Former Cox chief Jim Robbins is a man of few words, and the Ivy Leaguer chooses them carefully. So when he says of his incoming Cable Hall of Fame mates “in a lot of ways it’s a wonderful class,” you’re hard-pressed not to agree with him.
Indeed, the class includes one of the great behind-the-scenes people in cable, a largely unheralded but very deserving techie who could barely believe it when he was informed of his Oct. 11 induction (HBO’s Bob Zitter). It’s also a diverse group, boasting a multitasking woman who’s largely a broadcaster (Carolyn Chambers), another woman who’s made her reputation serving America’s youth (MTV’s Judy McGrath) and the Hall’s most youthful inductee (Comcast’s Brian Roberts, aged 47, who joins his father Ralph in the Hall). In McGrath and Roberts the Hall adds arguably cable’s top MSO exec and its most powerful female programming exec, respectively.
There’s also former NCTA chief and current Landmark boss Decker Anstrom, one of the few people on this planet who can mix wisdom, class and dignity with Yogi Berra. And anybody who’s enjoyed watching a film on cable owes some share of their pleasure to Viacom co-founder Ralph Baruch, whom Brian Roberts aptly calls “a legend” and Jim Robbins once called boss.
This special section finds the inductees opining about their businesses, the state of cable, diversity, the Hall itself and, in some cases, retirement.
We asked Brian Roberts what he thought the class would talk about most at The Cable Center’s ceremony, business or personal. “Probably personal, don’t you think?” We didn’t know. “We’ll have to see,” he said. “That’s what makes it exciting.” Agreed.
We learned again why depending upon technology is not always a good idea. One of our interviewers taped the sessions with Carolyn Chambers and Ralph Baruch, but his Olympus digital voice recorder died. Fortunately he was able to reconstruct the talks from notes, written on paper with a relatively low-tech pen. We regret any errors.
ANSTROM SEES WEATHER TAPPING HIGH BANDWIDTH PHONES
President/COO, Landmark Comm.
Don’t confuse Decker Anstrom’s soft-spoken manner with a casual attitude. The former NCTA chief helped reinvent The Weather Channel and continues to champion diversity, dubbing cable’s poor showing on NAMIC’s recent survey “embarrassing.”
SA: In fact, in talking with your classmates, they have nothing but praise for you. How does going into the Hall of Fame make you feel?
DA: I truly feel humbled by it. I know most people say that, but it’s truly the case in my instance. I’ve had the opportunity to introduce a number of people into the Hall of Fame since it started and I’ve always been impressed with the accomplishments, the number of years they’ve been in the industry. So inducting people like Bob Miron, Alan Gerry, June Travis, Glenn Jones and thinking of myself in that category is typically something I’ve not done before. At the same time, I feel great about it because I love this industry. It really grows on you very quickly and I have some wonderful experiences and have done a variety of things, and had opportunities to grow and learn from people who are doing interesting things has been a great experience for me and one that most people don’t get in their professional life. To have the experience of being in this industry and being recognized this way is certainly a terrific one.
You know another wonderful thing has been the people I’ve worked with, and one particularly nice relationship has been the one I had with June Travis at NCTA. Somehow I convinced her to come to NCTA and serve as executive vice president. I learned so much from her and we were, I think, great partners during a really interesting time in the industry’s history after the ’92 Act. She played such a great role in getting a lot of companies to come back to NCTA who’d sort of given up on it after the ’92 Act.
Is this a bittersweet experience considering your Atlanta Braves are not going to be in the postseason for the first time in 14 years?
[Laughter] We’re not giving up yet [more laughter]. I was hoping for déjà vu all over again, as Yogi Berra says. So, yes, it’s a little bittersweet in that regard, but it’s hedged in the sense that my American League team has been the Detroit Tigers. It’s a tale of two cities: the Braves have been great for 14 years and I don’t think the Tigers have had a winning season since 1993. So the year the Braves are down, the Tigers finally decided to be competitive, so at least I have one team in the hunt.
So let’s do a Baseball Hall of Fame question. When you go into the Hall of Fame will your plaque show you wearing an NCTA hat or a Landmark hat?
