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MSO of the Year
Picking the annual MSO of the Year can be a tough decision.
Not this time.
Comcast’s audacious move to buy Time Warner Cable shocked everyone who thought its against-all-odds acquisition of NBCU in 2011 was the “war to end all wars” in terms of the MSO’s merger ambitions. And while the TWC deal could still get blocked, the conventional wisdom is that Comcast will satisfy the powers in Washington and get it done, cementing its role as the undisputed Grand Poobah of Cable, Media and Entertainment. That is, after a hard slog toward approval. “A lot of the work right now is just data collection, and there’s a lot of it,” says Comcast Cable CEO Neil Smit. “I think that there are great things that both companies bring to the table, and our objective is to drive great products and more content, and to get the best of both companies in terms of technical capabilities to market as soon as possible.”
Of course, not everyone’s a fan of all this consolidation. Consumer groups oppose the deal. And even some big programmers grumble about it privately. But here’s the simple truth: The cable industry would likely be behind several of its competitors in technology and overall innovation if it wasn’t for Comcast’s strong leadership role. And more and more these days, that leadership hinges on the kind of scale that can defeat telco, satellite and dot-com foes. “Everybody’s getting into the video space, so we’ve got to provide the best experience,” says Smit. “We have a lot of content. We’ve got to figure out how to make it easier for consumers to access that content and enjoy the whole discovery process of getting the content they want.”
The company makes a difference, not only in terms of its products and efforts to improve the customer experience, but in everything it does to educate policymakers nationwide about cable’s important role in U.S. society. Whether it’s better set-top navigation, faster broadband, improved customer service or simply good corporate citizenship with its Internet Essentials program, Comcast is an example to the rest of the industry. Some would point out some of this stems from earlier NBCU merger conditions, but the end result has been a stronger innovation platform for the entire industry. And that has lifted all boats, even if some have been thrust onto choppy seas (or even rocky shores) along the way.
Comcast’s tech leadership is particularly stellar; In 2013 alone, the MSO managed 184 new software releases and 41 new products in Xfnity video, home, broadband and communications. “With cloud-enabled IP technology, we can innovate and improve the customer experience faster than ever,” notes Comcast Cable EVP/CTO Tony Werner. That includes partnering with others like Twitter, Apple and Microsoft “to help deliver more innovative and personalized experiences,” adds Chief Business Development Of cer Sam Schwartz. Says EVP, Consumer Services Marcien Jenckes, “we set the bar high with X1 and in the past few months alone, we have launched cloud DVR and a new digital store, invented new Xfnity apps for Apple and Android and increased our internet speeds to stay ahead of consumer demand,” he says.
It’s about leveraging the NBCU asset, something that Comcast will only accelerate when and if it takes over TWC’s NYC and L.A. markets—the two largest and most important media markets in the U.S. As SVP, strategic integration Maggie Suniewick notes, “we are leveraging resources across both NBCUniversal and Comcast to promote our products and services and to drive results. It’s an effective and efficient way for us to align all the brands in a way that benefits customers and the business.”
But in the end, Smit says it’s all about execution. “We have to keep pushing the out ow in terms of what we can do with our network and our content and our capabilities. But at the same time, it all comes down to day-to-day execution. Are we taking care of the customers? Without that, you don’t have the luxury of innovating.”
Comcast expects to divest some 3 million subscribers as part of its deal with TWC, leaving it with 30 million subscribers if the deal is approved.
Comcast has committed to spending “hundreds of millions of dollars” annually to improve Time Warner Cable’s networks.
The MSO expects run-rate efficiencies of $1.5 billion in operating expenditures and $400 million in capital expenditures after completing the TWC deal.
MSO Technology Executive Of The Year
With so many incredible technologists innovating every day in the cable industry, it’s always hard to single anyone out for recognition. But we think Cox Communications EVP & CTO Kevin Hart deserves the honor, not just for his decades of industry experience and wisdom—but because he has helped lead Cox boldly into new technological pastures involving personalization, faster product lifecycles and of course, broadband. The company’s rollout of its next-generation TV experience known as Contour continues to push the envelope.
Indeed, Hart’s the rare technologist who understands that customers, not techie execs, ultimately will decide what technology and software makes it in the marketplace. And in such a competitive environment, Hart’s dedication to smartly applied technologies and working collaboratively with other Cox units to ensure smooth adoption has been key to this mid-size MSO’s success in a world of giants. “We’re trying to lead the market where it makes sense and provide great quality of service,” he says. “There’s definitely an element of competitive positioning. But we want to offer the right level of service for our customers based on what they use and need and want.”
To that end, we chatted with Hart about both Cox’s tech strategy and his own personal secrets to success.
What achievements for you and your team have made you most proud over the last year?
I’m definitely proud of the things we’ve accomplished and delivered, whether it’s Contour, whether it’s our network upgrades, whether it’s some of the products we’ve delivered for Cox Business. But I think I’m probably most pleased and proud about the way that we’ve aligned the entire company around technology delivery. We’ve got strong alignment with our strategy team, marketing team, product team, ops, finance, HR. If you take Contour, for example … We really optimized end to end the deployment and operational support of that particular product, and we’re doing that in other areas… I’m really pleased with the functional part of how this has come together… It’s an ongoing and evolving communication and teamwork effort, but we have a good running start.”
How is the Contour rollout going, and what kind of reaction have you received from customers so far?
What advice would you have for a junior person trying to achieve your level of success?
First, you have to make a plan, create a vision. You have to create a vision and a mission statement for your own career. Some goals, some milestones. They may evolve over time, but to have a focal point in terms of the training, the experiences, the mentors that you surround yourself with is a great place to start. It’s also about taking calculated risks. Sometimes folks may not want to take a risk or take on new assignments for fear of failure. But you have to take those calculated risks and evolve your skill set and your experiences…. You have to surround yourself with great people, and in some cases surround yourself with great people who are even more talented and more experienced in certain areas… I played college soccer, so teamwork has always been a key to success of my career. It’s understanding the strength of the folks around you, but then having joint goals, passion and perseverance to succeed.
Cox is closing in on the one-year anniversary of its Contour TV product, which it launched last August.
Contour now boasts more than 500K customers.
Hart played college soccer and still uses lessons learned about teamwork in his job as CTO.
MSO Financial Executive of the Year
When it comes to focus, drive and determination, few execs exhibit those qualities as consistently and effectively as Comcast Cable EVP and CFO Cathy Avgiris. And while Avgiris ranks as one of the most knowledgeable finance execs in the business, it’s her well-rounded breadth of knowledge of every aspect of cable that pushed her over the top to make her Cablefax’s 2014 Financial Executive of the Year.
Avgiris doesn’t just live and breathe finance. She has always made sure to understand every aspect of the business from operations to product development to marketing. Her intellectual curiosity and willingness to learn every angle of cable over her 22 years at Comcast prompted the MSO to promote Avgiris last year to her current position (she just celebrated one year in the new job).
It’s not difficult to understand why Comcast chief Neil Smit puts so much faith in Avgiris’ abilities. “It’s understanding what are our growth drivers and what drives our business, and if you need to pull levers, which ones can you pull to keep fueling growth,” she says. “That’s what I love about being in the position I’m in. Trying to leverage that with my product experience and my operations experience has been really rewarding.”
