October 15, 2007
The 2007 Cable Hall of Fame Inductees — an Active Class
Youthful vigor and power mark this years Cable Hall of Famers.
By Seth Arenstein, Rob Garretson and Michael Grebb
Is it us or does this incoming Hall of Fame class seem to contain more executives who are still active than previous classes did? How does The Hall elect members?
We asked The Cable Center chief Larry Satkowiak. "Yes, this class is younger, but that’s a little bit of a coincidence," he says. "At least one person [in each class] has to have been in the business since the 1960s," although you don’t have to have been elected to the Cable Pioneers [20 years in the business], he adds.
Here’s how the process works. First, Center chairman Bill Bresnan names a chair to head the selection committee. That person recruits 9 to 15 people for the committee. "These are usually people who have been around cable for a long time, and at least two are Cable Pioneers," Satkowiak says. The group then considers a very large list of candidates, about 150 people; they whittle that to a smaller list. The criteria for selection is simply someone who’s made a significant contribution to cable. Names roll over year to year, but the committee can add names to the list.
Some misconceptions: "The committee doesn’t choose people because they’ve made donations to The Cable Center," he says. "At least they don’t know [from the bios] the candidate’s level of donations." And it’s a pure process. "There’s no lobbying," he adds. Committee members’ identities are secret, only the chairman is known and committee members change out yearly. "This is all by design," Satkowiak says.
The following Q&As with the 2007 Cable Hall of Fame inductees, which expand on the print version of this article that ran in CableWorld, include Time Warner Cable's Glenn Britt extolling the power of VOD and Enhanced TV; Disney's Anne Sweeney on how VOD, DVRs and the video iPod are changing television; NBCU vet Bob Wright on why he should have bought MTV when he had the chance; and NCTA's Barbara York on the nuts and bolts of planning The Cable Show.
Enhancing the Viewer’s TV Experience
INTERVIEW BY ROB GARRETSON
PRESIDENT AND CEO, TIME WARNER CABLE
Glenn Britt is nothing if not loyal. He’s served Time Warner (and in the early days, Time Inc.) more than 35 years. His first cable post was in 1974 as VP/treasurer of Time’s Manhattan Cable Television Inc. He’s made two separate stops at HBO en route to the top job at Time Warner Cable. Britt spoke to us about Enhanced TV and other subjects from his office decorated with the photos of all the prior inductees into the Cable Hall of Fame.
RG: How does it feel to be inducted into the Cable Hall of Fame?
Glenn Britt: I obviously feel terrific. I think it’s a real honor. The other people who have received this honor in the past have been the leaders of this industry and people I’ve admired over the years, so I’m more than happy and delighted to be included in that group.
RG: Are there any of your fellow inductees who you’re particularly proud to be entering the Hall with?
GB: Yes, I know all of them, some better than others. Without speaking about myself, it looks like quite a distinguished group. Obviously I worked together with Jim Chiddix when he was here at Time Warner, so I know him the best, and I’m delighted to see him in the group. But the whole group seems to be very deserving.
RG: Can you share your vision for the future of Enhanced TV?
GB: As I look at the cable industry at least during the time I’ve been in it, we in the industry have been really good at understanding consumer needs and desires as they effect the industry that we operate in. And we’ve also been very good at understanding what’s possible in the world of technology, including many times technology that wasn’t necessarily invented for the way we happen to use it. And what we’ve been really good at is marrying those two things together – the consumer needs and technology – and coming up with products that make a lot of very common sense; they’re practical. So if you go way back to the beginning, we offered reception service. That was pretty simple. Then we offered more television. That was pretty simple too. From the day that HBO started in 1972, up until the mid-90s, essentially what we sold was those two things. And they were both very simple consumer propositions: reception where you didn’t get it off air, and more choices in television than you could get off air.
Then if you go into the mid-90s, really before the Internet was very well known – it was just academically – we were approached by people in the technology world who pointed out that our physical plant, which we had built for the television business, could offer high-speed access to the Internet. And then there was broadband. That also was a very simple consumer need: wanting fast Internet connections and big fat Internet connections, not slow, skinny ones. Again, a very simple proposition.
Then moving forward a little more to our voice offering; I think it’s easy to look at our voice offering that we launched and say, "Oh, it’s just a phone. Big deal." We really redefined the category. We said, "Why is there a distinction between local and long-distance calling?" And "Why do we charge per-minute for long distance?" So simple observation was: Consumers didn’t really see a difference between local and long distance – that wasn’t a regulatory artifact – and paying a flat rate for all distance was just a natural consumer thing. So that’s the product we launched. And that changes a lot of things in the voice business.
So in that context, what’s Enhanced TV? Enhanced TV is the next evolutionary step in television. It’s saying not only do people want more choice in television – more choices of channels – but they also want the ability to watch television at a time of their own choosing, rather than when somebody scheduled it in a linear network. That’s the consumer proposition of VOD and also the consumer proposition for Enhanced TV. The difference between Enhanced TV and VOD is important. VOD is very much like going to the library. Typically you can sort through a menu of things that you can then watch, very much like taking a book off a shelf. So that’s a certain experience. But the idea behind Enhanced TV is to work with the linear channels and to create a very different experience that’s based on the brand of that channel and the programming expertise of that channel. So it’s much more like, let’s say CNN, for example; it’s about having a news experience that’s all part of the CNN experience, but allows you to pick when you watch things as opposed to when the people in Atlanta decide you should watch them.
RG: So what’s the future of the linear schedule?
GB: Right now, if you look at the television business, most of the programming is made either by studios, like Warner Brothers, or by independent producers who may not be affiliated with a studio. Some programming, but not that much, is made directly by the networks. So the networks are in the middle. They basically gather an audience, finance programming production and sell advertising. Then distributors – which is what we are, we’re retailers – by selling these big packages, not only provide physical distribution, but we gather a big audience and a guaranteed revenue stream for the networks. We and satellite companies do that and broadcast stations. The economics of that whole sort of ecosystem work very nicely. And each of the three parts is very important. Obviously there are negotiations all the time and what have you. But it works well, and we have arguably the richest program offering, the U.S. television industry, of anywhere in the world. So it works very nicely.
There’s a lot of concern about what’s going to happen with the Internet. Is TV going to all move to the Internet? What does that mean? Because everyone’s trying to figure out what the Internet means, lots of people are just throwing programming at the Internet and charging forward in different ways, or not charging forward. That’s interesting experimentation, but nobody’s quite figured out where all that leads vis-a-vis the current economic model and whether there’s a different economic model that will result in an equally culturally rich programming offering as we have today. And the reality is the Internet is just another physical way of getting programming to people, and it’s actually not a particularly good way to distribute your television programming.
One of the things that concerns us is that by throwing individual programs on the Internet, these linear networks really risk disintermediating themselves. Some of them have a strong brand and some don’t. And to the extent that all the same programming that they have on their network is out on the Web, eventually somebody’s going to say, "Well what’s the function of the linear network to begin with?" Because they don’t produce most the programming, so whoever produces it can just put it up on the Web. On top of that, there are lots of questions about what the end model is going to be.
We think a more constructive way to approach this – rather than focusing on technology, which is what everybody seems to do – is to focus on the consumer and how do we best meet the consumer needs, and how do we build a successful business model around that. That’s really what Enhanced TV is all about. The current model works really well. It actually meets consumer needs and works pretty well for advertisers. Despite all the hoopla about Internet advertising, it’s still a relatively small percentage of the overall ad market.
So how do we build on that? The idea behind Enhanced TV is to take the linear channel brand, to build on the brand and to build on the ad platform and to make it more useful to consumers. What we have is a whole family of ideas we call Enhanced TV, things like Start Over and Catch Up and Quick Clips and Look Back, all of which would be programmed by the linear network, and you’d access it from our program guide. It lets consumers get the programming when they want it, as opposed to when it was scheduled. And we disable the fast-forward so there’s the ability to build a successful ad platform. And, by the way, we can change the ads for programs that have been around for awhile, because they get stale. I see it as the next very simple common sense, practical idea that the cable industry can bring to this marketplace that’s good for consumers, good for the programming and television industries and good for the cable industry, too.
