Our hands-down winner this year is Adelphia’s CFO Vanessa Wittman, who certainly has had cable’s most complicated job for the past two years. Sure, she’s not splicing fiber in the snow. Nor is she on the front lines dealing with irate consumers. But as the point person at Adelphia, she’s had the difficult task of trying to untangle the Rigas family’s tortured finances. That’s a tough gig. The nomination process showed that many cable guys and gals truly believe they have the toughest job. We had flacks nominating other flacks. We heard from lawyers, fund-raisers and others, each claiming that they have the toughest job in cable. Here’s our choices: Grace Under Fire
1. Adelphia CFO
Vanessa Wittman
That we’ve selected Adelphia CFO Vanessa Wittman as having the hardest job in cable comes as no surprise to her boss, CEO Bill Schleyer. "This is one of the most complicated jobs anyone’s ever had," Schleyer says, "not just in the cable industry but in the history of business." Although Wittman saw fiber-optic network provider 360Networks through bankruptcy, nothing could have prepared her for Adelphia, she says. "It’s orders of magnitude harder" than anything she’s done. Unlike many other chief financial officers in cable, Wittman is solely responsible for Adelphia’s normal planning and control functions, securities and merger and acquisition functions and Securities and Exchange Commission reporting. (Cox and Time Warner Cable are divisions of larger companies, while two executives divide Comcast’s CFO responsibilities.) Complicating her day-to-day CFO functions, of course, are enormous bankruptcy issues, the reconstruction of the company’s financial records for the past several years, the sale of the company and the ensuing transition to not one but two companies, Comcast and Time Warner Cable. Schleyer gives Wittman credit for keeping her staff focused and motivated as well as for the company’s huge accomplishments in recent months. Among them: the sale, which was concluded after a yearlong auction and a grueling 12-week negotiation period, the restatement of several years of financials and the settlement with the government. Further, she’s handled everything with grace, Schleyer adds. "If you can’t keep a sense of humor with all of the crazy stuff that happens, you’d be in a straightjacket," Wittman says. "Things happen that you seriously could not make up." In their calmer moments, she and Schleyer have a running joke that they’re ruined for other jobs. "We’ll just be bored," she says. —Mavis Scanlon No Comment
2. Cablevision Spokesperson
Charlie Schueler, SVP, media and communications
There’s nobody in cable who can offer a better "no comment" than Charlie Schueler. My personal favorite is Schueler’s off-the-record no comment. If he hasn’t copyrighted it, he should. It’s pure Bethpage magic. It happens when you’re asking Schueler about something he’s not going to comment on. You’ve tried for the fifth time to get him to say something—anything—beyond "no comment." That’s when Schueler strikes: "Can we go off the record?" he says. I greedily say yes, sit up straighter, grab my pen. "OK. Off the record, we really can’t talk about it." He gets me with that every time. I know what you’re thinking—it’s not so tough to stonewall a bunch of press jackals with a few well-placed no comments. But it is. Especially if you have to explain to the New York press why your company isn’t showing the Yankees. Especially if you have to explain to the financial press why your bosses (father chairman and son CEO) are publicly fighting. Especially if you have to explain to New York’s sports press how the Knicks missed the playoffs with the NBA’s highest payroll. And especially when your mandate is to keep reporters away, rather than invite them in and show them around. And you have to do all of this by saying nothing. The beauty of Schueler’s no comments is that trade reporters personally like him despite the lack of quotable quotes. And he’s well regarded in the industry: For the record, Schueler received more nominations from cable colleagues than anyone on this list. —John P. Ourand Circuit Overload
3. CSR During Hurricane Season
Liz Hicks, lead CSR, Bright House Networks
On average, Bright House Networks’ system in Orlando, Fla., gets more than 600,000 calls per month. But last September was no average month for Bright House, when more than 1.2 million calls poured into the system’s customer service department and automated response lines. Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne had just swept through central Florida, a few weeks after Hurricane Charley came calling. For lead customer service rep Liz Hicks, an already tough role of handling inquiries and complaints day after day became an endless marathon, as she spent days taking more than 100 calls an hour. "It did cross my mind at one point that, after 20 years, I was in the wrong job," Hicks says. "I was very on edge. Staying calm and focusing on working through it was the important thing to do." When Charley struck Orlando last Aug. 13, Hicks and her colleagues were dismissed from work early to check on their own families and homes. Hicks returned the next day to find frantic callers stuck on hold. "We had to remain positive and give people the news straight," she says. "We were apologetic. We said we’re working as hard as we can to get service restored. [We told them] crews are coming from out of state to help us." Luckily, Hicks was not distracted by personal catastrophe or hardship. She lost electrical power during Charley, and a few roof shingles on her house were torn off during Frances and Jeanne. —Simon Applebaum Rats With Furry Tails