Interestingly, Avgiris’ first year has been marked by Comcast’s bold proposal to acquire Time Warner Cable, a process that will draw considerably upon her organizational and strategic skills as she works on integration issues and gathers data for regulators whose approval will make or break the deal. While Avgiris wasn’t involved in the pre-deal negotiations (Comcast Corp. CFO Michael Angelakis handled that), she relishes the opportunity to contribute now. “I’m always up for a good challenge,” she says. “I do have responsibility for the integration planning, and that’s where we are now. It’s how do we make two great companies into one plus one equals five… From the product side, I’ve had lots of longstanding relationships with others in the industry, including at Time Warner Cable, so that’s been beneficial, and it’s great to reconnect with folks who I have worked with over the years.”
That product experience also helped Avgiris develop what may become one of Comcast’s most significant initiatives in years—namely, the creation of the Sales Portal Platform to streamline the sales process at all customer touch points. Avgiris first started developing the system before she took her current gig and while tasked with working with Verizon Wireless on the MSO’s earlier mobile partnership. That required integrating sales systems so that Verizon reps could effectively sell Comcast products.
It wasn’t long before she leveraged the system to work with other Comcast partners; Avgiris now foresees a time when it could form the backbone of Comcast’s entire customer relationship matrix—essentially creating a seamless system in which no customer needs to give any CSR or partner info twice or get mired in repetitive steps that slow down the sale. “And ultimately, that ends up being a better customer experience because it enables us to do business with the customer, and we connect our own dots rather than expecting our customers to connect our dots,” she says. “I think that’s going to end up being a key element of our continuing to improve our customer experience. That’s why I’m so passionate about it.”
It’s that kind of initiative and outside-the-box thinking that has largely fueled Avgiris’ success. And for executives trying to reach her level, she gives this advice: “Being willing to move out of your comfort zone is really important and being able to learn about every aspect of the business you’re in makes you a more valuable person for the company that you work for… All of that has made me a better executive for the company because I understand what our products are and how they work.”
Avgiris was most recently EVP and GM of Communications
and Data Services for Comcast’s Xfinity Internet, Xfinity
Voice, and consumer wireless businesses.
Before joining Comcast in 1992, Avgiris spent 11 years in
finance, serving as Chief Financial Officer of Drexel Industries,
Inc. and as an audit manager with Deloitte & Touche.
In 2010, Avgiris won the NCTA’s Vanguard Award for Distinguished
Leadership for Cable Operations Management
MSO Technology Launch of the Year
With apologies to a well-known theatrical apothegm, for many customers ‘dying is easy, figuring out which remote/set-top to use or wire to connectoin get services on my cable is hard.’
Making it as simple as possible to access Netflix is a large part of the idea behind a late-April announcement that cable MSO Atlantic Broadband (AB) would fully integrate the Neflix app into its TiVo service.
In the April 25 announcement AB said accessing Netflix for its customers who are Netflix subscribers would be as easy as changing the channel. And it is, literally. Netflix now is a channel choice on the AB navigation guide. “So many cable customers never got past the blinking lights of their VCR to set the clock,” says Atlantic Broadband’s Chief Marketing Officer/SVP David Isenberg, who argues that cable operators, his company included, sometimes forget how complicated technology can be for subscribers. The integration with Netflix and TiVo “eliminates the complexity of multiple boxes, remote controls, input ports and cables,” the April 25 announcement said. “We think usage and adoption of the service will increase significantly” because it’s now so easy to access.
The second piece of the equation is giving subscribers additional choices, Isenberg says. “Customers kept asking us, ‘When are you going to have Netflix?’ Rather than threatening cable, Netflix complements it, Isenberg says. “We offer customers many choices of current-season programs, which they watch live or record on their DVR. What Netflix typically offers is a great library of prior-season TV shows and movies that already have been available On Demand and on the premium channels.” Together “it’s an unbelievable library of content.”
The content should be relatively easy to find too, says Julie Smith, SVP of Marketing. “If you say you like a particular actor, the TiVo guide will show you a list of films and shows that actor is in.” The beauty of this search is that it’s integrated, the list will include films on Showtime or AMC, for example, On Demand or Net_ ix. “This is part of the integrated experience,” Isenberg says.
While the integration barely was 6 weeks old when this article was written and Atlantic Broadband had yet to release results, Isenberg says “we just had one of our best springs… the interest in Netflix is part of that.” Customers are adding TiVo at a “greater volume” than before. Adds SVP/COO Rich Shea, “We could not be more pleased by the Netflix launch and the responses it has received from our customers.”
Getting two companies to make a deal can be difficult; a three-way arrangement even more so. Atlantic Broadband wanted to do a deal like this “for some time and had spoken to Netflix,” says Isenberg. The movie rights Netflix owned “explicitly prevented” it from “delivering its service through cable set-top boxes.” As Netflix grew, it was able to change those agreements, says Isenberg. Another need was TiVo’s next-generation platform, which allowed Atlantic
Broadband to take its traditional TV delivery service and have it become Internet-enabled.
Beyond all that, Isenberg, an undergraduate history major at Yale, feels the rollout is historic. “I think [deals like this signal] the start of the broadband TV era,” he says, equating it with HBO’s pioneering work when it went up on satellite Sept 30, 1975, becoming the first TV net to continuously deliver its signal that way. From that event, which saw HBO send its signal for the “Thrilla in Manila” boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier via satellite, today we have hundreds of channels on satellite. Ten years from now, will we be looking at a set of Internet delivered services that we can’t imagine today? You read it here first.
RCN and Grande Communications joined Atlantic Broadband
in announcing the integration of Netflix with TiVo
service April 25.
Atlantic Broadband is the 13th largest cable operator with
230K customers in western PA, Miami Beach, MD/DE and
MSO Community Service Award
Time Warner Cable
New York City
Hurricane Sandy struck the Northeast in late October 2012, becoming the largest Atlantic hurricane on record and the second-costliest in U.S. history. It killed nearly 300 people in seven countries.
While there were numerous heroic efforts by cable personnel during and after Sandy, we’ve chosen to honor the NYC system of Time Warner Cable. By giving consideration to affected communities in its community investment program, TWC helped make something good come out of Sandy’s destruction.
As many readers know, the country’s number two MSO since 2009 has focused its community investment on combatting the decline in students’ interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) with the multi-year, award-winning Connect A Million Minds outreach.
Less known is a related effort to install TWC Learning Labs in urban community centers. Powered by TWC Business Class broadband access, the Labs include state-of-the-art computers and other equipment, provided at no cost. In addition, TWC supplies instructors who help residents learn about using the Internet for education and job-related activities. Largely aimed at students and young adults, the Labs are part of TWC’s effort to foster digital literacy.