RG: How to you reconcile the “consumer need” part of your vision with disabling fast-forward, which advertisers obviously like, but some consumers probably hate?
GB: First of all with Start Over, which is one of these programs we have in the market, consumers see it as something completely different than VOD. They see it as Start Over, and they absolutely love the convenience of it, and they don’t mind the commercials at all. I think one of the problems may be this perception that consumers object to commercials. And, by the way, I’ve been saying this for years, there is no real market research I’ve ever seen that says that people in large numbers object to commercials.
Part of the problem is that the first people who got DVRs, who by and large were early adopters, a lot of them are probably people like us who are very, very busy, so the notion that, "Hey, I can fast-forward through the commercials, I didn’t want to watch them in the first place," is very appealing. I’m not sure that’s what the whole mass market’s about. I think it’s more about watching programming when you want to than about getting rid of commercials.
RG: How has serving both a programming side at HBO and the cable operations at Time Warner Cable during your career shaped your perspective?
GB: Having worked for a programming network gives me a greater understanding of that part of the business. I’ve been very lucky in my career in that, early on, I worked in places, both cable operations and at HBO, where there was a great deal of change, a great deal of need to be entrepreneurial and make up things as we went along. And I think that entrepreneurial spirit really characterized this industry and still does today, even though we’re all much, much bigger, which makes it harder to do things, perhaps. This notion of understanding consumers and trying to come up with things that meet consumer needs, that’s what this business has been about. We’ve never been shy about inventing stuff as we go along, whether it’s as programmers or as operators. And I think we need to keep doing that. We need to not sit back and say, "Oh, it’s mature, and we’re just commodities now." There’s a lot more we can do.
RG: Any specific anecdotes or lessons learned from HBO days?
GB: In the late ’70s HBO was young and growing rapidly, and there were lots of strategic challenges, which in retrospect you’d say, "Oh, gee, that’s obvious," but it wasn’t obvious at the time. There was a great willingness, when we were confronted with a problem, to come up with a solution and try something. And if that didn’t work, then try something else until you found something that worked. And it amazed me several years later how all of that sort of experimentation had gotten locked into here’s how we do things. I think that’s a natural part of corporate evolution, as you get bigger and you hire more people who have to learn how you do it. But you need to keep that entrepreneurism and need to keep the flexibility as you go forward. Companies that don’t remain flexible get in trouble sometimes.
A lesson from the second time I worked at HBO in the mid-80s; HBO had stumbled a bit in the early ’80s, largely because it dismissed the advent of the VCR and the movie rental business that developed. And I think the lesson from that is that you need to take all changes in the marketplace seriously, and never dismiss anything.
RG: There are grumblings from Wall Street that the time has come for a complete spin-off of Time Warner Cable from the larger conglomerate. Any merit in that idea?
GB: I think the issue that you’re talking about is whether it’s appropriate to have corporations that are engaged in more than one line of business or not, and that question has been [debated] for a long time, since conglomerates were a big deal in the 1960s. And then after a while they weren’t. Things go in cycles, and perceptions of this go in cycles. So I think as much as anything else, when people question whether different lines of business should be in one company, they’re really saying, "Oh, the capital markets are very efficient. Let us decide what to invest in. Let’s not have multiple things in one company." On the other hand it’s natural as companies grow to move into adjacent spaces, which is how Time Warner got built. And I don’t really know that there’s a particular answer to that. I think investors will always question whether any company that’s not a pure play shouldn’t be a pure play. And when you’re a pure play, people question whether you shouldn’t get in some other line business.
RG: Care to share some of your most memorable career highlights?
GB: I think that there are two things. One is my decision to get into the business to begin with, which, like lots of decisions you make when you’re young, you don’t quite know why you make them. It probably would have been easier for me to be a banker or to go on Wall Street than to join the cable industry but, boy, am I glad I joined this industry. I think I was very lucky. I did it at the right time, as it turns out. It’s been quite a ride, a continuing ride. It’s been exciting being part of building a business, watching it change, being part of the important changes that have taken place. I also think the second thing is just the ability to meet just a lot of very interesting, entrepreneurial business people, many of whom are pictured in front of me [in my office] as being in the Cable Hall of Fame. This industry is a true American success story, with entrepreneurs who built the business, in some sense against all odds, because other industries didn’t necessarily want it to exist. You look at these pictures and say, "Boy there are some pretty amazing people on this list." So again, I’m delighted to be part of the group.
RG: Any key milestones you’re looking for in the years ahead?
GB: I think we’re going to keep doing what we’ve always done, which is sell the products we have today, which seem to be very popular with consumers. But I think we’ll keep coming up with new things. This is an amazing business. In the communities we’re doing business in, we’re doing business with 50%, 60%, 70% of the homes in the community. The services we’re offering are vital to people. That’s how they get television. That’s how they get Internet. That’s how they get voice, increasingly. We’re in peoples homes physically, with our installers, which is pretty intrusive. I can’t think of too many industries that have that degree of impact on consumers. And that makes it fun.
On Demand’s Visionary
INTERVIEW BY MICHAEL GREBB
VICE CHAIRMAN, OPENTV
Jim Chiddix must be feeling pretty good these days. Many of the innovations "Gentleman Jim" helped design years ago — such as those from Time Warner Cable’s Mystro project in Orlando — became the basis for industrywide video-on-demand applications. As he prepared for induction into the Cable Hall of Fame, Chiddix sat down with CableWorld to reflect on cable’s past, as well as where the industry is going.
MG: What does it mean to you to get in the Cable Hall of Fame?
Jim Chiddix: I’m delighted. It’s wonderful recognition. It’s recognition by folks who I have worked with throughout my career, and that makes it a great honor. So it’s a going to be a nice evening, and I’m really pleased to see the other inductees that night are an august group. And I’m very mindful of the previous inductees. It is really a very nice honor after working in the industry for many years and deriving a lot of satisfaction from it. Hopefully, it will be a fun evening with no long, boring speeches. I’m very mindful of that.
MG: We’ll keep our fingers crossed. Have you got any advice for some of the younger executives out there who would like to reach your level of success?
JC: First of all, whatever you accomplish — whatever I’ve accomplished — is accomplished through working very closely with others. I’ve been very fortunate to work with great teams of engineers at Time Warner in particular and later at OpenTV, and to have worked with wonderful peers and to have great bosses. It’s a big industry, and these are big enterprises. So teamwork and working well with others are absolutely critical.
MG: But it’s obviously a much different industry than when you were coming up through the ranks. It’s more consolidated. It’s more corporate. Does that make it easier or more difficult for those trying to make it today?
JC: Both. In the early days of cable, cable was really internationally strapped. There was a long period in which cable really couldn’t obtain financing from banks. It was regarded as a very risky, very capital intensive…very risky business. Some of the innovation came around creative ways to get financing. Some of the vendors provided financing. Jerrold was well known for that. Glenn Jones was innovative in putting together syndicates of dentists and others — private investors who would invest the capital necessary to build cable systems. People brought in insurance companies and what we might today call venture capital almost, to help finance cable. Beyond that, the financial rule in the cable industry was that cable had to maximize cash flow in order to finance construction and to fund acquisitions. So the companies that were really thrifty were the ones that really did the best. It’s a very different atmosphere than what you have today where cable is a very credible industry. Cash flow is still very important, and financial performance is still very important. But the industry is in a different phase of its evolution. It’s a much more mature industry and financially solid. It’s a very good part of the business cycle. That gives people more freedom to do certain things. On the other hand, the enterprises are so enormous that the amounts of money required are truly daunting. When the industry was more fragmented, almost every new idea got tried by somebody — even ideas that at least in hindsight were very foolish. It was kind of a healthy environment because you had so many relatively small companies and so many entrepreneurial individuals that people would try things out. It was a form of R&D. Try it and if it works, the rest of the industry will pay attention.
