Last week’s meeting of the American Cable Association brought together the cable industry’s often unsung heroes: These are the small operators who don’t have multibillion-dollar balance sheets or much influence over the cable content machine. Big programmers often dictate terms, and when it comes to local broadcasters, small ops often must stomach take-it-or-leave-it retrans “offers” that leave them feeling abused. It’s tough out there for the little guy. Always has been. Always will be.

But this year’s meeting—held at the beautiful National Harbor in Maryland right outside of DC—was striking in that it reminds all of us that for all the attention given to the larger MSOs with their big-name CEOs and Wall Street acumen, it’s sometimes the smaller operators that must innovate and serve (or die). That’s perhaps no surprise considering that smaller companies are generally more nimble and flexible. But it’s worth noting in a world in which the consumer and trade media sometimes gives too much attention to the big players. Some of this is unavoidable because those big MSOs drive so much of the marketplace—especially when it comes to technology specs and rollouts, Wall Street perception and influence over the content sector. But those of us in the media can do better.

One case in point is the fact that the tiny Kansas-based Sunflower Broadband has employed consumption-based broadband billing for nearly 4 years! Yeah, perhaps you thought Time Warner Cable was out front, leading the industry into a brave new world. Far from it. Sunflower has been doing it for years and (surprise) with nary a complaint from its customers or the Internet blogosphere. Now to be fair, Time Warner Cable is a much bigger target. Sunflower serves fewer than 50K subs out there in the heartland (where, frankly, people are more polite anyway). But it’s important to note that had the rest of the cable industry followed Sunflower’s lead on this and started testing new broadband billing schemes years ago—before YouTube, Hulu and the now pervasive perception among consumers that they have a right to full episodes of cable programs online for free—the current furor probably wouldn’t even exist. And the entire industry would be in position to adapt without fear of getting flamed by bloggers and consumer-rights folks.

And what about customer service and relations? The small guys seem to have a better handle on that as well, partly because of the differences in scale. If Comcast loses a customer, it’s sad but no cause for concern considering that the MSO serves 24mln homes. A small operator, however, can’t tolerate churn when it only has only a few thousand customers. Every connection is golden! In addition, it’s main competitor is seldom Verizon or AT&T, which have no desire to serve rural America: It’s the big satellite giants DirecTV and EchoStar, neither of whom have managed to shine in the customer service department with 800 numbers that lead to a faraway call center. Their only local roots are the retail distributors, and try getting them to call you back after they’ve already made their commissions. So for the small guys, customer service is a big differentiator. And smartly, they have exploited it as much as possible.

As Washington bickers over small-business taxes, distribution of the broadband stimulus, retrans consent reform and a host of other issues, the American Cable Association has never been more important. Matt Polka and the gang have their work cut out for them. But make no mistake: The small operators are still the heart of the cable industry even if the multibillion-dollar giants get all the attention. And the big guys could learn a thing or two from their smaller cousins.

The Daily



“The Gilded Age,” series premiere, 9pm, Monday, HBO. This sumptuous (it better be, see the title) new period piece has been called “Downton Abbey” on Steroids.

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