[Laughter] That’s a good question. I think it would have to be an NCTA hat. The people who do the heavy lifting at Landmark are the people down at The Weather Channel and I’m certainly here to help them in that, but they’re certainly doing the great work. So if there’s any hat that’s appropriate it would be an NCTA hat. That’s a great question [laughter].
I know you can’t give too many details, but will you quote from that great Bronxian philosopher Yogi Berra in your acceptance speech?
There’s a possibility that Yogi will have a role in my comments. I usually find it hard not to give a speech without having Yogi in there somewhere [laughter].
Speaking of NCTA and the ’90s, when you stepped down from NCTA in the late ’90s, one of the most heartfelt tributes to you came from your nemesis, Eddie Fritts of NAB. Are those bipartisan days gone forever?
I’d divide that into two parts. There’s always a strong, competitive sense between the people who represent industries. Sometimes that means being at strong odds with people who represent other industries, so Eddie and I had some disagreements publicly and privately; I also had them with Jack Valenti when he was running MPAA and Gary Shapiro. But we were also comrades, because in the end if you’re really doing your job running a trade association and representing an industry you’re finding points of agreement between your industries. No industry benefits much from spending time and resources in Washington; they’re much better off building their businesses in the country and I think we all understood that. The relationships I had with Eddie, Jack and Gary continue [at NCTA]; I know Robert [Sachs] had those relationships and Kyle [McSlarrow] is building them. That’s one side of the ledger, where you can fight during the day and still respect each other as friends and advocates in the marketplace.
On the Hill there’s no doubt it’s more partisan today. I think this is partly old fogeyism on my part, you know, things were better in the past than they are now. But I look at things now and when I go to Washington to lobby on behalf of Landmark and it’s just so much sharper, more bitter, more personal and more partisan. And I’m not sure there’s a cure for it, frankly, and it discourages me. There’s all the political analysis on why that’s happened, but in general it might just reflect where the country is right now. There aren’t that many purple states, but a lot of blue and red states. People are dug in in such hardened and extreme positions. There are very few people up there who look at the question of what’s best for the country. It’s all about who can raise more money and beat the next guy to the television camera. I don’t see that turning around for a while.
So what’s the political strategy for an industry like cable?
It makes things a lot harder for an industry. You have to do two things. First, and I think this is where cable and Kyle particularly are doing a good job, you have to be bipartisan. That means if you’ve been a Democrat or a Republican in a prior life you have to drop that at the doorstep and be a cable guy. Cable’s done that well. The other thing is to really take a principled position in Washington: We want the ability to compete and develop new products and bring them to market with as little regulation as possible. Of course, every industry wants that. The second part of that we won’t seek competitive advantage by trying to regulate our competitors. A lot of industries spend time trying to figure out how I can tie up my competitors. I think the broadcast industry has played that game for a long time, regrettably. So I think one of the ways to avoid the partisanship is not to run to Washington every time there is a problem. In general we’ve done a pretty good job of that in cable.
How do you see cable’s regulatory position today?
I think it’s in a good position. It’s pretty light. We still have a few things we’d rather not have, like must-carry, which is a horribly antiquated and anticompetitive idea. Can we still run our businesses with must-carry? Oh, yes, we can. There’s this plug-and-play problem with the consumer electronics industry, which could lead to some pretty silly consequences and cost the cable industry millions of dollars. That’s a form of unnecessary regulation, but would it cripple the industry? No. But are there big competitive barriers to what we want to do in video, voice and online services? I don’t think so.
And the telcos?
They certainly are looking for a privileged position in the regulatory environment, but cable has appropriately called them on that. But even if the telephone companies got a privileged position in the regulatory environment it’s not clear that they would compete more effectively.
So cable’s a strong competitor?
Yes. We have very strong companies with plants built out and the strong triple-play package and the potential for mobile coming on. I think we are in the strongest position we’ve ever been in. It’s a great position to be in and a good reason not to run to Washington every time a problem comes up.
The Weather Channel really has reinvented itself since you arrived in 1999. What excites you the most there?