MG: Kind of like the early dot-com days.
JC: Exactly. Today, for Comcast or Time Warner to decide to raise a new technology is a very significant decision. It probably takes more time than it used to. But once the decision is made, the funding is there to follow through.
MG: Interestingly, you worked on Mystro at Time Warner, and now Glenn Britt — who is using a lot of that Mystro technology for Start Over and Look Back — is one of your fellow honorees at the Cable Hall of Fame. It must be interesting to see all the things you worked on years ago now finally getting out there to consumers. Did you expect to take as long as it has?
JC: In the fullness of time, it becomes apparent early that technology can be useful. If you wait around for a while, it indeed becomes useful. In the first phase, you’re ahead of your time. Then some time passes, and pretty soon it’s the right time. On video on demand, we were very early. We had 4,000 customers in Orlando watching video on demand in 1994. This was before there were any digital set-top boxes out there. These were prototypes we cobbled together with Silicon Graphics and Scientific Atlanta. We had big, expensive servers from Silicon Graphics. It was an expensive system, but it was a prototype system. It was meant to represent where portable technology was going to be a few years hence — and it worked. As far as customers were concerned in Orlando, they were just flicking buttons on their remote and watching movies on demand and playing games and doing other things…they were shielded from the fact that it was cutting-edge technology — aside from the fact that the boxes were enormous.
MG: But did you expect it to take this long?
JC: I never expected it to take as long as it did. Once things are obvious, there’s a natural tendency to believe that things will happen quickly. But there’s a lot of moving parts. To change the infrastructure takes a long time. Hybrid fiber coax we did in the lab in 1987. And then by 1989 or so, I think we had it out in the field in Florida, and it worked extremely well. In 1990 or ’91, we built a 1 gigahertz fiber-coax system in Queens, N.Y. In probably 1992, we upgraded Rochester with HFC. But it took another decade before all the plant was done in major cities across the industry. It’s a lot of plant. It was many billions of dollars in investment, a lot of people in trucks, a lot of time, even though from the very beginning it really made sense. But it illustrates the fact that it does take time.
MG: What about interactivity and on demand? You’ve been there since the beginning. Where do see it going from here?
JC: I think things are certainly moving toward everything on demand. Local DVRs in the set-top box are a stop along that path. They allow a certain kind of control. Mystro was an attempt to kind of leapfrog and explore the future, explore where technology could take us and hopefully to speed up the arrival of that technology. Mystro was a matter of time-shifting everything in a central server without having to do things in the set-top box.
MG: It was essentially the first network DVR.
JC: Start Over and Look Back are two features of network DVR. It’s structured a little bit differently than our first trials — as we recognize some of the rights issues. But cable is clearly moving to more and more on demand. And the telcos — as they move into switched services — are going to be offering more and more on demand as well. That will be creating the competitive impetus. And along the way, the rights holders are going to figure out how to get paid for all of this. And the advertisers are going to figure out how to harness this for advertising. There’s a lot yet to come. I think one of cable’s strengths is its ability to move away from storage in the set-top box toward storage in the network. That’s not an option for satellite. So I think there’s some inevitability to cable taking advantage of the fact that it can offer more features by offering these things through the network and differentiate themselves from at least some of its competitors.
MG: The multi-platform discussion reminds me of the interactivity/on-demand debate from 10 years ago. It’s the obsession of the moment. Will it take as long to become reality or are things on a faster pace now?
JC: It’s really hard to predict what form the technology will take, how long it take that to filter through big changes in the infrastructure. There’s an old saying that technology often takes longer than you think it’s going to before it arrives. But when it arrives, it’s often more powerful than you anticipated. It changes things more than you thought it would. When we first started thinking about video on demand, we were really thinking about delivering movies as an alternative to the video rental model. Video on demand has turned out to be much more than that. It’s more content than just movies. And Start Over and Look Back have demonstrated other ways to use the technology other than just movies on demand. There often are unanticipated applications for technology. The cable industry has been pretty good at embracing new technologies in innovative ways, and I don’t see that slowing down.
MG: Let’s switch gears. You’re now vice chairman at not one but two companies—Vyyo and OpenTV. Our pal Ted Turner famously derided the role of vice chairman when he held that position at Time Warner. Are you liking it any better than Ted did?
JC: Well, I think Ted showed that vice chairman can mean whatever you want it to mean. In the case of both OpenTV and Vyyo, I’m taking a pretty active role. It’s not day to day, but with strategy and helping the company with, in some cases, customer relationships. But plotting strategy is part of it in both places. I’m more than just on the board of those two companies. I’m also on the board of another company called Symmetricom, which is a very interesting San Jose-based company that makes precision timing equipment for telecommunications and scientific purposes.
MG: Will that help with the on-time guarantee for cable?
JC: (Laughs) There we go. Among other things, they make atomic clocks for the National Bureau of Standards — so I make sure not to be late for those board meetings.
MG: Of course, OpenTV has an opening in the CEO position now. You interested in going back into your old role?
JC: No. I’ll continue to help out in the way I am today.
MG: Will you help out in the CEO search?
JC: Sure. But I served as CEO there for three years, and I think it’s best if someone comes in to take that job.
MG: OK. Last question. You recently wrote a book about building the Oahu railway in Hawaii. So what’s harder, building a railway or building a cable system?
JC: (Laughs) Well, when I wrote the book about building the railroad on the island of Oahu, I was mindful of the parallels. This was a network of a sort. It was the vision of an entrepreneur. He had to raise capital. He had to get access to rights of way and overseas construction and then operate the business. The guy who did that in that case was named Benjamin Dillingham. He really mortgaged everything he had in order to pursue his vision, and he eventually became wealthy. In the process, he enabled a lot of other businesses on the island. And for a number of decades, the railroad he built touched every aspect of day-to-day life on that island. There are lots of parallels between that and building cable — especially for me, since I had been involved in building a fair bit of the cable infrastructure on that same island. In the early days, it was a big financial struggle, and it eventually paid off well.
Giving Back Is Paramount
INTERVIEW BY PAUL S. MAXWELL
DOUGLAS H. DITTRICK
PRESIDENT/CEO, DOUGLAS COMMUNICATIONS CORP.
These days the former NCTA chairman (’79-’81) is all about eleemosynary endeavors, lots and lots of them. Our columnist and Hall of Famer Paul Maxwell, who’s known Doug Dittrick since the ’70s, calls him "one of the most solid of the operational executives as cable grew out of its small-town beginnings and began to develop as a major telecommunications player."
PM: You seem to be more active in doing good these days than following cable.
Douglas Dittrick: Well, I still read CableWorld.
PM: What’s your perspective on the business today?
DD: It’s certainly more corporate than when I was running systems for others or for ourselves. Everything is bigger. And the personalities are certainly different.
PM: In what way?
DD: I remember when I was chairman of NCTA, going to the West Virginia State Association meeting in 1980. Ted Turner was there just before he turned on CNN that June. There’s nobody like him active in cable today. Well, there’s just nobody like him.
PM: So you’re away from cable these days.
A: And staying out of trouble. But I see some of the old guys a few times a year. I still play golf with Bob Hughes and [former NCTA chairman] Jack Crosby and others. And, I’m having lunch with [early C-SPAN funder] Bob Rosencrans this week.
PM: There’d be no C-SPAN without Bob!
DD: One of the great straight arrows and pioneers in this business. We wouldn’t have had HBO on the satellite without him, much less USA and lots of early sports.
PM: You seem to have found a second career helping people, and being involved in what Bill Daniels called giving back.
DD: I miss Bill. He taught a lot of us a major life lesson.
PM: So what are you up to?
DD: I’ve been involved with the Boy Scouts of America, serving on the national board as president of the Northeast region and more. I quit before I could get my Eagle status and my dad was disappointed. So, he’d be proud of me now. Earlier this year, I was in the U.K. for the World Scout Jamboree and ran into another old cable guy. Remember Virgil Reed of Time Warner Ohio? [See a photo of Reed and Dittrick below.]