A TWC Learning Lab can be a boon for a community center. “We conduct a lengthy evaluation process” to decide where to locate them, says Karen LaCava, who runs TWC NYC’s community investment program. “Considering how badly some neighborhoods were hurt by Sandy, we decided to take that into account when determining where to open Labs,” she adds. TWC’s NYC system has opened a trio of Labs in Sandy affected neighborhoods last year and thus far in 2014. The first opened in Red Hook, Brooklyn, on Nov. 1, 366 days after Sandy hit NYC. The Lab includes 15 laptops, 4 classroom monitors and a multimedia entertainment system with surround sound. Cameras and audio visual editing software also were provided. Red Hook Initiative annually serves 500 youth, who engage in programs to help them graduate from high school and go to college or a job development training program.
A second Lab opened weeks later, on Nov. 19, at the non-profit Rockaway Development and Revitalization Corporation in Far Rockaway, Queens. That Lab features 16 Dell PCs and MAC Air Pros. The Rockaways is an 11-mile peninsula that Sandy badly damaged. A third Lab in a Sandy-hit community was opened this past April 24
at the Ali Forney Center in Harlem. TWC NYC’s 12th Lab was outfitted with 25 desktop computers, 10 laptops, five tablets and a smart board. The Center is the largest agency dedicated to serving homeless and runaway Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) youth in NYC and nationwide. On a typical day, AFC’s programming reaches nearly 300 homeless LGBT youth. TWC also donated funds to help re-build the Center, which Sandy destroyed.
TWC also partnered with another TWC, The Weather Channel, on Connect With Weather, a program to help youth learn how to best prepare for storms. The effort kicked off last October when the TWCs held a program at a Brooklyn community center for more than 75 children and adults. Weather’s storm expert Jim Cantore discussed preparedness, as did a Red Cross representative. An official from the Humane Society told attendees how to care for animals during a weather-related incident. LaCava tells us plans are afoot to make Connect With Weather even more accessible, holding an event at the TWC retail store in Queens Center Mall. TWC’s store there is the MSO’s busiest retail outlet in the country. “We want to touch as many people as we can with information about how to be ready should another storm threaten the area,” LaCava says.
As part of its franchise renewal with NYC, TWC committed
to have 40 Learning Labs open in NYC by 2020. The
system’s investment will exceed $2 million, plus complimentary
TWC Business Class Internet and video services.
TWC automatically credited residential and business
subscribers for missed services due to Sandy, which
destroyed power lines throughout NYC. Other providers
issued credits when contacted by subscribers.
MSO Regional Executive of the Year
Few jobs in cable are as tough, complicated and thankless as that of the regional MSO executive. Every region has its quirky nuances: Unique customers to please, local news media to navigate and of course local, regional and state politicians whose goodwill can make or break a product launch or service change. Not only that, but regional execs often spend years bouncing from system to system to gain the experience necessary to manage several of them all at once—not to mention the corporate acumen to “manage up” to the corporate office and get the resources necessary to compete on the ground. Few can do this job. And few do it quite as well as Amy Smith, our 2014 MSO Regional Executive of the Year.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what makes Smith so valuable to Comcast, which unlike many other large MSOs has placed upon its regional execs’ shoulders considerable autonomy and P&L accountability. But Comcast has long relied on Smith’s incredible skills and dedication. As regional SVP for Comcast’s Florida Region, Smith now runs the company’s largest division with responsibility for more than 2 million customers, a gig she took on in 2012 after proving herself as head of the Freedom Region that includes the corporate headquarters in Philadelphia (Yes, Brian Roberts was one of her customers. Talk about pressure).
But Smith consistently knocks every new challenge out of the park. “Amy has continued to take on the most challenging assignments at the request of the company and has delivered results every time,” says Bill Connors, president of Comcast Cable’s Central Division. “I believe Amy is one of the most impressive leaders I have been fortunate enough to work with in my career.”
Few are anything but dazzled by Smith’s penchant for managing complicated markets, launching new products and growing market share no matter what the competitive threat. In Florida, for example, both Verizon and AT&T compete vigorously in dozens of markets, including Jacksonville, Miami and Orlando—but Smith consistently grows market share for Xfinity Home while also exceeding cash flow goals and other targets. “I really think that’s one of the strengths we have at Comcast,” says Smith. “Local leadership is close to the customers and can really get things done.” Also helpful are the deep relationships she forged at HQ while running the Freedom Region. “I can see what’s happening and then go back to corporate and say ‘this is what I need’,” she says.
One recent achievement is the conversion of Comcast’s Florida payment centers into state-of-the-art Xfinity stores that vastly improved the customer experience. In fact, she did such a great job revamping those locations that the stores saw a whopping 70% increase in sales over 2012, all while reducing wait times and staffing levels, and giving prospects a way to touch and feel Comcast’s newest wares such as the X1 set-top navigation system. “It’s a completely different experience,” she says. “People can hands-on try the products out. People get even more excited when they experience [X1] firsthand.” Not only that, but Smith also managed the expansion of the Multi-Latino Package for Hispanic audiences, an upgrade that added 32 channels to the multi-Latino tier. Meanwhile, in 2013, the Florida Region led the country for the first time in new connections for Comcast’s Internet Essentials program aimed at bringing broadband to low-income households.
The bottom line: Smith just seems to make it look easy. “Amy has a deep understanding and appreciation for the operations side of our business and this has been a critical component in her success in delivering results for the company,” says Paul Biava, VP, Ful_ llment Operations, Comcast Florida. Add Cablefax to Amy Smith’s growing fanbase…
In 2013, Comcast Florida doubled its Internet speeds at no
When not taking on telcos and satellite companies, Smith
competes as an accomplished equestrienne.
Smith first joined Comcast in 1994 as a Business Manager
in Charleston, SC.
MSO Lifetime Achievement Award
As baseball’s Casey Stengel once said, “Who’d a thunk it?” Certainly Patty McCaskill could not have predicted that in the male-dominated business world she entered more than 31 years ago a woman, she specifically, would become the unofficial dean of MSO programming officials.
It’s not that the St. Louis native lacked the talent, smarts, drive or personality to be successful. Business just wasn’t a woman’s place back when Patty was graduating from Maryville University, which was then an all-women’s school. “It was a total men’s club,” she says. “There were very few [female] role models for me at that time.”
Yet McCaskill found she was good at marketing and sales. “I liked it. It stimulated and challenged me.” So she dove into the business world. And, more baseball—her first job was working for the legendary Stan Musial at his restaurant. From catering she moved to convention planning and later hotels, eventually climbing the ladder to general manager. But “I realized running hotels was not what I wanted to do, so I looked at other industries.”
In 1980, McCaskill met cable entrepreneur Bob Brooks. “He told me how cable TV was going to take off.” Back then cable “was a pure video business, of course… franchising was just being completed and we were building cable systems… we went door to door to convince consumers they needed more than their broadcast channels. Of course, we didn’t have the powerhouse content brands we have today.” Networks like Discovery, MTV, Nickelodeon and ESPN didn’t exist or were in their infancy.
Skip to the present, and McCaskill is getting set to retire January 1 after a stellar career in cable, most recently as Suddenlink’s SVP and Chief Programming Officer. She’s been working part-time since May, helping negotiate retransmission consent deals, many of which come due at year’s end. But, as she readily admits, “I’m not a retiring type of person.” She’s thinking about traveling with her husband of 42 years and working on “my very rusty golf game—I haven’t played regularly in several years.” On the other hand, “playing golf five days a week would drive me crazy.”