We’ve continued to invest in long-form programming, because we found our viewers wanted were interested in getting some sense of the drama and excitement of weather. Our local forecasts have gotten better, we’ve invested a lot in our forecasting engines themselves, so we can provide highly local forecasts now. Our severe weather coverage is very compelling, so the network itself is very interesting. Certainly weather.com and our interactive products have been the source of a lot of innovation. Weather.com typically is among the top 10-12 websites in the country, with about 35 million unique visitors. We’re doing a lot of things there, not uniquely, like using video to tell the story and get information that people want.
You were among the first to jump on mobile platforms.
Yes, we’ve been very aggressive on mobile platforms. If you look at mobile usage, after e-mail, weather typically is the second-most used app on mobile platforms today. We’re really aggressively developing new products, including radar on your mobile phone. As more phones become more capable of high-bandwidth applications we’ll be right there in a leadership position. Back to weather.com and broadband, in terms of extending our brand and informational capabilities and the whole global climate change debate, as you know we’ll have a Sunday show once a week, which we think will be the central place to come and see what’s happening in the global climate change debate here and around the world. We’re also launching a broadband site in October that we hope will be the central place for people to come to get information about global climate change. So these things excite me both in how to get information to consumers anytime, anywhere on multiple platforms. And second, how do we make a difference in people’s lives? And that’s trying to become the authority on global climate change, which I think will be one of the three or four issues we’re going to face as a society over the next couple of decades.
Would you advocate a cable-wide response to climate change?
I don’t know if I’d be quite there yet, but it’s an interesting question. But I think every company in the country is really going to have to address what are we doing in terms of our energy usage and environmental practices to minimize impact on the planet. Companies like Starbucks, Wal-Mart and GE even are doing the right thing, in terms of cutting their energy costs and other related expenses. It turns out to be a good thing and good business. It’s something that every company and every citizen will have to pay attention to. There are some really awful forecasts for what might happen.
Diversity has been a major thrust for you at NCTA and Landmark. We’ve just come out of Diversity Week. Just 14 companies responded to NAMIC’s inquiry for research. Only 15 responded for the 2004 report.
I’m happy to say we participated in both.
And Weather’s done great in WICT’s PAR study. So, how do we get more companies to respond to [the NAMIC] survey? Is it important that they do?
I think it’s very important. I thought the [recent Kaitz dinner] was a very interesting program, one of the most focused on why we were there that evening. We’re experiencing this in our company and I’m sure it’s going on in most companies. Look, we’ve been talking about this for 20-25 years and some things have happened and that’s good. But I think we need to develop more of a sense of impatience about where we are.
But things are improving.
Yes, we’re doing better, as the NAMIC report suggested, in entry level and midlevel jobs. But we don’t seem to be able to get people of color into senior- and executive-level positions very effectively. We’ve been stumbling on this for 20-25 years. I think we need to develop a sense of urgency about it, hold people accountable for it and I think we need to celebrate successes, as we did [at the recent Kaitz dinner]. We also need to develop some best practices and measurement systems to know where we are. WICT is on the right path here. They have around 40 companies in their PAR process, and I had some role in that. Basically they have companies competing to be in those top five companies that are best for women. They exploited the natural competitiveness of the cable industry [laughter]. Nobody wants to sit at a dinner and not see your company in the top five.
And they’ve been very clever about that. The benchmarks get raised every year and that comes from best practices. I think NAMIC is going to be able to get us there.
Has the refocusing of the diversity groups worked?
Yes. I think Glenn Britt in particular deserves some real credit for this. It gets money into the hands of those three organizations and gives them the professional capability to do this. NAMIC has taken some very good steps in that regard.
What’s the next step?
For people like me, executives in these companies, to say, “We’re going to help you. How can we do that?” I think they’re on the right track with this survey. But, frankly, it’s embarrassing that only 14 companies participated in that survey. I hope we get a lot more participation next year, because I think we learn from that. That’s exactly what’s happened with the PAR study. We have people look around and say, “Hey, there’s a best practice, I should be doing that and I get points for doing that in terms of being a top five company.” I would encourage NAMIC to go in that direction, get a competition going.
You’re an advocate for diversity of ideas.