PM: What else takes up your time?
DD: The Red Cross — for six years I was a member of the American Red Cross board of governors. Ohio Wesleyan, where I went to school — I was president of the alumni association and then served on the board of trustees and was chairman of the board for four years. But today, I’m chairman of the board of Theo’s Work, an orphanage in Les Cayes, Haiti, with some 550 boys and schools for upward of 1,400 youths. Haiti is horrible and desolate. I’ve been down there 10 times lately. There’s total poverty, open sewers, 75% illiteracy. We teach the boys to read and write and feed them three meals a day. It’s run by Father Mark, a Catholic priest [see: theoswork.org].
PM: Anything to say to your cable descendents?
DD: Let’s do more; we’ve all been lucky to get into this business.
Douglas Dittrick with Virgil Reed at the World Scout Jamboree.
From Nickelodeon to Nightline
INTERVIEW BY ROB GARRETSON AND SETH ARENSTEIN
Arguably the most powerful woman in entertainment, Anne Sweeney got her start as a page for the ABC network in 1978. She has since spent 12 years at Nickelodeon/Nick at Nite, three years as chairman and CEO of FX Networks Inc., where she presided over the most successful basic cable launch in history, before joining Disney in 1996 as president of Disney Channel and rising to her current post in 2004, where she’s responsible for Disney’s entertainment and news television properties globally.
CO-CHAIR, DISNEY MEDIA NETWORKS PRESIDENT, DISNEY-ABC TELEVISION GROUP
SA: Did you ever think that you’d be inducted into the Cable Hall of Fame?
Anne Sweeney: It’s so funny. When [you asked], I flashed back on my very early days in cable, obviously on the programming side. And to think that we have a Hall of Fame, to me, is a wonderful accomplishment for this industry. I remembered my early days at Nickelodeon, when we were in 3 million homes, a joint venture between Warner Communications and American Express … [laughs] and watching many, many programming services start up and fail months later. I take great joy in being inducted into the Cable Hall of Fame, because it means that as an industry, not only did we survive, but we excelled. And we provided services and content and shows and technology to people that have truly enhanced people’s experience of television.
SA: Anne, is there anybody in the class that it’s particularly fun to be going into the Hall with?
AS: Yes, there are several people. It’s so much fun to be going in with Barbara York, who I have such tremendous respect for. Glenn Britt; I feel like we’ve been together every single step of the way in all of the business that we’ve done all through the years. Bob Wright is one of my not only professional, but personal, heroes. When I look at the work that he and his wife Suzanne have done with Autism Speaks, I have tremendous admiration. And the other two gentlemen, Jim and Doug, I know through reputation. Certainly they have contributed a tremendous amount to the industry.
RG: You mentioned Barbara, and you’re probably tired of answering questions like this – having been named to every list of most powerful women in entertainment there is – but do you think there should be more women in the Hall?
AS: I do, and I’m curious as to why there aren’t more, because I know so many women who have contributed to the cable industry, both on the technical side and the programming side, who really should be recognized and should be in the Hall of Fame for all of their contributions and accomplishments.
RG: Any nominations?
AS: The first person that comes to my mind is Amy Banse from Comcast. Abbe Ravin from A&E and History Channel. These are two women who jump to mind as tremendous contributors. When you look at Abbe’s 20-plus-year history at A&E Television Networks. She was the person who launched History Channel, one of the most successful channels we’ve seen in cable television history. And I look at Amy’s great work at Comcast over a number of years and the many negotiations we’ve been in with them. And now Amy is firmly in the digital space and working and talking to us on almost a daily basis on how we can work together in the future on all of these new platforms. Those are only two of about 20 women I could reel off.
RG: You’ve made some recent announcements around your ABC.com Player that seemed to break some new ground. Can you give us your vision for new platforms and how they dovetail with cable and other traditional distribution channels?
AS: The vision is informed by the consumer. And before we launched DisneyChannel.com or ABC.com we knew that avid views of our television shows were only seeing six to eight episodes per year. We produce 23 or 24 episodes a year. We knew we had fans who loved our shows, and we also knew that they had lives and other things to do that were preventing them from showing up at 9 on the Thursday night for Grey’s Anatomy or showing up for High School Musical. So one of the things we did when we launched the ABC.com Player was – and the same thing for Disney Channel Player, which has the added benefit of streaming in six different languages – what we were trying to do with both of these players was to make it easier for people to catch up on episodes that they missed or easier for new viewers who had heard about our shows to sample them. And we’ve continued to do research, both through the test phase and [beyond], and we did several kinds of research. Of course we had server data we could look at. We did exit interviews. And we also did focus groups. We continued to research throughout the entire year, and we found out that people came to the player to catch episodes that they missed. That was the primary reason. And we also found out that there were high levels of satisfaction in the way we presented our programming. We took the player to HD, which further enhanced the experience, and it also helped people go back to the television network. Any research that we’ve seen so far [inaudible] a replacement for the television network. This was considered by our viewers to be an additive experience.
SA: Is Nielsen dead, since so many people can watch your shows on so many varieties of platforms?
AS: I think Nielsen fully recognizes the need to measure multiple platforms, and I understand they’re in the process of both creating software and reviewing software [to do that]. It’s interesting to me when you look – there was so much written in the last year about ratings, live plus same day versus live plus seven day – and again it plays into the fact that people want to see their favorite shows. They don’t want to miss them. And on the broadcasting and the ad-supported cable side – which would be our ABC Family and our SOAPnet businesses and Toon Disney – as well as ABC, when you look at the numbers of live plus same day meaning the measurement taken, you watch it when it’s on or you watch it within that period of time, versus watching it a few days later, where we ended up at the upfront, which was live plus 3, which was measuring the commercials but allowing us to measure over live plus three days, and then taking out the live plus seven day. And interesting example of the discrepancy is really High School Musical 2, which as you know aired on Aug. 17. And when the measurement came in for live plus same day, we had 17.2 million viewers. When the live-plus-seven measurement came in, which meant all all of the people who had recorded it, the number jumped to 18.6 million. It’s a long-winded way of telling you that technology has changed the way people view [programming], and Nielsen is in the process of changing the way these things are measured. And in ad-supported business, I think we’ve made a tremendous amount of progress with our advertisers, and they are looking at this live plus C3 rating for us this year, which recognizes the fact that not everyone sees it the moment that it’s on.
SA: Do you think 10 to 15 years from now will there still be linear channels?
AS: The honest answer is, no one knows. But I do believe, as I look at our collection of services, we really look at all of these platforms as an ecosystem. While I do believe there will be channels and networks out there, we will need to be even more prepared [to deliver] an on-demand experience that we’ve seen viewers asking for over the last 12 to 18 months.
SA: Some systems I believe in the New York area were able to see HSM2 before it debuted on the linear channel.
AS: That was really thanks to the foresight of Cablevision. And in ’04, we did a Disney Channel on-demand deal with them, a Disney Channal@VOD deal, and gave them a certain amount of Playhouse Disney programming, series programming and Disney Channel original movies. And they have been great to work with, very experimental, to the point where we actually premiered High School Musical, the first one, in advance of it airing on Disney Channel. It was one of the things we were curious about, if you could provide this days in advance, was this something that would be good for the franchise and good for their business. It turns out the answer was yes, not just for High School Musical 1, but for High School Musical 2. Giving people the option to get this programming in advance. That is something that is unique to Disney Channel but I think the Cablevision people would tell you as well that it was successful.
RG: What’s your sense for the role of wireless and devices like the iPod and iPhone? How much impact to you see those technologies having on the way your audiences consume programming?