That’s why McCaskill plans to stay connected to cable during retirement, perhaps consulting, working with the Cable Pioneers or Women in Cable Telecommunications (WICT). Her interest in helping is hardly surprising, since McCaskill’s willingness to “give back” is one of her trademarks. For years she’s been a fixture on the cable circuit, rarely missing an opportunity to do good, whether it was at WICT or the Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing (CTAM). She also was a steadfast supporter of Cable Positive. “I could write a book about her commitment & dedication,” former Cable Positive chief Steve Villano says.
McCaskill knows she’ll miss cable. “It’s been a great ride. There was never a day that I went to work and knew exactly what I was going to be doing. I loved that. The challenges, the changes… that’s part of my personality.” She’ll miss the people most. “So many of us have become friends over the years. That’s the thing about this industry that you don’t find elsewhere. You can spend a day across from someone at the negotiating table and then you go out at night and party. Nobody takes it personally.” In fact, she wants to be remembered in cable as “a tough but fair negotiator… the best outcomes occurred when both sides won,” McCaskill says.
Now the cycle is complete. McCaskill is an executive to emulate. “Patty has been a trailblazer throughout her career and much of that trail has been in support of women and WICT,” says Maria Brennan, President/CEO of WICT. “She helped found WICT’s Midwest Chapter, served on WICT’s national board and has been a mentor. Patty is a role model to which women can aspire.” Who’d a thunk it?
Among her many citations, McCaskill received cable’s
top honor, a Vanguard, for Distinguished Leadership,
during The Cable Show 2014.
McCaskill’s been on both sides of cable’s table as she
helped launch Travel Channel as director of marketing.
Glenn Britt (Posthumous)
Time Warner Cable
In many ways, the career of Glenn Britt, who passed away June 11, far too young at 65, mirrors the arc of cable: its past, present and future. He started in the business when it was far from prestigious; he helped push it to prominence; and left as a longtime chairman and CEO, with many of his decisions proving prescient.
It seems strange to refer to our MSO Lifetime Achievement honoree as Mr. Britt. Everyone at Time Warner Cable referred to him as ‘Glenn.’ During my early
days editing internal publications at TWC, I was informed the man in charge preferred to appear in print as Glenn.
That was one of the things about Glenn Britt, he had
almost no pretense. When he visited the office in Washington, he didn’t travel with an entourage. His lunches with the D.C. staff were very much like him: low-key, businesslike and informative. Despite fine restaurants surrounding the office, he preferred sandwiches in the TWC conference room overlooking the rooftops of Gallery Place, the tips of the Capitol and Washington Monument visible on clear days. The only concession made for Glenn was that instead of paper plates, hard plastic was used.
And he sang for his supper—those staff lunches featured rapid-fire Q&A sessions. Questions ranged from regulation to sports costs to new technology, everything was fair game. He barely had time to digest his food. Still, he responded with patience, erudition and class. Seeing how he conducted himself and hearing him speak so well on a wide range of issues made you proud to be a TWC employee and gave you a lot of confidence in the company.
For a self-described introvert, Glenn’s professional choices were bold. As a Dartmouth Business School grad in 1972, he could have moved into an established industry, yet “from the start of my career, I had always wanted to get involved in a new, growing business rather than a big, established low-risk industry,” he said during a September speech. He joined prestigious Time, Inc. but within two years became CFO of Time’s very un-prestigious community antenna TV (CATV) property Manhattan Cable, which was selling New Yorkers clear reception of broadcast signals.
But soon CATV started to become more than reception; programmers like HBO, another Time property, and CNN were beginning C-SPAN, ESPN and others followed. Glenn joined HBO, running network and studio operations. Eventually he went to Time’s Denver-based cable operation, became HBO’s CFO and later Time’s CFO. While Glenn’s resume might seem finance-heavy, “I was always very involved in developing new products, technology and imagining the future,” he said. That colored the last decades of his career at TWC, which he joined in 1990 as EVP.
The last 20-odd years have seen TWC launch a slew of products that put it in the forefront of cable innovation. “The entrepreneurial spirit that had led me to cable… was still very much in me,” he said. Among those products was Road Runner, the country’s first cable-delivered, high-speed Internet service, launched in the mid-90s. At the same time, TWC became the first cable company to be honored with a technical Emmy for its use of fiber to transmit broadband signals, which helped with the convergence of cable, computers and telephones. TWC would add 7 more tech Emmys to its trophy case during Glenn’s tenure.
“This willingness to innovate, to re-invent, of being unafraid in the pursuit of change for the good of the company and the industry, this really is Glenn Britt’s legacy,” said Glenn’s successor Rob Marcus.
One regret Glenn had was the failure of cable to be recognized as an innovator. Without cable’s model there’s no Google, Netflix or Hulu, he used to say, noting that it’s partly cable’s and his fault for not beating its chest enough. It takes a humble man to make such an observation.
When Glenn began as CEO in ’01, TWC was a $6bln unit
of Time Warner; today it’s a $21bln standalone company.
Cable Marketer of the Year
Never underestimate the power of an internship. Becky Jones, newly promoted to SVP of Marketing and Research at Viamedia, is living proof of that.
As a student at Eastern Kentucky University, Jones had a summer internship at Insight Communications. “I decided right then I was going to go into cable in some
way,” she says. Her first job was in hospitality, however. “I was just waiting for the opportunity to get into cable.” Eventually she gained a research position with TCI just as it was being acquired by AT&T. When Jeff Carter left AT&T to start Viamedia, Jones joined him, becoming one of the firm’s original employees and helping to establish its sales support infrastructure.
Now as a 14-year veteran of cable, including 12 with Viamedia, Jones, one of her company’s most senior women, is “passionate about giving back.” That means doing all she can to provide the opportunity to others that she had; not surprisingly, she’s a big advocate of internships. “We have had interns here every summer,” she says, noting she is a mentor through WICT and the T. Howard Foundation. Appearing at college career fairs also is a priority for Viamedia, she says.
Thanks in part to Jones, Viamedia this year announced a program to donate $2 million in advertising time for The Ad Council’s campaigns that support United Way, Feeding America and Goodwill.
With main of_ ces in NY City and Lexington, Kentucky, Viamedia lets MVPDs do what they do best, Jones says: create satis_ ed customers with their video, voice, data and now increasingly security systems. “They contract with us,” Jones says, “to outsource their local advertising sales… we take care of everything, sales, back of_ ce, production… it’s turnkey.” It’s also focus and service. “Since advertising sales business is Viamedia’s only business, our focus is wholly on the success of our MVPD partners… When they grow, we grow.” Customer service also is key. “Our business has to be about that,” she says.
Jones has two major roles: primary oversight for branding, marketing and positioning the company to general media markets to drive awareness and new business; and providing support to the sales team. She is most proud of the series of 13 print ads that position the company. Winner of a Silver Addy award, the distinctive ads with their purple background appear regularly in cable trades. “We’re very strategic about where we place our ads and how we promote our brand,” she says.