To take NAMIC’s point, you can’t have a discussion on difference if you have no difference in your company. That’s why representation is so important. We’ve been on a four-year effort at all of Landmark’s businesses called Leveraging Difference. The point is when you talk about leveraging all kinds of differences it’s a much more inclusive process. We find in our company that difference of race and gender are important, but we find differences between the TV people and the online people, between the meteorologists and the engineers, salespeople. Getting all that out where people can mix it up in a constructive way, you end up making better business decisions. You have to get people comfortable with each other and putting ideas out on the table, exploring the range of things you can be doing. That’s the real power, getting a mix of ideas—better solutions come out. It’s very appropriate that MTV got the award [for diversity from Kaitz]. I have tremendous respect for what Tom [Freston] and Judy [McGrath] did. That company has lived [diversity] for a long time, and you see the results.
What are the differences between running Landmark and running NCTA?
Well, you worry more about profits here [laughter], that’s for sure. I had to balance my budget at NCTA, but I was never charged with creating a net operating income [laughter]. The scorecard’s a little clearer. But there are a number of similarities. Like [Good to Great author] Jim Collins says, you have to get the right people in the right seats. Another important job for me here and at NCTA is strategy. What do you want to do and how will you get it done? NCTA is much more of a consensus model. You have strong, independent CEOs sitting around a table and you have to get their agreement to do anything. So consensus is important in a trade association, but it’s also important in a company. The command-control model of business, where the CEO says we’re going to do this and everyone does. That sure doesn’t work in 2006 in terms of what employees expect and their role. So I spend a lot of time at Landmark doing what I did at NCTA, listening to people, bringing them into dialogues, having people collaborate, getting people’s buy-in.
Many feel that The Cable Center is making strides but isn’t where it should be in terms of its relevance to the cable business. Your take?
That’s a fair assessment. The Cable Center is still searching for its mission in the industry. I think the people on The Cable Center board would say the same thing. But I think there’s been progress and it’s come from narrowing what The Cable Center should do. Some very well-intentioned people 10 years started with some very broad ideas about what The Cable Center might be that weren’t very well grounded. Now, the Center has very smartly begun to refocus on what couple of things it might do. I think this focus on outreach to the academic community, to universities, they’re doing very well. I think that’s great. I think finding a few more things like that is important.
Is the Hall of Fame necessary?
I think I have a conflict of interest on that. But I think it’s important for industries to celebrate successes. You don’t want to overdo it. I think our industry probably has too many awards and recognitions, but it’s an industry that’s had a lot of remarkable people, celebrating those people and those accomplishments is probably a good thing. —Interview by Seth Arenstein
RETIRED BUT NOT RETIRING: ROBBINS PUSHES WIRELESS, CUSTOMER SERVICE James O. Robbins
CEO, Cox Communications (RET)
We found Jim Robbins as delightfully blunt as ever, urging cable to add a wireless product to the bundle and concentrate on customer service, and admitting to his floundering golf game.
SA: Is there anything you’ve seen in retirement that you’ve said to yourself, “Gee, I wish I’d noticed that when I was running Cox”?
JR: The only admonition that I would leave is this: I think we have a good thing with the bundle, and we’d better damn well make sure we’ve got a wireless product in that bundle because that’s where the consumer is taking us. If we’re not there, I think we’re vulnerable to the big, bad phone companies. All due speed on the joint venture initiative with Sprint. Look, just because the other guys don’t have their full arsenal going at us yet doesn’t mean we can slack off. We need to get the wireless product fully integrated into our bundle. That is going to help us remain competitive.
You have a lot of experience competing against the phone companies. Any words of advice for cable?
I think cable’s doing great. The formula that we executed at Cox is increasingly looking like what everyone else is doing. My only admonition is stay at it, with terrific underscoring on customer service. At the end of the day we’re all going to have the same programming, the same hardware. The differentiator is how you treat your customer. It sounds like motherhood and apple pie. Easy to say, hard to do.
Speaking of your customer service mantra, Paul Maxwell reminded me to ask how’s customer service at your house?
Well, there are no plans where I live now to have high-definition television. I don’t need to mention the name of the company, but I’ve gone to the head of it and asked this question and there are no plans for it. And I don’t live on a foreign planet. That speaks for itself.
