When we first started considering which cable system we would honor with our System of the Year award, I was certain that it would be one of the old AT&T Broadband systems that Comcast has so stunningly turned around. After all, Comcast has impressed everyone with its almost-too-good-to-be-true numbers from those systems, stemming basic sub losses and progressing well ahead of schedule. But as I asked programmers and vendors to informally nominate systems that we should honor, I kept getting the same response—and it wasn’t for Comcast systems. While Brian Roberts and Steve Burke’s turnaround in AT&T Broadband systems is amazing, Cox systems consistently were described as easier to work with, according to several industry executives polled. These conversations mirrored the results of a survey CableFAX Daily conducted with network affiliate executives last summer, when Cox was ranked—by far—as the MSO programmers liked and respected most. Cox executives say the company’s strategy to decentralize power to the system level is what’s resonating with the rest of the industry. That strategy has been in place since the early days of the Cox family, when it operated newspapers only. “Having a local voice and a local presence always has been strategically important,” says Claus Kroeger, VP, operations. And while Cox systems like Phoenix, Orange County, San Diego and Omaha consistently get raves, no system better demonstrates that decentralized strategy than CableWORLD’s large-market System of the Year, Cox Northern Virginia. The system went through a messy upgrade in a cranky community to become a showcase in the politically important suburbs of Washington, D.C. And the system has started to flourish thanks in large part to the autonomy Cox corporate in Atlanta gives to Cox Northern Virginia’s executive team. The decentralized strategy allowed VP, sales and marketing, Clara Long to tailor marketing plans specific to the Northern Virginia market. “Corporate understands that one size doesn’t fit all,” she says. It allowed VP, customer care, Johnny Benson to purchase equipment for a new phone system that addressed the system’s customer-service problems. “There was no need to get approval from corporate,” he says. The decision-making power Cox gives to the local level enables systems such as Northern Virginia to function like a much smaller operation, allowing them to act quickly and decisively without wading through a lot of red tape. This flexibility has been the hallmark of our small-market System of the Year, Sunflower Broadband of Lawrence, Kan. The independent cable operator has risen above the problems that have bedeviled small-market MSOs (high programming and technology costs, DBS competition) to become a state-of-the-art system that has rolled out high-speed data services with gusto. A VOD launch is planned for next year. In his small-market System of the Year acceptance statement, Sunflower GM Patrick Knorr levels his harshest criticism at ESPN, saying an a la carte system is needed to deal with the net’s high cost. But it is not Sunflower’s video strategy that captured the award; it is the operator’s uncanny ability to know what its customers want—and deliver it—that we are recognizing.