Of course we have to ask, ‘Purple?’ “We wanted something memorable and different, eye catching and that stood out from the crowd,” Jones says. “When we started Viamedia, we had grand plans to change the color in our logo periodically, but quickly realized purple set us apart. Now when you see a purple ad, you know
Positioning Viamedia, Jones says, also means doing a lot of af_ liation with groups like NCTC, ACA, WICT, NCTA and many others. “We have to make sure we are staying ahead of technology and trends, attending the right [industry] meetings, sponsoring the right events, getting on the right panels.”
Supporting Viamedia’s sales team of about 300 with research means providing “tools, presentations and research to help them sell,” she says.
Jones’ efforts are working. Since signing WOW! as its _ rst partner, Viamedia has grown to 53 partners in 66 DMAs, 400 employees and has relationships with more than 12,000 unique advertisers.
As Viamedia President/CEO Mark Lieberman says, “Becky has been essential to our rise… she has proven to be a visionary leader, and her deep industry knowledge an insights are highly valued as we look to the future.” That’s what you get when you hire a former Insight intern.
The 7 dots in Viamedia’s logo represent the 7 original
team members of the company, including Jones.
Viamedia sees advertising moving toward impressionbased
sales. It works with Nielsen and even more with
Rentrak, Jones says.
Independent Operator of the Year
Our 2014 Independent Operator of the Year is a difficult company to pigeonhole—unabashedly rooted in traditional values, yet exceedingly progressive. “It’s small cable, but there’s plenty to talk about,” is how ACA EVP/Chief of Staff Rob Shema puts it.
As is true with some of the indies pro_ led in these pages, Comporium is a privately held, family run business that started as a voice provider. It dates to the charter of Rock Hill Telephone of South Carolina in 1894. Its current owner, the Barnes family, took the reins in 1912. A cable subsidiary started in the mid-1960s; Comporium’s Frank Barnes Jr and his brothers John and Ed were among its founders.
Data and VoIP followed. Today the company passes nearly 150K homes and businesses.
Not only is Comporium family run, it’s a family company. Its owners have a deep Christian faith, and the culture and daily operations reflect that. For example, Comporium has never opened its retail stores on Sundays. Meetings after lunch begin with an invocation. And its programming excludes explicit adult content. ‘Is it good for the children?’ is among the first questions Comporium uses to guide decisions. Its annual Christmas party is open to its 1,000 employees’ families and their children, who are treated to a bevy of youth-focused activities.
While Comporium’s values are traditional, its stance on technology is cutting edge. “We are constantly upgrading our systems and offerings to remain competitive with the largest national providers,” EVP Bill Beaty says. “In some cases, we attempt to stay ahead of them.” In addition to TV Everywhere and VOD, the company has a host of home security and home automation products. Its most impressive accomplishment is its upgrade of the majority of its HFC plant to 1 GHz, allowing it last month to launch Zipstream, its 1-Gig service to both businesses and consumers. Zipstream features speeds nearly 85 times faster than Comporium’s standard Internet service.
Comporium’s progressive thinking led to Zipstream’s launch despite having few of the tech businesses that require extreme amounts of bandwidth in its service area. It believes Zipstream will attract tech-driven companies and jobs. Its initial two business customers are located at Rock Hill’s downtown, urban business area known as Knowledge Park. The launch has led to area buzz, and interest “has been very strong,” Comporium says. Indeed, as we went to press Comporium informed us that four more industrial parks will be getting the 1-Gig service and by early September it will make Zipstream available to 125
of its fiber-to-the-home neighborhoods in Rock Hill, Fort Mill, Tega Cay and the surrounding areas.
Comporium’s plans for Zipstream are in concert with its commitment to growing Rock Hill’s economy. “For our community to be successful, we need a vibrant downtown,” says Comporium President/CEO Bryant Barnes. “Many projects had floundered, so several years ago we decided to step in and make a difference.” Comporium is completing a four-story, 50,000-square-foot office building for lease to help bring new businesses downtown. It’s also working to revitalize the area with a park, hotel and performing arts complex, which will sit on land Comporium donated. “This is vital to the success of Rock Hill’s growth and development, which, in turn, is good for our employees, shareholders and customers,” he adds.
Comporium’s commitment to its community can also be seen through its support of local events and causes through grants and donations. Its regional Emmy-winning channel CN2 also plays a role. It “has had a positive effect on increasing the quality of life in the area… by bringing increased exposure and participation to area events,” says Comporium
EVP John Barnes.
Comporium is the 27th largest cable operator, the country’s
13th largest telecommunications provider and 11th
largest privately owned company in South Carolina.
A diversified company, Comporium has interests in the
smart home industry and connected car technology as
well as in data management and storage.
Independent Marketer of the Year
Cedar Falls Utilities
To paraphrase an exchange between Alice and the Cheshire Cat in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, ‘When you’re not sure where you’re going, any road will take you there.”
By contrast, when the endgame is clear, it’s easier to reach your destination. It’s the same in marketing. When employees know why they are employed and what the company represents, marketing is a bit easier. Marketing Manager Betty Zeman and her Cedar Falls Utilities (CFU) colleagues are proof. \
To say Zeman is laser focused is an understatement. Before we begin discussing marketing with our Independent Marketer of the Year, the 13-year CFU veteran lays the ground rules by which she works. After hearing her preamble, you realize why she and CFU have been successful competing against incumbent providers and the satellite companies.
While CFU has been providing water and electricity to Cedar Falls, IA, for more than 100 years, the broadband/cable portion of the city-owned company was established 20 years ago, after a vote by area citizens. “We came into existence to provide broadband service to businesses at reasonable rates. While it wasn’t common knowledge back in 1994 that the Internet was going to become critical to commerce, enough people here thought it would,” she says. “We know the community owns us and we are here to serve it,” Zeman adds. “We like that, but it also means customers have high expectations, so we can’t take anything for granted; we earn that business every day.”
An additional pressure, CFU’s charter proscribes it from serving customers outside city limits. That regulation, common to many municipals, “puts a premium on great service and retaining our existing customers,” Zeman notes. Now we can talk marketing.
Readers may recall in 2013 we lauded CFU for its 1-Gig Internet product. With the total re-build of CFU’s plant completed last summer and take rates rising nicely, we’re honoring Zeman for her marketing of the re-build and 1-Gig. The re-build? She marketed that? Yes. CFU rebuilt neighborhoodby- neighborhood, which lasted two+ years. Zeman and her team contacted every customer and non-customer in each neighborhood in advance, via phone and mail. “We had three full-time employees who did only this,” she says. “We told [customers] why we were re-building, what to expect and what it meant to them… We didn’t want to be the company that just shows up one day on your front lawn.”
The “your local, trusted provider” marketing fit CFU’s brand filter. As a municipal, CFU is bound to transparency. “Our marketing is more informational than purely promotional,” she says, “but we also told [customers] how much faster [1-Gig] would be than their existing Internet service.” Another marketing push coincided with the addition of 90-square miles to CFU’s footprint. This rural area is outside the city, but within CFU’s service limits. Zeman deployed direct marketing, relying on an excellent database. CFU also conducted customer demonstrations and open houses. “We’ve gotten very good take rates, better than we expected.” She’s marketed TV Everywhere aggressively, too.
