Talk turns to employee morale pretty quickly one early November day at Adelphia’s Cleveland system headquarters, located several blocks and a small airstrip away from Lake Erie. It’s an important issue for area VP Pamela Mackenzie, but it’s also one of the few subjects concerning her system that she can speak about freely. As at all the systems run by the cable industry’s fifth-largest MSO, morale among the 600 Cleveland employees is being tested by uncertainty over what Adelphia’s standing will be when it emerges from Chapter 11 bankruptcy. As a result, Mackenzie—who moved into the VP role last January after four years supervising Adelphia systems in western Pennsylvania and parts of West Virginia—and her colleagues are limited in what they can divulge about the current and future state of the Cleveland system, which in addition to serving the city, reaches some surrounding suburbs. Corporate officials would not release most of the statistics usually requested for our Meet the System profiles, including the number of basic subscribers and plant miles. Media Business Corp., however, lists Adelphia with 318,228 basic Cleveland subscribers, penetrating about 54% of its homes passed there (586,796 homes). Satellite penetration in the area—which includes suburban systems owned by Comcast, Cox and WideOpenWest overbuilds—is about 14.9%. Despite the corporate muzzle, Cleveland management is able to paint a picture of a system doing its best to increase its local profile—and hold off DBS competition. HD DVRs Hit Cleveland "The main challenges for us this year was [to] stabilize the workforce and, while running the business well, provide some strong leadership," says Mackenzie. "When we completed an employee survey last April, the feedback suggested our folks have a great deal of respect for both the local and national management. That’s important when you’re trying to accomplish what we need to accomplish in an urban market, because you can’t do it without the hearts and minds of your workforce." Support from the workforce helped Adelphia introduce community outreach programs this year, highlighted by its participation in the debate between the candidates for U.S. vice president. Ad sales are on course for a huge 2004, sparked by national and local election buys for the biggest market in the swing state of Ohio. Internally, Cleveland’s customer service call center, only a few steps from Mackenzie’s office, was converted into a regional center in late September, handling subs from all over the Midwest and some mid-Atlantic locations. Only one new product was added to the service array this year—digital video recorders with high-definition TV capability. Introduced last winter, the take rate has been promising, says John Pitek, Central region sales/marketing VP at Adelphia. "We’re blowing away expectations on selling HD DVRs. It’s a viral product. If I get this into your home, you will flip over it and market this for me among your friends and neighbors," he says. When Mackenzie arrived in Cleveland, digital, HD and video on demand already were in place. Any change to those lineups since, as well as to basic, has been incremental. TV One premiered on basic early in 2004, and Fuel will come to digital later this month. The HD channel collection will add Discovery HD Theater and the feed from local PBS affiliate WVIZ this week or next. On-demand content includes material from In Demand and various ESPN packages. Hello Cleveland! While Adelphia rolled out HD DVRs, Lee Shapiro, director of government and public affairs, and her team launched a variety of outreach initiatives. This spring, Adelphia sponsored the Mayor’s Dessert Cup Challenge, an annual food festival at which mayors and other elected officials in northern Ohio submit their best dessert recipes to a taste test. Adelphia also provided high-speed Internet access to school libraries. Internally, the system instituted a "volunteer opportunity of the month" program, which encourages employees to get involved in the system’s outreach initiatives. Employees make suggestions about which nonprofit organizations Adelphia should work with; Shapiro and Mackenzie then make the ultimate call. So far, the opportunities have included the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation and the Leukemia Society walkathons; a home makeover for a disabled person conducted with Rebuilding Cleveland Together; and school supply collection in association with My Fairy Godmother, a local charity that provides formal prom dresses to girls, but in this case distributed free backpacks. Adelphia’s outreach went into high gear this fall as the vice presidential debate approached. The system’s local production staff teamed up with WVIZ to tape a series of City Club election presentations prior to the debate. In addition to local play, the coverage was offered to the Cox and Comcast suburban systems and Adelphia outlets in southern Ohio. The system’s local origination channels carried visits by the C-SPAN School Bus and two high school forums, one featuring former Democratic presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich. Also in partnership with C-SPAN, Shapiro’s unit provided three high school students with press credentials for the VP debate; the students had access to each candidate’s spin room and shot footage with digital video cameras. That footage will be the basis of a documentary the system will air in early 2005. "We have further to go in the same direction of building positive relationships with our city leaders and communities," Shapiro says. "Some solid relationships were made with the VP debate, and we’ll look to continue and grow them." The VP debate aside, programming on Adelphia’s local origination channels has helped cement the MSO’s ties to the community. For instance, City Link tracks issues concerning a particular neighborhood through talk and documentary segments; In the Spotlight uses in-studio roundtables and live viewer calls to explore several sides of a subject; there’s a live high school game every Friday, plus Les Levine’s Sports Talk weeknights; and on Saturday nights, the grand old TV tradition of cheesy horror movie showcases with an on-camera host lives on with Midnight Movie. Political Advertisers Vote Cable Cross-channel avails were launched on 16 networks at the start of 2004, bringing the number of insertable channels to 40; Adelphia Media Services (AMS) handles the ad sales. In Cleveland, Adelphia sells local and some national spot contracts with assistance from the Cleveland Media Connect, which interconnects with the Cox/Comcast area outlets, as well as various Time Warner Cable, Massillon Cable and Buckeye Cablevision systems. "The auto category has been very good for us this year," says Nancy Fry, the AMS general sales manager for Cleveland. "One new development is furniture and jewelry store retailers making big investments throughout the year, not just at holiday time." For Fry, 2004 will go down as the year Adelphia became a major avenue for presidential and local campaign spending. Ads from both the Bush and Kerry camps poured in as Ohio’s battleground state status soared, coupled with major spending from local and state candidates and the Cleveland school system, which backed an important ballot referendum. "I’ve been in the cable field 25 years, and I’ve never seen anything in the political arena like this, both from the amount of spending done and the amount of candidates buying time," Fry says. Fry would not disclose how big Adelphia’s ad revenue jump will be this year from 2003, either in dollar or percentage terms. Before Adelphia went campaigning for political ad dollars, call center director Gerald Jordan supervised the conversion of his customer service staff from purely local to regional. The six-month conversion went off with few technical glitches or sour grapes from Adelphia customers in other markets. Jordan attributes the ease of the conversion to the policy of asking the other systems to contribute practices that worked in their CSR shops. "If the practice of one system makes sense, we’re using it throughout the region. We wanted consensus among the systems of how to do things, instead of enforcing our existing policy on them," Jordan explains. The participating systems engage in a weekly conference call to share consumer feedback. Some of the feedback is reviewed at an analysis center, where calls throughout the day are monitored; if a high volume of calls pertains to one specific issue or service, field personnel get reassigned accordingly. Voice over IP phone service is the next new product challenge awaiting Adelphia in Cleveland. Pitek promises VoIP will launch in 2005, and he’ll be involved in crafting features that will be offered, having worked for Qwest, US West and Rochester Telephone prior to entering cable. "When we launch the product, we’ll have the act together," he says. "You can’t tolerate any phone glitches, and you have RBOCs with deep pockets that will point out any flaw that springs up." As for what else lies ahead, whatever the ultimate fate of Adelphia in Cleveland, the management team there is determined that customers benefit from a flexible and state-of-the-art system infrastructure. No one will go out on a limb and mention when an all-digital, Internet protocol infrastructure will come. But you definitely catch the drift from Joe Ruff, just a month into his role as technical operations director. "We’ll most likely follow the same direction as the rest of the industry," he says. "It all goes back to service and taking care of the customer."