Was taking Cox private the right way to go?
I think it looks better every day as you see Brian Roberts’ stock price go back over where Cox Enterprises took their company private.
For someone who avoids honors, since you’ve retired you’ve been brought back to accept awards more than a few times. Is this positively your last hurrah on the awards circuit?
Never say never, but I sure hope so.
[Laughter] Seriously, you must be honored by your induction.
I’m absolutely honored by it and delighted. I wish I could just fly out there in the middle of the night and slide away.
[Laughter] Brian Roberts says he’s most proud of joining you in the Hall.
You know Brian and I have been pulling each other’s chain for a long time. I would say the same thing back to him. We’ve had a friendly rivalry for years. We’ll continue to pull each other’s chain until we’re in the ground.
There’s a nasty rumor going around that despite your retirement your handicap is not improving.
It’s getting worse. And that’s the honest to God truth.
[Laughter] Why is that?
I have no idea. If I knew that I wouldn’t be spending my time talking to you, I’d be out on a golf course making money.
Seriously, you seem pretty busy with all the boards you serve on. [Mr. Robbins is president of the board of trustees, St. Paul’s School, his alma mater; he also serves on the board of Humana Inc., STI Classic Funds, Bessemer Securities Inc. and Cox Enterprises and is senior advisor, Providence Equity.]
I’m a little bit busy.
So, are you enjoying retirement or does it feel like you haven’t retired?
No, I’m enjoying retirement. I’m trying to get a rhythm on what retirement is all about, and I think that may be an oxymoron.
Why is that?
Because I don’t think there is such a thing as a rhythm in retirement. The best part of it is that I have a great deal more control over my own time. I can work as much or as little as I want, and I can come and go as I want. I’m not constrained by the daily treadmill.
Any thoughts on your induction class?
In a lot of ways it’s a wonderful class. I saw Bob Zitter the other day. There’s a guy who’s been toiling away in the vineyards behind the scenes to keep HBO in the forefront. Ralph Baruch I worked for before I went to Cox; I have very fond memories of him as a human being and it’s ironic we’re both going in together. Decker Anstrom is just a dear friend and a mentor, certainly in the political world. He’s a great human being; humble, effective, smart, just all those adjectives that you like to think you can emulate. I don’t know Judy McGrath as well, but she’s certainly been a force behind Tom Freston. Now she’ll have to operate under the klieg lights. She’s done that before, but now they’ll really be on her. —Interview by Seth Arenstein
MOVIE MAVEN BARUCH PUSHED CONCEPT OF FILMS ON CABLE Ralph M. Baruch
Founder, Former Chairman., Viacom International
Brian Roberts calls Ralph Baruch legendary. That’s an apt description of the man who became founding president and CEO of Viacom International in 1971 and chaired the first Kaitz dinner. He’s best known for championing the sale of movies on cable.
PSM: As you got more active in the cable business, I remember when you became a champion of selling movies on cable.
RB: Yes, I remember that I went around everywhere saying, “Pay cable is my thing!” I remember, too, that Polly Dunn—you remember her from Mississippi and her one system—was against the NCTA studying it. I remember telling her that someday pay cable would be as important for her independent system as for any major MSO.
You tried pay-per-view first?
We did. I think the first movie we tried was The Poseidon Adventure and in the first test 60% of the subscribers paid $3.95 for it. That was in 1974. We called the test Viacode. But then HBO went for subscriptions and that changed the model.
And you called it Showtime, and had Jeffrey Reiss, Jules Haimovitz, John Sie, Dave Hanson and Sam Street going everywhere with cassettes, right?
Well, Terry Elkes said we couldn’t afford to go on the satellite. But Larry Hilford and I said we couldn’t afford not to go on the satellite. So we had Ken Gorman negotiate for two transponders on the RCA bird called Satcom III-R. We were at the launch party in Cape Canaveral, both my wife Jean and I were on crutches! And I pushed the button to launch the satellite and that’s the last that anyone saw of it ever.
But Showtime eventually launched via satellite, too. Along the way, you had some ownership adventures with it.
