high-definition rear projection at $7,000, TTE is returning RCA to its traditional position as the one brand with something to fit every pocketbook.

During the presentation Arras unveiled a chart showing that its view of the size of the digital TV market is more down to earth than the forecast offered up at the show by CEA. TTE estimates the industry sold just under 7 million digital sets of all types last year — against CEA’s estimate of 7.3 million — and is looking for sales of 10.8 million this year. CEA’s forecast for 2005 is a sky-high 20.2 million. For next year TTE projects unit sales of 16.8 million, rising to 23.3 million in 2007 and to 27 million in 2008.

I took time out on the final day of CES to pay my annual visit to the Adult Video Expo that was running concurrently at the Sands convention hall. It was clear that the adult video industry is ahead of the traditional industry curve in the application of digital technology to home entertainment. While they too now sell more software on DVD than on VHS, the adult producers are moving much faster into high definition.

One company, Lurid Entertainment, now shoots all its production in the 1080-interlace mode, and releases in both high- and standard-definition versions. One best seller, Island Fever 3 from Digital Playground, has been released on DVD as a two-disc set: one standard, one HD. HD playback, the packaging says, requires a 2.5GHz PC or WMV-HD compliant player.