Some of the top executives in cable fear that the anemic economy will soon take a bite out of an industry that has weathered previous downturns without a problem. At a panel this morning for the opening session of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association’s National Cable Show in Chicago, several members of the audience applauded when Time Warner Cable CEO Glenn Britt said operators should begin to offer a low-priced service with fewer channels than they have in their expanded basic cable packages. “There clearly is a growing underclass of consumers that can’t afford (cable service) and they want it,” Britt said. Even though “the economics make it difficult” for channels that would be left out, if Netflix’s low-priced package of TV reruns ”makes consumers not want to buy the big package that we’re selling, then that’s a threat to all of us.” Cox Communications President Pat Esser says he’s also concerned that the poorest 40% of the population barely has enough money to pay for cable, although he says it hasn’t resulted in much cord-cutting yet. But Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman seems unconvinced. He says the country “lived through the worst recession and the last thing people cut back on is TV.”

Executives on the panel also seemed frustrated by business differences that have kept more content from going to VOD and cable’s TV Everywhere initiatives, which are beginning to make it possible for subscribers to watch shows via the Internet on computers and mobile devices. “We have to do a better job of exciting consumers,” News Corp COO Chase Carey said. He added, though, that operators and programmers need to smooth out the business terms. “It can’t  be the Wild West. You need a structure within which to do business.” Comcast Cable President Neil Smit says programmers are telling him, “give me some ratings on fast-forward-disabled VOD and I’ll give you more content.” Ever the optimist, Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes said that when the industry gets its act together, consumers probably will end up preferring to receive content from traditional cable TV than from the Internet. ”We haven’t yet got 3D working on electric screens,” he said. “We will. When we do, your infrastructure will be the highway. … (Internet) can’t do that for a long time.”