We sold half of Showtime to Russ Karp at TelePrompTer and doubled our subscriber base, from 300,000 to 600,000. But, then Group W bought TPT from Jack Kent Cooke. Dan Ritchie, who was running Group W, called me and said we were running too many R-rated movies. We decided that joint ownership wasn’t working and decided to try to buy it back. But Dan didn’t want to sell. Eventually he decided to sell, though.
But then you wanted to fully acquire some basic networks?
We were negotiating with Steve Ross for MTV, VH-1, Nickelodeon and, once again, for half of Showtime. He was a genius of a negotiator; we had our ceiling and he wanted more. We wouldn’t pay. But then he put his thinking cap on and came up with a way to satisfy both of us. He was really something.
As you enter the Cable Hall of Fame, I notice other members of the Hall worked for you.
Six of them. Let’s see, Gerry Laybourne, Jim Robbins—who comes in with me this year—John Sie, Bob Johnson, Tom Freston and, of course, John Goddard.
Nice to see you join them.
You’ve got a book coming out early next year?
Television Tightrope: How I Escaped Hitler, Survived CBS and Fathered Viacom comes out in April, I think. I wrote it with Lee Roderick. The publisher is Probitas Press and it is about my life.
We’ll be happy to promote it. Your life has been a wonderful roller coaster. Welcome to the Cable Hall of Fame. —Interview by Paul S. Maxwell
TECH’S SERVANT Robert H. Zitter
EVP, Technology Ops, & CTO, HBO
Bob Zitter straddles the line of being part of cable’s past, present and future. The man who pioneered HBO’s digital compression in 1992 and oversees the company’s technology assets worldwide sees on demand becoming the major mode of viewing and anticipates a consumer interface.
What’s been the most significant tech advance you’ve seen?
Clearly the most significant is when we first began digital television in 1992. That was the year that we installed—and were the first television network to do so—digital transmission to our affiliates. And then [Dr.] John Malone announced an order to purchase equipment to deliver it down to consumers. You know, that happened a couple of years before direct broadcast by satellite launched. Everything that is happening now and will happen in the future really came from the first implementation of compressed digital signals.
Well, what’s next then?
From my perspective, I think where things are going is one real direction, but with two aspects to it. Television and video usage by consumers and how we all deal with it will benefit from greater personalization, That is, customization of what consumers get and how they want to use it. I was a very big believer of on demand, and I believe as time passes that’s how consumers will want to consume television. For example, my grandchildren, who are 4 and 18 months, that’s the only way they know television.
The second thing is, that as choice explodes—and we’ve all lived through the growth from three channels to the mythical 500—to the many thousands of choices…we’re going to need a consumer interface. I think that’s going to be tied to developments in video search.
I just think that—no matter the technology solution such as switched digital and OCAP—I just think the consumer has to have a way to choose from hundreds of thousands of programs that is not overburdening.
That sounds like something the next inductee will have solved.
I’ll be sure to share it with her!
Did you know you are only the fourth true techie to get into the Cable Hall of Fame?
I have to tell you, when I got the call…I was just shocked. I was shocked for the same reason that, when I looked at the list of past as well as the current class being inducted, I said: "What am doing amongst these people that I’ve looked up to all these years?"
There’s Sid Topol, Frank Drendel—really more of a finance genius running a tech company—and Milt Shapp. What a terrific compliment.
I was astounded…I still can’t understand how it happened…I’ve always believed—and it has certainly been the underpinning of everything I’ve tried to do here at HBO—that a lot of the advances that our industry has made and will continue to make really come from the integration…that is taking the technology advances that we’ve made and then built businesses opportunities around them. That’s kind of been my mantra here. So, if this recognition means anything it probably is a recognition of that.
That’s nicely said.
Well, I’ll also say this at the event…when I started in television, I started in the broadcast business. I believe that, for certainly the last 25 years, all of the changes that have come—certainly all of the significant changes—that have come to television and the consumer’s use of television, have really been from advances that the cable industry has made happen. And I, quite frankly, think that HBO, as a company, has been great in allowing somebody like me to push those envelopes. And that’s helped us be a force for change that has been behind a lot of these advances.