While she’s being honored for marketing, calling Zeman a marketer is hardly fair. “She wears a ton of hats,” says CFU’s Director of Customer Service and Business Development Steve Bernard. “Betty is responsible for our cable lineup, programming and retransmission agreements, marketing and pricing research, cable advertising sales, regulatory affairs, media relations, product promotion and customer communication,” he says. Oh, she has responsibilities involving CFU’s electric, gas and water services, too. The best part is Zeman considers herself “fortunate” to be at CFU. “I was a big fan before I worked here,” she says. “We have a great attitude and a team approach, which makes our jobs easier.” And then there’s the direction thing: “We know we live and die with this community; we are very focused on why we’re here.”
In total, CFU has 160 full-time employees in its water,
gas, electric and broadband utilities.
CFU passes 15,500 homes, serving 11,500 with video and
broadband and about 500 businesses with broadband.
Independent Financial Executive of the Year
Service Electric Cablevision
One of the many criteria our judges investigate when deciding whom to honor in this magazine each year is whether or not
the individual has influenced the industry. Is he or she someone whose activities make a difference beyond his or her own company? In that respect, few of our honorees are more distinguished than controller Bob Wieand. In truth, Wieand’s pedigree is such that he could be honored for either one of his jobs. The Emmaus, PA, native’s full-time position has him managing financial relations for Service Electric Cablevision, with about 100K subs spread over three PA systems. A mainstay, he’s been with SEC for nearly 25 years. Wieand’s ‘other’ job is chairing the 20-member board of directors of the Broadband Cable Association of PA (BCAP), the statewide trade group representing cable operators, programmers and vendors. Wieand has put in his innings at BCAP, too, serving two terms as chairman and as a board member for 14 years. Some background is needed to appreciate why Wieand’s activities put him at the forefront of cable and independent cable. Service Electric’s founder, the late John Walson, owned an appliance store in the mid-1940s that sold, installed and repaired General Electric appliances in the Mahanoy City area of Schuylkill County, PA. In 1947, the store began selling TV sets. Turns out it was nearly impossible for Walson’s store and its customers to receive a clear picture because the town is in a valley, surrounded by mountains. This greatly reduced the demand for TVs in the area. To overcome this situation, Walson erected a utility pole and antenna atop a nearby mountain, later building a tower site. He connected his appliance store to the tower using wire cable and modified signal boosters. This brought a clear picture on the sets in his store, making it a popular gathering place. The next year he connected homes of his customers along the cable path, thus starting the country’s first cable system. Cut to the present and Wieand has been working for the Walson family for 23 years; he reports to Mr. Walson’s grandson, Mark. At the other end of Wieand’s portfolio, the Keystone State not only boasts the country’s first statewide cable association, it has more independent cable operators than any state. “BCAP assures that cable is treated fairly by the state in terms of regulation and taxes.” He’s most proud of “keeping unnecessary regulation away from the industry, which, in our opinion, would have restrained growth and hindered consumers from getting increased Internet speeds.” Cablefax is far from the only admirer of Wieand’s leadership at BCAP. “Bob’s stron financial background has helped us in numerous ways,” says Daniel Tunnell, the BCAP president. “He has been a steady and thoughtful member of our board for years, and his guidance as our Chairman has been very valuable.” At family owned SEC, Wieand’s role includes managing
finances and relationships with lenders so there are enough funds to allow it to reinvest in technology. “We offer all the latest and greatest: HD, high-speed Internet, TV Everywhere, voice, VOD, multi-tuner DVR; we consider ourselves state of the art.” Owing to Wieand’s prowess, SEC is prepared to “jump on the next big technology… which, quite frankly, can be expensive.” Speaking of expensive, Wieand calls rising programming costs and retransmission fees “the tough ones… and they’re getting more challenging every year.” Still, the former CPA is bullish on cable. “We see some cord cutting, but we don’t see a lot of it. If you want live sports and live coverage of other things, you almost have to stick with cable,” he says.
The late John Walson was the first cable operator to use
microwave to import distant TV stations, the first to use
coaxial cable for improved picture quality and the first to
distribute pay television programming (HBO).
Parent company Service Electric Television counts 250K
subs in PA and NJ, and ranks in the top 20 MSOs.
Independent Strategic Thinker of the Year
There’s much to admire about Ron Duncan; we’ll begin with his candor.
Our Independent Strategic Thinker of the Year could have told us about how he and his partners literally built cable in Alaska from the ground up into the powerhouse known as GCI. Or how GCI recently bought a half-dozen local broadcast channels and subsequently provided Alaskans with their first taste of local content in HD. He might have mentioned the recent merging of GCI’s wireless unit with another local wireless entity so the two could realize economies of scale and better compete against AT&T, which is in Alaska presently, and Verizon, which is about to flip the switch there.
Any of those accomplishments would have nicely laid the foundation for Duncan’s profile. Instead he tells us a beauty, with himself as the punchline. Born and raised in ‘the lower 48,’ Duncan decided on a lark, between terms at Harvard Business School, to visit Alaska one summer “to see what it was all about and further postpone finding gainful employment.” While in Fairbanks, he noticed the North Pole “was a classic cable market, but there wasn’t a cable system.”
He returned to Boston determined to change that situation. While still a grad student, he and a few local Fairbanks businessmen applied for a franchise license and eventually brought cable to the city. Duncan eventually sold the system, in 1979, thinking he was done with cable. He headed downstate to Anchorage. His plans changed as he and his partners founded GCI. Years later GCI acquired the Fairbanks system that Duncan started—“for about 1,000 times the price I sold it for. If you were to look at the worst financial decisions of your life, selling Fairbanks cable system is probably number one,” he laughs.
More color—one of the first places Duncan lived when he came to North Pole, Alaska, was “downstairs in the Santa Claus house.”
But let’s get to why we’re honoring Duncan, now GCI’s Pres/CEO: the aforementioned acquisition of six broadcast channels, which began last November. Broadcast is a losing proposition, right? Duncan agrees, to a point. “The situation is a bit different for us,” he says. “The broadcast market up here is relatively small and had been relatively laidback, in almost lazy [mode] prior to our entry.” Many stations were “economically challenged… and most decided they could make their living on retransmission fees.”
Duncan spotted an opportunity. “We realized that if we owned some of them and used a common content-gathering structure to support local programming we could enhance the local experience and provide content that would be exclusive to cable.” GCI invested heavily in HD facilities and “very significantly” in studio and remote local production statewide. Much of what is now filmed is highlighted on GCI’s broadcast channels, but shown in full exclusively on GCI’s cable Channel 1, giving the system a competitive advantage over satellite. Sports is a significant share, including games of the Alaska Aces, who were ECHL champs this season, college and native events, like Iditarod and the Arctic Winter Games. While it has been less than one year since the stations were acquired, Duncan says “so far, so good.”