AS: I went to the Consumer Electronics Show this year in Vegas, and my big takeaway was that it’s all about the big screen. It’s all about the home theater. It’s all about making that experience more fun and a higher quality than we’ve enjoyed in the past. As for the new devices, I really think as we look at them, we’re very concerned first of all with do they protect our content in the way we believe it should be protected from piracy. Are these new devices and are these companies just using our content to market their devices, or are they getting behind their devices and providing a good – a better than good – consumer experience? The third thing is the brand they represent. Do they have a relationship with the consumer that we can trust and that we want to be a part of. I think a great example of this is the video iPod deal we did two years ago. We looked at ourselves first, all of of happy with our iPods. And I think at the time the Nano had just come out, and we were all transitioning from the Mini to the Nano. And then the video iPod appeared. And the quality of the experience, combined with the strength of the iPod and the Apple brand were certainly important components in deciding to do that deal. Many opportunities have come to us since then, and we really look very carefully to make sure these companies meet those criteria. You’ll see our product on mobile phones. We have a deal with Verizon and others, on mobile phones and a variety of platforms around the world. Remember, we’re a global business. Again, it will be the quality of the devices that come out and all of their success and our content will really be determined by the consumers.
SA: What’s going on with VOD trial with Cox in which the viewers can’t fast- forward through commercials?
AS: Cox has disabled the fast-forward, and we have a number of shows that are going into that test this fall, actually I think within the next couple of days.
SA: What do you hope to see there?
AS: In our conversations with Pat Esser and Bob Wilson and others at Cox, they really did understand what we face, certainly on the ABC side, as a single revenue business, and knew that skipping over ads wasn’t good for our relationships with our advertisers or for our revenue stream. So they were able to figure out a way to disable the fast-forward. So we’re working with them on this test, which, as I said, starts in a matter of days, on some our very popular ABC programming. We obviously waited until fall, when all of the scripted series were fresh and new and back on the air. And we’ll see how it goes.
SA: Speaking of your shows, how do you top High School Musical 2?
AS: You know what? I think Rich Ross and the folks at Disney Channel, Gary Marsh, are already on it. It’s interesting. Someone asked me once about the personality of my group, and I said, "My biggest problem is getting people to slow down." And High School Musical 2 and High School Musical 1 set a whole new creative bar at Disney Channel. And all they want to do is jump over it. I look at the success that they’ve had with Hannah Montana, I’m so excited about their new animated series, Phineas and Ferb, coming out and the great growth at Playhouse Disney. The personality of that group is that they’re just built to top themselves.
SA: Another success story in your portfolio is ABC Family, but is that still the right name for that channel?
AS: I believe it is the right name for that channel, and I think that Paul Lee has figured it out. He looked long and hard at the positioning of the channel and came to believe, through research, that there were a group who are now called millennials – kind of the 14 to 24, maybe the new general measurement is now 18 to 24 – but they’re people who have grown up with multiple technologies. And we’ve studied them very carefully for the last three years. And they’re different. They’re certainly different than the baby boomers and they’re different from the Disney Channel kids that we see growing up right now. Their idea of family is very big and broad. Their friends, folks in their dormitories, their families. They’re extremely close to their families. And we have a lot of interesting research on them. Paul really took a hard look at them, and then looked at his development plate, and if look at the success he’s had with Kyle XY and with Greek, they have a very strong family element. Kyle XY was that science experiment that was adopted by that family, and you see the family. You see that larger idea of community play through that entire series. Greek – Greek life on campus, sororities and fraternities. It really captivated kids this summer. And it was also – I remember looking at the iTunes Store and seeing that one week this summer I think we — whether it was music or singles or albums or television shows – it was dominated by our company. And I should also mention Lincoln Heights. It premiered to huge numbers. And that’s more of a look at a traditional family, but living in a community, which is another kind of family. So Paul’s tag line, a new kind of family, really does resonate with the viewing community that he’s after with that demo.
SA: As you enter the Hall of Fame, any particular career highlights stand out?
AS: I’ve always taken such great joy in watching the growth and the many successes in our industry, really across every company. I remember … I love what History Channel has done. I’ve loved the successes at Lifetime. I think the transformation of Disney Channel from a pay business to a basic business that is so important to kids and families, not just in the U.S. but around the world, is definitely at the top of my list. The launch of FX at a really tough time in the cable industry, with retransmission consent. And the fact that we were so experimental and really launched the careers of such tremendous talent. Everyone from Tom Bergeron, Jeff Probst, who is Survivor, and Phil Keoghan, who is Amazing Race. Looking back it just has been really thrilling. To be at Nichelodeon when we launched animation, launching Rugrats and Ren & Stimpy and Doug. That was a true highlight. The relaunch of ABC Family and the success they’re enjoying now. The launch of Toon Disney and SOAPnet. I could go on for hours.
Retired But Not Retiring
INTERVIEW BY ROB GARRETSON
VICE CHAIRMAN, EXECUTIVE OFFICER, GE
FORMER CHAIRMAN & CEO, NBC UNIVERSAL
The only member of the Cable Hall of Fame to have been depicted in an HBO Original Movie, Bob Wright’s cable roots go back to his days running Cox in the early 1980s. Those formative years, he says, laid the foundation for his rise to the top at NBC Universal.
RG: How does it feel to be inducted into the Cable Hall of Fame?
Bob Wright: Well, it feels wonderful. I have so much of my career centered on my time spent in the cable world and what I was able to accomplish and what I learned during that period of time. So it’s really a major part of my business career. It began 27 years ago, when I left GE to become president of Cox Cable. It was back in 1979, when I basically nominated myself – to see if I could become the president of Cox. And I ended up becoming the president of Cox Cable, and I went to Atlanta on Jan. 2, 1980. That began one of the most exciting periods of my entire career, as I got to know the business and traveled around the country doing franchising, and became a member of the NCTA board, and met all kinds of wonderful people, exciting people. I was really there at the beginning of what I’ll call the second generation of cable, which was cable after the satellite went up. That was the big explosion. I was right there that whole time period. That was the beginning of ESPN. USA was just formed; all the arts and entertainment channels were just coming together, and we were all part of that, invested in it and so forth. So really a major part of my business career began at that time.
RG: Any particular lessons learned during those formative years in cable that helped in your later years as a programming and broadcasting executive?
BW: Well, they’re all inter-tangled and intertwined. The cable portion was really exciting because it gave me a chance to really preview communications [technologies] that Americans would be dealing with 27 years later. And I had first-row seat. I was in it. We were hiring engineers. We were doing plans for interactive cable, trying to quickly copy the Qube interactive program that Warner Communications had out there. So the whole technology of communicating with people within the at-home television experience, which has now gone through another two generations, that was the exciting part of it. It was the foundation for my part of the business. It took place in those first four years when I was down in Atlanta. Then when I came back into broadcasting, we had to get into the cable business. That was my first priority. I partnered up with Chuck Dolan, actually, who I had partnered with before when I was down in Atlanta. So being involved in the programming end of it, as well as the actual cable management and operations and franchising, and cable construction, and all of that was all part of that background. And it was critical for my ability to feel comfortable in a business dealing with broadcasters and cable operators and satellite [providers]. And we were very much involved with what is DirecTV today, with Rupert Murdoch, Chuck Dolan and Hughes in the late ’80s. And that was another very exciting period where we were dealing with satellite and its impact on cable and communications and people at home. It’s been a wonderful connection, especially with a lot of the people who were the founders of today’s businesses.
RG: Well, you know how we love dropping those big names in the magazine.
BW: [Laughs] Well, I was with Ted Turner and John Malone, and many people like that, some of whom have passed away now. Ralph Roberts was there in the very beginning while Brian was still in school. Many of the real pioneers were around at that time.
RG: Do you see all the new technologies, broadband distribution, video iPods, DVRs, etc., changing the way broadcasters reach and develop audiences?
BW: It’s a tougher game for broadcasters because you’ve got a model that only has advertising as a support. Whereas with cable you’ve got fee income plus advertising support, and that gives you a much sounder business plan. And it allows you to reach much smaller audiences, because you do have fee income in addition to advertising. So the broadcasters have a harder issue going forward because of that lack of that second stream of revenue. You’re clearly going to have continued fractionalization of viewership. Some of that is in the control of the cable operator, because of the tremendous capacity that the digital systems allow the operator to have, which can put out several hundred channels of digital programming.
