Seth Arenstein

Memory experts say one of the best ways to remember anything is to link something else with it. To remember the meaning of a difficult vocabulary word make a mental picture in your mind that reminds you of the word’s meaning. For me, Thanksgiving, since 2007, has been linked with John Higgins, who passed near this time of the year in 2006, far too young, at 45.

To describe Higgins as a cable reporter would be tantamount to categorizing Fred Astaire as a dancer. Higgins was a master who actually enjoyed reading corporate financial disclosure statements. He often found gold in those hills, despite companies’ best efforts to hide details. Few things got by Higgins. His weekly analysis pieces in Broadcasting and Cable magazine consisted of dissecting complicated financial deals, removing each piece of a transaction, examining it in detail and putting the whole thing back together again. After reading one of his articles on a Monday morning, which we all did—rival journalists and cable executives alike—you knew much more about what inevitably would become cable’s agenda that week.

This is not to suggest Higgins was a pure scientist, as a journalist or as a person. While I’d put his sharp mind up against most, he was far from what we would call today a wonk, though I’ll admit his knowledge of finance and cable was wonk-ish in the best sense of the word. But this short, stout master of the trade, who was never seen without his trademark dark suit, white shirt and nondescript tie, was many things: a mentor, a friendly rival, a savant, a feared critic, an ethicist and iconoclast, a jokester, a party animal, a terrific raconteur, a very good guy.

When Higgins—that’s how he referred to himself—passed, the industry publications spent a couple of weeks eulogizing him. A hastily-organized memorial at MTV headquarters in NY City become a cable must-attend rivaling the Kaitz dinner. Fire laws were temporarily suspended, allowing the rafters to fill with attendees, far exceeding the room’s legal capacity. More than one participant at the memorial commented that Higgins would have loved that this event flouted official rules.

Discovery, probably others, too, cancelled its holiday party so staff could attend the Higgins memorial. In truth, the memorial probably produced more good cheer than most holiday parties. The eclectic music came from Higgins’s iPod and there were cocktails before and after—Higgins would have insisted on that. There were no eulogies in the traditional sense. It was a roast with Higgins-esque speeches, loaded with excellent cable intelligence but spiced with tales of mischief and fun perpetrated by the master in his dark suit. We heard of the time, prior to his cable days, when Higgins covered a story about a local polar bear club by jumping into a freezing lake along with the swimmers. We learned of his fascination with velvet Elvis portraits, of his encyclopedic knowledge of New York City’s restaurants, bars and dives; of his often loud “discussions” with his editors; and how even the cleaning lady at B&C knew Higgins was “one of the good ones.” The man who’d set cable agenda for years in the trades in death had become the agenda.

During that memorial, or perhaps in the countless tributes before and after it, more than a few cable executives mentioned that the day before he succumbed to a heart ailment, Higgins had called them to trade tips on turkey preparation. As a reporter, I recall thinking, ‘So that’s how he gets inside the industry, he schmoozes with cable officials about the holiday and if a couple of interesting non-culinary tidbits are mentioned, well, so much the better.’ Of course, Higgins’s tactics were more sophisticated than that. Yet, for me, the image of Higgins, feet up on his desk, talking turkey with his sources prior to the holiday has, to this day, always linked John Higgins with Thanksgiving. I’m thankful it does.
  
 
 

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