Other than as far as the industry has come—and I’ve gotten to be a part of it—I just think the next five to 10 years are going to be among the most exciting. —Interview by Paul S. Maxwell
THE ORIGINAL MULTITASKER
Carolyn S. Chambers
Chairman/CEO, Chambers Communications
Today’s youthful multitaskers have nothing on Carolyn Chambers. Not only does she own cable and broadcast outlets, she’s served on the Federal Reserve Board and produced award-winning films and stage shows.
PSM: As an ABC affiliate with four stations, are you a surprised to be inducted into the Cable Hall of Fame?
CC: I’m surprised alright. But I’m a cable person, too. I still have one cable system.
You have been quite active in cable association affairs.
I like lobbying. I enjoy the public policy side of things. And I believe in serving.
And you were once among the top 20 cable operators.
With Liberty. We sold it to TCI in 1983, but I kept some cable systems in Oregon and California as well as a TV station and formed Chambers Communications. We then sold all but one cable system to AT&T in 2000. But my heart is always in cable, too.
You were on the first Women in Cable board.
That’s right. And I was privileged to serve as the third national president.
What other cable activities did you enjoy?
As I mentioned, I like lobbying. So I spent a lot of time with the NCTA and C-SPAN as a board member and was quite active for them with the FCC and on the Hill. And, I’ve been very active in state associations where we’ve had cable systems. I remember getting you to speak at a Pacific Northwest Cable TV Association meeting in Bend.
Right. Among the activities you’ve been involved with, I was always impressed with your service on the Federal Reserve Board.
Well, that was interesting. I’ve always been good at numbers and that service certainly helped me with the banks when we talked about financing cable.
Clearly, you’ve been good with numbers. And, unusually for a numbers person, you’ve been more than just a little bit active on the creative side of these businesses as well.
A few years ago, I bought a screenplay by Robert Waller—who wrote The Bridges of Madison County—called Puerto Vallarta Squeeze. As you know, since you’ve been there, I love Puerto Vallarta. So, in 2002, I produced the movie starring Scott Glenn and Harvey Keitel. It’s about a CIA assassin on the run in Mexico.
Looking at your other movie, The Sisters, it seems you’ve got a knack for rounding up great talent.
Thank you. We had Maria Bello, who has won some awards. In fact this movie has won eight awards on the independent film circuit. It also stars Mary Stuart Masterson, Chris O’Donnell, Steven Culp and Rip Torn.
And you’ve been active with stage productions, too?
Our Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks opened on Broadway and has been performed in Chicago, Tel Aviv, Madrid, Berlin, Sydney, Tokyo and Hamburg. —Interview by Paul S. Maxwell
I WANT MY BRANDS
Chairman, CEO, MTV Networks
MTV chief Judy McGrath praises Tom Freston but says no person is larger than MTV’s brands, which stand ready for future challenges.
SA: This honor comes at a sensitive time for MTV Networks and for you with the sudden departure of Tom Freston. It must be bittersweet.
JM: Tom helped build a culture of creative excellence, innovation and diversity here at MTV Networks. He left an indelible imprint on this company…he’s in its DNA. His legacy will be felt at MTV Networks for as long as it’s around and kicking.
That being said, no one person is bigger than our brands. Not Tom, not me. This is a truly exciting time for MTV Networks and I have never been more committed to our company.
The majority of MTV’s revenue comes from cable. Will this be the case in five years? Do linear networks have a future?
Television viewership has never been as high as it is today, and I expect this trend to continue, and that the majority of our ad revenue will still come from television five years from now.
The explosion and redefinition of the media industry, from linear television across the Web into VOD and wireless and broadband and beyond…is fueling new behaviors and creating new opportunities for content, new business models. I expect digital to close the gap significantly over the next five years.
Whatever the platform, what we know is that brands matter. Our brands are some of the most recognizable and unique in the world, with a hugely loyal, engaged and digitally savvy following. We’re ready for whatever the future holds.
Has the Cable Hall of Fame done right by women? Is the industry doing all it should to create opportunities for qualified women?
Well, there are only six women in the Cable Hall of Fame compared to 53 men, so I’d have to say no. I’d also say we’re not doing enough as an industry to help women break through the glass ceiling.