Hopefully in that process broadcasters can continue to figure out how to attract larger audiences than the very nichy services are designed to handle. And you probably will have – it's gravitating to nichier and nichier services, but some of them are getting broad themselves – a renaissance of channels that attract a broader audience, just because people need a community connection. Everybody can’t be watching the Golf Channel and ESPN. You’re just going to be so narrow. In the meantime, though, the cable operators have a great position there because they have all of the channel capacity and they have broadband, which certainly accommodates the Internet as well as existing programming. They also have telephony, based on the same foundation, and that’s just an incredibly attractive package of services to people’s homes and commercial locations as well. I think that’s a very bright future.
Sure, you’re going to have competition from the old Bell companies, AT&T and Verizon, but it’s a big world out there. And in many cases, they’re going to be the second service. So it’s harder. The ability to have on your television and Internet activity simultaneous with traditional types of programming and video on demand and particular pay-per-view kinds of things is all going to happen, and it’s happening now. The televisions are able to do it. The connection to the home will be made, and it will be extremely exciting. You’ll be battling back and forth, in some cases you won’t even notice that you’re going from the Internet to other scripted programming.
RG: How about the future of the linear programming schedule versus VOD, and DVRs and other ways for viewers to watch what they want, when they want it?
BW: I think it’s got a lot longer life than people might assume, because it provides a lot of benefit to the viewer. You know what’s coming. You don’t have to be constantly worried about searching for things. Searching for things that you’re interested in at any given point in time is fine, but it’s nice to have a fall-back position to know that there are programs coming up on a routine basis that you can actually see in the guide to tell you where they are, when they’re coming. And programmers have to be in tune to having flow with their programs. But I think that will be around for a long time. They will coexist compatibly.
RG: What about disabling fast-forward to make ads skip-proof?
BW: That’s going to be a problem today for everybody, because cable is generating significant advertising revenue itself. So as a cable operator, you want to be very careful that you’re not diminishing your own advertising revenue in this process. So there’s a lot of self-interest on the part of the programmers and the distributors to allow the advertising to be seen, or otherwise you’re going to lose the principal source of revenue you have. That’s a big issue. I think you’ll constantly see more advertising going into shows, as opposed to being all put together in big long blocks between pieces of programming.
RG: What does the future hold for the relationship between cable operators and the programming networks?
BW: The tension is always there. There’s a buyer and seller relationship there. The two are really bound together. The programming is what makes people feel comfortable in paying for the service. If the programming is too expensive to the cable operator, then they have to decide whether it’s worthwhile to continue, but the reality of it is they’re providing a service to the viewers, and that service by definition means that you have access to a very big menu, which you elect to choose from. But the choice you make on Tuesday may not be the same choice that you make on Monday and Thursday and Friday, so that’s why you need the big menu. It’s sort of like a Greek diner. They have 100 things on the menu, but you like to go there because they have 100 things on the menu. I think the relationship is a pretty good one and will continue to be.
At various points the cable operators have became programmers, and most programmers did not become cable operators. Some people tried to do that. You still have Time Warner as an example today, but they are probably going to split off those two entities. They are different businesses. There’s no question that they’re different businesses. They have different financial models. They couldn’t be more different. There’s not a lot of reason for them to have to be together...Comcast goes back and forth between wanting to have a lot of ownership in programming and then not, but most of their capital is tied up in distribution. I think they’ll coexist rather well.
But they’ll always be a bit of concern, because an individual programmer looks like a peanut compared to a large cable operator, so there’s always going to be that issue of fear of being dissed, if you will. You can’t really get around it. It’s no different than a person who writes scripts who comes to NBC. They feel like they’re a peanut. They don’t have any power. They’re not going to be respected and so forth, and you have to work very hard to offset that kind of a feeling.
RG: In the 1996 HBO movie, The Late Shift, about the late night wars to sign Leno and Letterman after Johnny Carson retired, what did you think of Lawrence Pressman’s portrayal of you?
BW: [Laughs] I thought it was funny. Robert Redford would have been my preference, but you can’t pick that, though. It doesn’t work that way. It was not something I was begging for, but I certainly can live through it.
RG: Reasonably accurate portrayal of events?
BW: Actually, it wasn’t really. That was a difficult situation because I was trying not to lose either one. And my goal was to end up having Jay Leno and Letterman still staying at NBC, and I was not able to pull that off. It was one of those situations that I regretted. We made the right decision. It was helped because the requirements for Letterman to stay were really so enormous, they were beyond anything that we wanted to commit to, so it made the choice a little easier.
RG: You’ve touched on some of your career highlights, but do you want reflect on some of your fondest memories?
BW: The early days were very exciting. I don’t think it’s very well known that I was involved with ESPN and Cox. We were very, very active working with ABC to own a piece of ESPN when it was owned by Getty. We elected not to go forward, because it was going to lose a lot of money and we were going to be a minority owner. But we spent a lot of time on that. I spent a lot of time with the Dolans' various properties, which at one point included Playboy, in addition to American Movie Classics and Bravo. We were in partnership there, and Dolan was involved in the creation of CNBC. He subsequently dropped out of that, but we were there together on that one. We were together on the formation of Sports Channel America, which is now Fox Sports. And that was a big undertaking, and Dolan was the principal one that was on that side of it. That was a huge undertaking, and he eventually brought other people like Malone into that. But that was a major, major event. The creation of MSNBC, which was really America’s Talking with Roger Ailes, when we had him here. And that became MSNBC, and Ailes went on to create Fox News from the background [he gained at] America’s Talking. That was pretty exciting.
The acquisitions we’ve done. The programming acquisitions were very exciting. Bravo was one I got back, after being involved with it 27 years ago. And that’s proved to be very important. And USA and Sci Fi and that whole organization was a wonderful acquisition, and I was involved with Kay Koplovitz and that organization in 1980. That was before Sci Fi, but Kay was the president of USA at the time. So all those early days with the formation of the programming that you see today. We were never owners or investors in HBO, but we were there when HBO was becoming very strong and popular in the early ’80s. Watching all that happen was exciting. There’s that part of me that remembers all that sort of thing and every one of those services. And those services that are on today, I was there at their birth.
We had an opportunity to purchase MTV Networks, which at time was MTV, Nichelodeon and Showtime, and that was something I could have done. I was very early when I came back to NBC. We were just a little gun-shy as to whether we wanted to be in that business – this is GE – and didn’t do it right at that point in time. It would have been a great acquisition. We could have bought that whole thing, before Sumner [Redstone] even came along. But all those were just terrific. The creation of DirecTV was something we were all involved in as well. Those are memorable moments.
RG: A lot has been written about the diagnosis of your grandson four years ago and the subsequent creation of your foundation, Autism Speaks, so let’s talk about what your objectives are for the future.
BW: Our initial objective was to create awareness, and I think we’ve done very well with that. We have a big organization doing this. We now have 140 full-time employees. We operate pretty much across the country – in some places less than others – but certainly in 40-plus states. The second part of it is to fund active research, across the whole gamut from genetics to biomedical research, and trying to bring more research people to the forefront by providing them with grants, both pilot grants and then more mature grants. And that seems to be under way pretty well. The newest part of it is family services, which is a part of Autism Speaks where we are seeking to make life easier for people who have autistic people in their family and provide information. It’s highly Web oriented for everything possible about autism that you can get to. And also we’re going to provide grants the beginning of next year. We’re actually soliciting them now, to organizations, based on their ability to provide services within a community, to help them do that, whether they be teaching services, economic assistance services, training, diagnostic types of services, clinical in nature. We’re going to make a big effort in that world.
