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Cable, dot-coms in blossoming relationship

At the annual National Cable Television Association conference, senior executives from Net companies are billed as the "new in-laws" of the cable industry.

    NEW ORLEANS--The dot-coms need the cable guys, and the cable guys need the dot-coms.

    That was the message at a keynote panel here today at the National Cable Television Association's annual convention, where senior executives from Microsoft, America Online and Excite@Home were billed as the "new in-laws" of the cable industry.

    The panel marked the NCTA's first-ever keynote session that featured solely non-cable industry leaders, "which is an indication of the change of our business," said Wink Communications chief executive and panel moderator Maggie Wilderotter.

    All three companies are working closely with the cable industry and positioned themselves as strong partners with the cable operators. Internet companies are anxious to gain access to the cable industry's high-speed, or "broadband," networks while the cable operators are reliant upon new technology and Net access companies for advanced services and expertise online.

    Microsoft has a variety of cable operator investments--which total about $7 billion--and is working closely with AT&T, Excite@Home and others on interactive television services.

    "The nature of partnerships between cable and other companies will deepen (over the next five years)," said Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer. "You will see these kinds of partnerships become far more comprehensive."

    Ballmer joked that the primary reason Microsoft has invested heavily in cable TV companies is that "we saw CourtTV, and we're really looking forward to Appeals CourtTV."

    Bob Pittman, president of AOL, said alliances between cable operators and See news analysis: AOL sees its future offline dot-coms will create new revenue streams for the cable operators and new services for both companies.

    "The perfect partners for the cable industry are the ISPs, not just AOL," Pittman said.

    Executives at Excite@Home, which is a high-speed Internet access partnership between more than 20 cable operators worldwide, believe competition will create alliances between cable companies and Net firms, spurring both to move faster than ever before.

    "I think the quickening of the pace is going to be an essential change," Excite@Home chief executive George Bell said. "The race is going to go quick, and I think that will change the dynamic of how some of the cable industry sees its partnerships with content and distribution platforms."