Fortunately he doesn’t restrict his sharp thinking to Alaska, where amateur pilot Duncan says “you can fly for hours without seeing people.” He’s active on a bevy of industry boards, including C-SPAN, NCTA and ACA. “He’s involved in every aspect of cable,” says ACA VP/Chief of Staff Rob Shema. “I really like strategic thinking, solving problems,” he says, so this Cablefax honor suits him. Still, considering he brought cable to the North Pole, where he lived once, we think Duncan qualifies for a much higher honor: Santa’s Helper.
GCI has 140K video subs, 110K local service lines and
130K cable modem subs, equating to 65% of high-speed
data and about 80% HD penetration statewide. It’s one of
Alaska’s largest employers, with 2K employees.
Independent Technology Executive of the Year
You need to know that Jason Hansen is humble and deflects praise.
Despite being named our Independent Technology Executive for 2014, the first thing Conway Corp.’s CTO wants to discuss is “my incredible team [of 17]… They’re incredibly hard working and dedicated… incredibly intelligent, and they make me look good all the time.” He adds, “The team is a credit to upper management who hired them… Our people have customer service on their mind all the time.”
Not everyone is as reluctant to credit Hansen as he is. “Jason leads by example,” says Conway Corp. CEO Richard Arnold. “He has his team focused on improving our services and our customers’ experiences.”
And Hansen is a practical technologist. “If a product isn’t easy to explain and isn’t easy to set up, use and install, it’s not a good product, in my opinion,” he says.
It’s clear why he’s practical: Hansen’s initial choice was to become a teacher. But then came the film Patch Adams. “There’s a scene where they talk about doing what you’re really passionate about. I realized I was passionate about technology and how people can use it to better their lives.” Soon after, Hansen told his fiancé that he would abandon teaching and concentrate on a job somewhere in technology. He joined Conway out of college as a CSR. In 2011 the 15-year Conway veteran became its first Chief Technology Officer.
Good thing for the citizens of Conway, Arkansas, a small but very fast-growing city of 65K, about 30 miles from Little Rock. Unlike many providers who gradually deploy services to parts of their footprint, when municipally owned Conway rolls out a product, it’s available to all customers from day one. Hansen is rightly proud of this. Again, he deflects credit. “This takes additional planning by our team, but they do it every time,” he says. Another factor: “We constantly reinvest in our infrastructure.”
Hansen also is justifiably proud of his team’s speed accomplishments. While Conway’s 17K data customers make it too small to be listed in the Net_ ix ISP Speed Index, its streaming speed is monitored and consistently ranks in the top 10, besting several large providers. “I realize in some
ways our [small] size makes it easier for us to do well on these speed tests, but on the other hand we don’t have the resources that the big boys have to improve speed.” Breaking from his modest demeanor temporarily, Hansen says, “I will pit our network against any of the top MSOs.”
Then there’s the new data center being built “about 100 yards from where I sit today.” It will triple the space for Conway’s technology and withstand natural disasters, including 250-mph winds, Hansen says. The company plans to move an entire headend into the data center in 2015.
A father of three, Hansen is a diehard Chicago Cubs fanatic whose office is filled with baseball bats. But he’s pretty serious when it comes to technology. With three colleges in its footprint, Conway’s demo includes young, tech-savvy professionals who demand cutting-edge services. OnlineUniversities. com named Conway the 6th Geekiest City in America (2011). Hansen also feels heat from older residents, long-time customers who’ve benefitted from Conway being early adopters of broadband and TV Everywhere. “Services have become critical to daily life” in a way they weren’t when Hansen entered the business and the city was one-third the size it is now.
Small independents often have a difficult time staying ahead of the demand for technology. Importantly, Hansen helps advise fellow independents on providing it in a small system. See, Hansen never really left teaching.
Conway Corp. began life in 1928 supplying electricity to
city residents. Video was added in 1980; it now offers
Internet and voice too. It passes 25K HHs and has 18K
In April 1997 Conway Corp became the 3rd U.S. operator
and 5th worldwide to offer cable broadband service.
Independent Community Service Award
Cunningham Telephone & Cable
It doesn’t get more grass roots than Cunningham Telephone & Cable. Its first calls, in 1944, ran through a circuit board in the basement of founders Dean and Hazel Cunningham. The couple offered party line service to tiny Glen Elder, in north central KS. Hazel helped run the basement switchboard, which resembled something you’d see on “The Andy Griffith Show.” The first day the company offered service, its acquired plant was in sorry shape. Dean told the lone service tech, “We don’t have nothing to sell but customer service. Let’s get to it.”
Skip forward 70 years and Cunningham Telephone now is Cunningham Telephone & Cable. It’s in 12 communities, providing digital and HD video, high-speed data and voice. But don’t get overwhelmed by the numbers. As Brent Cunningham, VP & GM, tells us, two of those communities have fewer than 30 subscribers. In all, Cunningham has about 4,500 video customers, with 25% taking digital service. Most communities it serves are rural; the nearest Walmart is 40 miles away.
Cunningham also remains a family business, with 3rd and 4th generations of Cunninghams running it, along with 30
employees. After Dean, who was Brent’s great grandfather, his grandfather Robert ran things; following him was Brent’s uncle David. Now it’s Brent’s father, John.
The company’s ethic remains pretty much what it’s always been—grow the business locally by providing great customer service and offering advanced products. Today those products are delivered by fiber optics, digital and IP equipment.
Cunningham’s customers are its neighbors. “We know almost all our customers by their _ rst name,” Brent says. On the morning we spoke with him, he received a call at 7:30 am at home from a customer. “I don’t mind that at all,” he says. “I think it’s an advantage that our customers can talk directly with the management of our company.”
It’s easy to see the roots of Cunningham’s commitment to community service. Commitment is a family trait. Two summers ago, a Cunningham contractor crew accidentally cut a sewer main. With all of its technicians occupied, company President John Cunningham grabbed a spade and soon was knee-deep in the mud. “That spoke volumes about commitment,” Brent says.
In this environment, community participation is essential, and Cunningham is heavily involved. Several years ago an area food bank was in dire need, so Cunningham ran a Christmas promotion in which customers could bring food items to its of_ ces and in return get a discount on their cable bills. “I was amazed at the response we got,” Brent says. “We’ve continued to do that every year since.” Other businesses have followed suit.
The company also works closely with the local technical college, serving on its advisory board, taking interns and providing supplies for classes. “This year we had the opportunity to be a founding member of the Solomon Valley Community Foundation, which help set up an endowment fund for scholarships and community projects.” Another recent initiative involved a donation of funds and volunteer labor to help build a city park.
“Cunningham is a great role-model for small-town cable companies, they care about their customers, and it is evident in their service and community involvement,” says NCTC VP, Communications Dan Mulvenon. Mulvenon knows first-hand. His father-in-law built the original system in Beloit, KS, now owned by Cunningham. When his mother-in-law was moving last year, Mulvenon’s wife visited the Beloit office. “She said it was like stepping back in time—the same office she visited often as a child, but more so in the care and time the office rep took to help her with her mom’s account.”
As Brent says, “We are fully vested in the success of these areas not just for our company, but to help the areas succeed for the benefit of all of us.” After all, “we and all our employees live here, too.”