We have some very good news coming out of the cell biology field, genetics, that isn’t created by Autism Speaks, but we’ll be beneficiaries, as are other diseases and conditions, because the ability to scan the human genome is now economically practical. A few years ago, Jim Watson, the chairman emeritus of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories, America’s most recognized geneticist and Nobel Prize winner, had his own genome scanned, and it cost $100,000. I think you’ll be able to do that for a couple thousand dollars within a couple years. That means you and I can get matched against each other, and we can see what our differences are. Now we’re going to have plenty of differences but most of them aren’t going to matter. But if I have a disease and you don’t, we’re going to try to find out the differences that exist, that might be relevant to that disease. And that starts to really open up doors. It would take years [now] to develop that kind of information. So now we can do that with small samples of people and find out what is the difference between an autistic child and a normal child in terms of their genetic structure. We do that with 50 kids, 100 kids or 1,000.
The second piece is – and this is science where computer power is a big part of it – where scientists now can delete a gene, basically eliminate a gene that’s thought to be a cause of a major medical issue or reinstruct it, which is really exciting. In other words, to basically get a gene to do something correctly that it’s doing incorrectly. And you couple that with being able to find genes and identify them and their differences, because of genetics – this is very exciting. This is probably the most exciting thing I see. And hopefully within a few years, we will have a much better view of autism and its origins in the embryo; it’s origins in terms of families that have a direct genetic connection and families who don’t. People don’t realize that there are 200 forms of cancer, and many of them have environmental triggers, like lung cancer and many forms of melanoma from sun exposure and things like that. We’re going to learn that about autism, but it’s going to take us a little bit more time. So I hope I’m going to be active in this Autism Speaks for a long time, but I’m also confident that we’re going to have a successful organization that’s going to be around long after I am gone.
Autism is the most prevalent serious childhood developmental disorder in the nation. It affects one in 150 children and one in 94 boys. That is greater than the most commonly thought of childhood conditions. It’s greater than the combined number for juvenile diabetes, juvenile cancers, MS and cystic fibrosis. It’s greater than all those combined.
There’s No Business Like Show Business
INTERVIEW BY SETH ARENSTEIN
A prize to anyone who can recall a time when Barbara York didn’t greet them with a smile, or seem completely in control. And that’s while helming cable’s trade show for 26 years. York speculates on the show’s future and muses at standing with cable’s elite.
SA: Let’s talk about the Hall. You’re a veteran, a Cable Pioneer. How did you react when you got the phone call that you were to be inducted into the Hall?
Barbara York: I passed out. [Laughter]. It was the last thing I expected. I always thought the Hall was for founders of the industry. Those who really risked capital and career and built an industry that’s truly amazing. I always admired [The Hall]. Way back when [the induction] used to be during the NCTA show. And when they built The Cable Center in Denver I was part of the group that was trying to decide whether to move [the dinner] from The Pioneers’ dinner to a separate event in Denver. So, I always knew the purpose [of the Hall], and its objective and thought it was the right thing to do and an important thing, but I never thought I’d be there [laughter].
SA: Will you talk about that in your speech?
BY: I don’t know yet, I haven’t written it, but it’s a point I’ve been playing with. I will mostly be thanking everyone I’ve worked with during the 26 years. I’ve worked with all these guys, they were all my chairmen in one form or another, convention chair of NCTA chair, or one of the other committee chairs. So, I feel I like know most of them. You know I came on the scene forever and ever ago.
SA: Anybody in your induction class you know especially well and are happy to go in with?
BY: Doug Dittrick was the chairman of NCTA just before I joined [NCTA] and was an icon of the industry then, so [going in with him] blows my mind.
Bob Wright is the other extreme. He was president of Cox while I was at NCTA and went on to an incredible career at NBC. So why I am in the same league as Bob Wright [laughter] is still freaking me out [laughter].
And Glenn [Britt] has been my chairman and has done a ton of things at NCTA, not just as president of Time Warner Cable but as he went up the ranks at Time Warner Cable. He’s someone I worked for and never thought I’d stand with.
Jim Chiddix I’ve know since way back when. We’d stand on the sidelines and talk when [the mid-1990s Lightwave full-service interactive network in] Orlando was being put in place and I’d try to fathom interactivity. And then way back in the 1980s, when we did Cable Town at the show in New Orleans, Jim was like my go-to person on how to put this together and what I needed to show. I remember I dragged him out of a meeting because I had a bunch of members of congress sitting there and I told him, "Jim, you have to explain all this to them because I can’t!" [laughter].
Anne Sweeney I knew at Oxygen and then when I was working on the CableACE Awards when she was at ABC-Disney, she was on the board of advisers for that.
So it’s everyone I’ve known and worked for, that’s what so mind-blowing.
SA: Some would say what you do is mind-blowing, putting together the Cable Show.
BY: [Laughter] It’s a very different kind of mind-blowing though, because it’s an enormous amount of work, enormous amount of detail, enormous amount of gentle treading.
SA: What do you mean by gentle treading?
BY: There are so many expectations from the show. Everyone who comes and every company that comes expects something a little different, something special. Trying to have the show please everyone is the tough part. Trying to meet these expectations, have everyone go away feeling that at least they got something of what they came in for.
SA: Let’s talk nuts and bolts. When do you start planning a show?
BY: The contract work gets done very much in advance. So the ’08 contract was done when we had to move the show from New Orleans in ’06 to Atlanta. So at that point we committed to come back [to New Orleans].
The ideal situation is to be committed five, even 10 years in advance. But the cable industry has always been one that floats a bit on the edgy side. So at this point we are two years committed. New Orleans for ’08 and D.C. for ’09. I have verbal commitments through ’12, but without contracts. I’m now on the risky side of life and should sign contracts soon, and we will.
SA: What’s the toughest part of show planning?
BY: Anticipating what the industry wants years ahead.
SA: How do you do that?
BY: Talking to people — talking, talking, talking. What they want, what they’d like to see. The industry has its favorite cities and those that don’t meet its needs because of access or services or amenities. Hotels are a big thing, what kind of hotel package we can negotiate. We have everything from Four Seasons and Ritz-Carlton people to people who need Hampton Courts by Marriott because they’re there for two weeks building a bloody booth. And our technology needs are high — for a show we are one of the highest. We need heavy-duty technology from the local operators. We need very good electrical services and from the unions we need the high-end of the technology side. Those are very expensive. So we are trying to get the best skilled labor at the right price. And then there is the part that most people don’t realize is part of a negotiation, and that is the fun factor. What are the restaurants like? The amenities a city offers? The nightclubs, are they accessible? Sometimes that’s the tail that wags the dog [laughter].
SA: When do you get to the show?
BY: Four or five days before, but some of my staff are there seven to 10 days before.
SA: What’s the first thing your staff does?
BY: Marking the floor for booths, then the trucks roll in. You have to time it so that people are not running over you. All that organization, management and detail with the trucks is huge.
SA: How large is your staff?
BY: We have a total of nine at NCTA, but we use [Washington, D.C.-based] Dobson & Associates very heavily. They’ve been managing NCTA shows longer than I. They were here three years before me, they’ve grown up with the industry, so they know everyone in it and know our style and our process.
SA: What’s your schedule like at the show?
BY: First meeting is at 5:30 in the morning, then we go through whatever time our last event is. So, on the final day this year, with the closing party, we didn’t quit until after 1 a.m.
SA: That was a long day.
BY: Yes, it was. The hardest days are the first day and the last day.
BY: The first day because you start so early and it’s a full-court press everywhere. The last day [is hard] because at this point you’re so exhausted you’re walking into walls [laughter].
SA: A typical day at the show must have you running around non-stop.
BY: Yes, it’s heavy on-your-feet work. Being at least one hour ahead of what the next event is. So I never actually stay for any events, unless it’s the last one. So it’s getting there early making sure everything is set. So it’s walk-through, makeup, talking to the speakers, making sure the moderator knows everybody and knows where to direct questions and the flow. Once [the event] kicks off, it’s off to the next one. There’s also security, making sure that’s ready. And, of course, the floor is ongoing so you have to just know what’s happening on the floor. So when you have someone show up who’s causing a big old crowd-stopper, like Michael Jackson that one year in Chicago, it was like, [laughter] "Oh my God! All hands on deck. Get to the floor!"