4. Pole Climber
Dave Atkinson, lead maintenance technician,
Time Warner Cable Albany
Dave Atkinson leads a life of adventure up in Albany, N.Y. One day he’s replacing sections of cable while on outage patrol in temperatures approaching 20 degrees below zero, the next he’s climbing poles while 2 to 3 feet of snow drops below him. Just don’t ask him how he feels about squirrels, not unless you want to put Atkinson, a cable tech in the area for 13 years, in a bad mood. "As soon as you get a cable repair job done, they come back and start chewing the cable off again," he says. Time Warner Cable has more than 300,000 customers in the Albany area. Atkinson has to resolve whatever plant problems cross his desk, regardless of the weather. And Albany is not San Diego. "You can’t put the job off for another day, even at 90 degrees or 20 degrees below," he says. "The subscribers count on getting the issue resolved, and on me. I like the final result of making them happy." Atkinson sometimes spends several days at the same location in frigid conditions to handle an outage, waiting until the phone or power companies take care of their own lines before he and his crew can deal with lost cable service. "Sometimes it’s out of your control and you’re at their mercy," he says. —Simon Applebaum Extreme Conditions
5. Intrepid Behind the Camera
Jon Kessler, freelance cameraman,
The Weather Channel
Playing a cameraman in the 1993 film Groundhog Day, Chris Elliott tries to impress a young lady with the line: "A lot of people think you just pick up [the camera] and shoot, but it’s a lot more complicated than that." For our crew that’s an understatement. Not only is CNN camerawoman Mary Rogers one of the few females in what is usually a men’s club, she’s cheated death by spending her career in war zones. These days she gets her mail in Iraq. Then there’s a breed indigenous to National Geographic Channel and Animal Planet. This species negotiates extreme temperatures, not to mention lions, snakes and bugs as it shoots the antics of naturists like Animal Planet’s Jeff Corwin and Nat Geo’s Dr. Brady Barr. Jon Kessler, a regular freelancer for The Weather Channel, finds plenty of trouble at home in the U.S. He’s the guy behind the camera when Weather’s reporters are attempting to stand in 140-mph winds, rain and snow. "It’s dangerous, but you learn where to hide…so the winds are only 60-80 miles per hour. Snow actually is easy to shoot in, but with hurricanes you never know about the swirls." During Hurricane Charley, "I got hit by a piece of debris, but I didn’t even feel it. I only noticed a bruise later that night." But the hardest job in cable? "Naw. I love it. It’s like second nature by now. I’ve been a storm follower since I was a kid. It’s the only thing that gets me excited these days." —Seth Arenstein The Check’s in the Mail
6. Accounts Receivable
Robin Colon, director of accounts receivable, credit and collections,
Court TV
In many jobs, getting 90% of the work done is a benchmark of great performance. At Court TV, when Robin Colon gets 90% of her work done, she’s about to really get working. Colon, the primo bill collector for the New York-based programmer, is responsible for the accounting of all the monthly affiliate fees charged to cable operators. About 10% of affiliates don’t pay their fees on time each month, and it’s Colon’s job to put the squeeze on. The toughest part of dealing with the tardy affiliates is tracking systems that have slipped through the cracks as a result of mergers, swaps or sales. Court TV gets a monthly report from each operator affiliate, and benchmarks reports from month to month to find discrepancies. "We’re not usually given much heads-up on this stuff," Colon says. In such cases, Colon puts on her deerstalker hat and sifts through computer files, documents and records of phone inquiries. If nothing conclusive turns up, she talks to Court TV’s affiliate sales department. If that leads to a dead end, Colon works her network of MSO contacts, which she began constructing when managing financial matters in affiliate relations at Court TV back in 1999. "There are many times [when I’m] trying to play detective," she says. "There are frustrating aspects. Sometimes it takes longer than you’d like to find information, and sometimes you make more phone calls than you should. It helps to have a love for details and research, and love the challenge of getting details." When she finally reaches a guilty party, the payment is usually received within a few days. So far, she’s had to visit a cable system only once to shake loose a check. —Simon Applebaum Buyer’s Market
7. Independent Network Head Without a Comcast Deal
Harold Brown, founder, Southern Entertainment Television