Cunningham has 4200 DOCSIS 3.0 cable-modem customers
and about 2,800 CLEC voice customers.
Independent Customer Service Award
Customer service has been a hallmark of independent operators for many years. Clearly that’s the case with Ritter Communications, which began providing local phone service to communities in Arkansas in 1906.
Despite its growth—Ritter now provides leading-edge voice, video and data to some 50K customers in 57 communities in northeast and north central Arkansas, with smaller presences in west Tennessee and Missouri—an emphasis on providing the best customer service in the business remains a priority.
And while the goal is a world-class customer-focused experience, Ritter emphasizes it’s a local product, delivered to customers by employees who are their friends, neighbors and relatives. For example, its call center, open 24/7, is a local operation. This emphasis on being local is one reason why the company’s motto, ‘Right by You,’ is an intentional double entendre. Not only does Ritter promise to do right by its customers, providing them with great service and products, but its employees are local, they’re working and living right by customers.
All this sounds great, of course. But how does Jonesborobased Ritter break through the clutter? After all, its competitors, including AT&T and the satellite companies, promise great customer service, too. Again, it gets back to being local. One way Ritter takes advantage of its proximity to customers is by inviting them in to break bread.
Periodically throughout its systems, Ritter holds Lunch and Learn events, inviting folks for a meal and the opportunity to hear a speaker. Sometimes the speaker is from Ritter, giving customers the chance to hear about and see demonstrations of new products. The Ritter CTO spoke recently, explaining new digital products in laymen’s terms. After lunch people gathered around several stations for hands-on demos. Another time customers were able to chat with senior management after lunch. Recent topics have included storage and protecting your data.
Ritter also brings in speakers from government and academia to discuss pertinent digital issues. A recent Lunch and Learn featured a state official discussing the FCC’s E-Rate program, which provides discounts to help schools and libraries obtain Internet access. “We invited all the local school administrators, and we had a large turnout,” Christian says. An upcoming Lunch and Learn will feature a former government official discussing how businesses can best use the Healthcare Connect Fund, which helps health care providers obtain broadband connectivity and advocates for state and regional broadband health care networks.
These events not only provide information to the community, they allow Ritter to learn more about its customers’ business needs, Christian says. “This is another way to touch customers, to help us provide solutions to them and help them remain competitive. It also lets us know our customers better and strengthens our existing relationships,” says Ritter VP Susan Christian. “We want to be more than order takers.”
We’re also saluting Ritter’s Right by You Moments program, which posts emailed and phoned-in compliments about employees on Ritter’s Web site. The authors range from businesses—Mr. Dotter of the Marion School District thanked Natalie Hoggard, while Mr. Young from the AK State Highway and Transportation Dept. praised Ritter tech manager Rich Busby—to consumers speaking highly about techs and customer-service reps.
Other operators do similar things with customer compliments, but Ritter goes beyond. Without rhyme or reason, years ago Ritter began calling submitted compliments grapes. When a front-line employee receives a Right by You compliment, he/she is given a ‘grape’ in the form of a chance in a drawing for $500 in cash. The drawing is held during Ritter’s annual holiday lunch. Each year a Ritter employee is chosen secretly to dress up in a grape costume and emerge during lunch. Needless to say, Marvin Gaye’s rendition of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” is played at the appropriate moment. Leave it to Ritter to mix great customer service with grape expectations.
Ritter has 260 employees, with headquarters in Jonesboro,
AK, population 70K.
The name of every grape recipient is called during Ritter’s
Independent Lifetime Achievement Award
National Cable TV Cooperative
We’re supposed to be impartial, but for reasons of transparency, we’ll say upfront we like Dan Mulvenon. A lot. You’d be
hard pressed to find anyone in the industry who doesn’t. As former NCTC chief Mike Pandzik says, “Dan is one of those perfect guys who make both great friends and great coworkers. He’s smart, funny, hard-working, experienced and a steady hand in a crisis. Geez—what’s not to like?”
A 20-year NCTC veteran, this soft-spoken VP, Communications is retiring from the co-op after the Independent Show this month. While he has left an indelible mark on the organization, he argues NCTC has been “a life-changing experience” for him. In a story we told in our 2010 edition, Dan’s younger son James socialized with Corie Garrett each summer at the NCTC annual shows—later the Independent Show. James and Corie were married in 2010. Corie’s dad, Ty Garrett, is a longtime cable operator, based in Sykeston, MO. “I got a daughter-inlaw and a family from this job,” Mulvenon says.
Need more evidence that cable is in Mulvenon’s DNA? Dan has spent nearly his entire adult life in the industry. Even his wife has a cable connection [see page 24]. As his high school’s newspaper editor, Mulvenon was asked to do a school news show on the Salina, KS, local origination channel. The lad’s talent led to his becoming a reporter and anchor even as he began matriculating at the University of Kansas. Later he was asked to do weather. “I took a meteorology course in college, but I was far from a meteorologist,” Dan quips.
After college Mulvenon joined HBO’s regional sales office in Kansas City, working in management training and customer service. A bit later, he left cable for the Miller Brewing Company, helping to train beer salesmen in classrooms and through videos. Pandzik brought him back to the cable fold in 1994 to join NCTC.
Always ready to help and with a perpetual smile on his face, Mulvenon played a critical role in the co-op’s early years. “Many independent operators felt like they were alone on an island,” says ACA EVP/Chief of Staff Rob Shema. “Dan was the answer man when members called in to ask for help.” Mulvenon says the genesis of this function was serendipitous. “My office was near the front desk,” he says. “When
the receptionist needed help on a call, I was nearby.” But he went the extra mile. “I kept notes, so I could be more useful and refer newer operators to more experienced members… that’s still a great thing about NCTC, the comradery and the peer-to-peer sharing.”
He’s also proud of NCTC’s growth to 900 members. “What we’ve been able to accomplish here has been tremendous,” he says. NCTC, Mulvenon believes, was “well conceived and well managed and that’s why it’s thriving 30 years later.” The need remains too. “It’s a difficult environment for independent operators, struggling with rising program costs and retransmission fees… but I’m very proud of our members, they were so quick to introduce broadband.” He also salutes independents who invest in local programming. “That’s my
roots… They produce impressive programs… I’d like to see more of them do it.”
What’s next for this Cable Pioneer? In the fall, Mulvenon will begin leading a program in his local school district that assists special-needs students in acquiring job skills. “It’s a way to help the community and students.” Once a helper, always a helper.
As an 18-year-old cable journalist, Mulvenon interviewed
Walter Cronkite, admitting it was a bit intimidating. He also
chatted with “Brady Bunch” maid Ann B. Davis, “a very
nice lady, much smaller than I had imagined.”
Former NCTC chief Mike Pandzik hired Mulvenon 3 times:
at HBO’s regional office in Kansas City, at Studioline, and
at NCTC. “I don’t know if I’ll get the chance to hire him a
fourth time, but Dan’s phone number is on my iPhone, so I
know where to find him!”
Cablefax 100 – 2019 Nominations Due
January 25, 2019
Cablefax Leaders Retreat 2019
April 29, 2019