SA: Go back to your first year running the cable show. Was there a point when you said, "My God, am I going to run this whole thing?" and perhaps later a time when you realized, "Yes, I can do this."?
BY: Yes, that first year, I had never run a trade show before. I had done high-end conferences for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, but never did the trade side, but that’s where Dobson & Associates does things so well. But that first year it felt like I was on the top of a roller-coaster and starting down the ride and had no idea where the roller-coaster was going to stop [laughter].
SA: Does each of the shows feel different?
BY: Yes. Each one has its own personality, its own setups and processes. The art of it is not to get so entrenched in the process that you don’t understand that the show in front of you will happen differently than previous shows.
SA: How do you do that?
BY: Be very, very, very prepared. It’s like athletics. You train very hard and get your body to know how to get things done. But then the day of the race you totally relax and go with the flow.
SA: The upcoming show in New Orleans is May 18-20. When do you start planning programs for that show?
BY: It’s about one year ahead. When we come back from the previous show we spend an intense two weeks wrapping up and sending out thank you's. During that wrapup, as we are looking at financials, what worked and didn’t, we are already building for the next show. Then we go invite the committee. When we meet the committee we have a rough [show plan], but we take a ton of guidance from the committee and from the NCTA board. As you know, everyone in the industry has opinions about what they would like to see in the show, so I ask [the committee and the board] for their opinions.
SA: What about planning the general sessions?
BY: The advice is always to book those early, because the huge names are booked so far in advance. But I have found that holding back just a tad is better. Things, especially in the last few years, are moving so fast that it’s hard to book general session speakers one year in advance. If you get a little closer, six or seven months out, you can see where the trends are a bit better. One year ahead is too far.
SA: You incorporated CAB’s show into yours in ’07. What other trends have worked?
BY: Getting ahead of HD and running an HD Pavilion [in’03]. Not everybody was sure that was what we needed to do, but enough senior industry people told me it would make a difference, so we bit the bullet and did it, slightly in advance, but it worked out really well. It made people sit up and see and listen to HD, literally.
And the following year, in ’04, when we did the Broadband Home in New Orleans, the 7,000-square-foot home. Again that was us listening to what the committee was telling us.
In ’05, when [Comcast president/COO] Steve Burke was chair, it was listening to the retail part and having a Best Buy truck there. Last year it was CAB, as you said, but also Brian Roberts’ wideband demonstration. We anticipated the bandwidth hog problem and showed we have a solution. Brian had already seen the future and knew he had to get his company to deliver that kind of bandwidth.
SA: Will the show be different five years from now? Will the SCTE show fold into yours?
BY: Tough question. I don’t quite know. I think there will be a show. What the show will look like depends on where our companies are. As our companies get bigger and bigger, does it become more of a telecom show? On content, we are delivering video and broadband content. That’s changing every day. Does that become part of the show?
SA: The state of cable today is one big show, with a few regionals. Is that good?
BY: Bigger is not necessarily better, as you saw with Comdex (computer show), which got so big it imploded (in ’03). My sense is that as long as the [NCTA] board of directors feels the show is meeting the needs of their companies, that’s good, that’s what the show should be. Measurements of big and small, how many shows are there, that’s inconsequential. We have gone from a multiplicity of shows to one large show, but that can change again to lots of small shows if regional issues become more important.
SA: I’m intrigued by the input you say you get from the NCTA board. They’re busy people. At what level do they interact? Does a Brian Roberts send you suggestions about topics, speakers?
BY: Sometimes it’s phone calls, or emails. Most of it happens directly in conversations when they are here [in D.C.] for NCTA board meetings. The wideband demo with Brian came about that way.
He was here for our open house, and we had the wideband demo on the technology wall of our tiny broadband home here, but it was very small. We were taking him through it and he turned to [Arris chief] Bob Stanzione and me and said, "I want you to do this at the Cable Show in Vegas, but I want it to have more impact." So, yes, sometimes it’s a direct request from a Brian or a Steve Burke or a Glenn [Britt]. With CAB, [Cox chief] Pat Esser suggested moving it into our show.
SA: It will be emotional and interesting going back to New Orleans.
BY: Yes, it will. We will be announcing plans [this month] on some of the things we’ll do there. The industry has a soft spot for New Orleans because we’ve been there when we were very little and now, when we are very big.
SA: Is it significantly different to plan a show now than it was years ago?
BY: It’s different, I think. Ten to 15 years ago the issues weren’t changing so fast. Also what people were expecting from sessions [ten to 15 years ago] were things that could be taught and explained — it was a bit more hands-on and concrete. Now it’s a bit different. There’s still concrete things we provide, but with things moving so fast it’s a bigger picture that we have to paint.
SA: The age-old question—why do we need the show?—may be more relevant today, considering how much we can see and learn on the Internet. So, do we need the show?
BY: Good question. It may not be a show as a show, but there will always be value to have people meeting person to person, touching, feeling, shaking hands, having dinner, having a drink. How that happens and at what level it happens is what we should be looking at down the line.
Having a show is convenient because it is one place, one time, where everyone can come, and it’s all in place. You can be learning, you can do networking, you can see technology, you can see programming, you can have wonderful meals, have great parties. So there is value in that.
There’s also value in messaging from that event. When you have a mass like that there’s something to write about. There’s something that comes out. There is a focus, there is prioritization for goals and objectives for the year coming forward. I think that’s what NCTA does with HD and the Broadband Home. We are so cluttered now; it’s not just cable, it’s broadband, telephony, wireless, voice, it’s trying to bring it all together in three or four days and say "this is how we see the world at this time." This is what you [in the trades] do so well. You see it all and then you write it. People read it and then they match what you’ve written with what their own feelings are and it gives everybody a defined picture in that space and time, which, I think, is really important at this time because we can be so confused.
SA: Is every show different? Do you try to make one show more of a learning experience, one more of a hands-on tech experience?
BY: Yes, things change each year.
SA: So what is ’08’s show looking like?
BY: Very intense on digital transition.
SA: How will that be expressed at the show?
BY: That’s what we are working on. Another one is looking at the bundle of services, and cable’s differentiation on that vis a vis the phone company and satellite. OpenCable is part of that.
SA: Do you get involved in other things?
BY: Yes, today I do — the Kaitz Dinner and I assist Cable in the Classroom with the Leaders in Learning and other special events, like the OpenCable showcase. Due to the nature of my job, being a jack of all trades here, over the years I’ve done whatever the president at that time needed, sort of a firefighter. I did the CableACE Awards for four years. It was fun. And then for five years, under Robert [Sachs], I did office management. I was also doing finance and accounting, MIS, HR, all the administrative services.
SA: That led to your work on the new NCTA headquarters.
BY: Yes, Mark Bell and myself were the lead staff on finding the space, negotiating the lease, planning the space, the buildout, the Broadband Home, what to show, how to show it, picking colors.
SA: You did a great job.
BY: Thank you. Looking back over 26 years, I can remember bits from every show, but I really feel good about this building, even moving our office to serve our immediate constituents on Capitol Hill. I can remember the first day I saw this space — it was just a hole in the ground. I remember being there and looking at Mark and saying, "This is where we have to be." There was no question in my mind. We had looked at 22 other sites.
SA: Is the building your fondest memory?
BY: I love the building, but I think my fondest memory is all the senior-level people I get to talk to and work with. I’m not one of their line people, I’m not a legal person. I’m in such a different space, and that’s what I love.
SA: Your entrance into the Hall is wonderful for you but also strikes a blow for women.
BY: Definitely. I’m proud going in as a woman, but very humbled for myself. I worked for all these people, I never saw myself as equal to any of these leaders.
SA: And you help make your Hall class more diverse.
BY: Yes, that’s true. I think me and John Sie are it for the Chinese [laughter].