Harold Brown is just one in a long line of independent programmers seeking carriage on Comcast systems who’s being asked to forget linear (or getting paid) and to try VOD. As the founder of Southern Entertainment Television, which offers bluegrass, Southern gospel and Black gospel music channels, Brown signed a long-term affiliation agreement with TCI in 1997. The deal gave Brown a so-called hunting license to pitch his music channels as a pay service to individual systems. But before he could launch, AT&T purchased TCI, and then Comcast acquired AT&T Broadband. Brown has been meeting with Comcast’s regional offices; the only system rejecting his service was Baltimore, according to Brown. Comcast doesn’t dispute the existence of his agreement, but has been steering him toward the VOD route instead of a linear launch—specifically, toward free VOD, for which it doesn’t pay programmers. "They want everything free. Well, I’m not free," says a fed-up Brown, who’s now negotiating with the Dish Network and other TV providers. "Basically, if you have a deal where you get paid, and there’s a merger, they don’t want to pay you." A Comcast spokesperson responds: "While we’ve had discussions with Southern Entertainment Television, we have not been able to reach an agreement about the appropriate VOD business model for their content." —Shirley Brady Lonely at the Top
8. Charter CEO
Bob May, interim president and CEO
The good news is that you get to be CEO of a major cable MSO. The bad news is the gig is CEO of Charter. That means that you will have no real power. (All big decisions come out of Paul Allen’s Pacific Northwest office). It means you have no real security. (Your boss is notorious for having "spies" second-guess every move. Why do you think Paul Allen’s sister Jo Allen Patton hangs around as a consultant?) And it means that you get to run a company that is so highly leveraged that there’s not enough money to invest in anything. Then there are Charter’s legal troubles—still an albatross more than three years after they first surfaced. Charter has been targeted by the feds for accounting irregularities, specifically for the shady inclusion of nonpaying disconnects in its subscriber counts. Just last month, a former employee alleged that Allen tacitly approved of this bogus practice. Allen denied the charge. Let’s not forget the issue of Charter’s stock price, which consistently has been hovering under $1. Finally, there’s the case of Carl Vogel. When CableWORLD caught up with Vogel a month after he left Charter, the executive looked more relaxed than he had in years. And that’s probably the best reason of all to include May on this list. —John P. Ourand Welcome Aboard
9. NCTA Chief
Kyle McSlarrow, president and CEO
Do you remember your first day on the job? Usually first days are pretty light: meeting HR, deciding which health insurance to take, meeting the staff… McSlarrow’s first day started out like that. Just a couple of hours into his new gig, however, McSlarrow learned just how tough his job would be, when two powerful politicians, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK) and Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), threw an indecency grenade at the Capital City’s newest lobbyist, suggesting that cable should have to adhere to stricter, broadcast-type content regulations. Timing is everything inside the Beltway. There is no doubt that Stevens and Barton were sending a public message to the incoming NCTA chief. But that’s only one of the reasons why McSlarrow’s job is so tough. The NCTA chief also has the thankless task of trying to herd cats (i.e., operators, programmers and vendors). McSlarrow’s main job is to tell cable’s story to Capitol Hill. The problem is that McSlarrow has to figure out just what cable’s story actually is. Is it the MSO’s version? Is it the programmers’ version? Every week, it seemed, NCTA’s former president and CEO Robert Sachs batted back rumors of a programmer revolt that would lead to a mass exodus from the association. For the most part, that talk has died down. But McSlarrow’s still in his honeymoon period, which means that a tough job is bound to get even tougher. —John P. Ourand Beware of Dog
10. Cable Installer
Tucker Williams, field service tech, Cox Gulf Coast
Cox technician Tucker Williams has pretty much seen and been through it all. He gets to meet with already unhappy customers on their own turf. Working in Florida’s Panhandle means the conditions are typically hot, humid and nasty. That makes the mainstay of his job—crawling through people’s attics to get to their cable connections—a misery at the best of times. Most people do not keep their attics cooled with a fan. Last year, in fact, while installing a high-speed Internet connection in a subscriber’s attic, a Bright House Networks field service tech died from heat exhaustion. "Sometimes you would not believe how dirty people’s homes are," Williams says. He has to deal with animals all the time—dogs, like their owners, get cranky living with that oppressive weather—and also experienced firsthand what Cox’s customers endured when the mobile war zone called Hurricane Ivan hit last September. Living less than a mile from Pensacola Bay, the bachelor fled to his parents’ home in Alabama and returned to his own house two and a half days later to find the roof torn off. Everything he owned was destroyed, leaving him "devastated and shocked." It’s a testament to Cox that Williams—who, after he lost his home, received a financial donation from the company, a large part of which came from fellow employees—is still on the job. —Shirley Brady

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