But we’re working on it. At MTV Networks, we have an unbelievable lineup of female talent, like Cyma Zarghami, Nicole Browning, and Christina Norman, to name a few. We’ve put an added emphasis on career development and diversity and proven that it’s been a huge part of our success.
Much of MTV’s success has been linked to its laid-back culture. With Mr. Freston’s departure and the increasing corporatization of America, can you maintain the freewheeling spirit?
Our success is absolutely dependent on continued emphasis on diversity and individuality. This is non-negotiable. MTVN must be a place where all voices are welcomed and respected…where all of our people are encouraged to share ideas, take risks, draw on their full range of skills and bring their whole selves to work.
Philippe Dauman respects and supports the culture we’ve built here, and I’m looking forward to partnering with him to continue to grow MTV Networks.
Your role models are your parents, Duke Ellington, Gloria Steinem and Samuel Beckett. Will you fit them into your acceptance speech or will you stick to industry people who have influenced you?
I’ve learned from so many brilliant and talented people over the course of my career, and I’m still doing it…at Condé Nast, inside MTV Networks, from my first employer, my hometown local radio station. I couldn’t possibly name-check them all. I take inspiration from musicians, always. And from my mother, who long ago said to me as I was starting first grade, “The nuns aren’t always right. You have your opinion. Stick to it.” —Interview by Seth Arenstein
ROBERTS EYES BETTER VOD NAVIGATION, BUSINESS SERVICES
Brian L. Roberts
Chairman/CEO, Comcast Corp.
Even as Comcast posts 35% increases in its stock price, the youngest member of Cable’s Hall of Fame is eyeing VOD improvements and business services, which could be the MSO’s next growth engine. [Following is an expanded version of the interview that appeared in print.]
SA: You’ve been a VOD stalwart, but some feel consumers remain badly educated on VOD. They don’t even know where to find VOD. Navigation seems to be a problem. A few years back you touted voice-activated remotes, which would seem to solve many of these problems. What’s happened with them?
BR: We’re not convinced they’re ready for primetime yet. That’s slower than I would have liked. But we’ve been looking at other ways to make VOD simpler. Still, you’ve put your finger on the right issue.
What are you doing to improve navigation?
We are working on our on-demand guide. By owning the relationship with TV Guide we have integrated that software development into the rest of the products of the company under [Comcast SVP product development] Greg Butz, who works for [Comcast Online president] Dave Juliano. We have a road map for simplifying for consumers the on-demand search features. The process will be easier, not harder, even though you’ll have more choices. I’m very pleased with the focus of the company in that regard.
So VOD remains a major thrust.
Yes. In July we had 180 million orders, or views for on demand, which is up 21% since June. We have now passed 3 billion TV shows viewed by our customers on demand. It’s grown with the quality of the content. We can’t even keep up with ingesting the servers fast enough with the new content we’re getting. For a while people were saying, “When will you get broadcast shows?” We’ve made great progress there. For a while we got asked about more movies. We’re not completely happy that we don’t have day and date, but we have hundreds of movies available.
What other video products are you pushing?
Our latest thrust is hi-def. How do we improve the hi-def offerings, so there’s just no question for a consumer who has just a bought a new plasma TV the best way to get high-definition television is from Comcast? We are going to improve our hi-def.
There’s talk on the Street that cable yet again will need to upgrade its plant. Will it?
I really don’t think so at all. I’m pretty confident that the kind of money spent in the last 10 years, call it $100 billion, that nothing anywhere close to that will be needed.
You can split nodes and effectively double your capacity for $1 billion or not even. You’re seeing compression technologies get better, you’re seeing new work on amplifiers to stretch the capacity. You’re seeing techniques like digital simulcast and going all-digital where you reclaim part of the analog bandwidth. Cable has the ability to migrate to a switched all-digital platform, with the industrial-grade ability that we have today with the flexibility of all-IP TV without having to have the instability that comes with computers. So we think we have a better architectural structure for TV for as far as the eye can see.
You’ve spoken about entering the business services sector.
We are having an incredible year in Comcast Digital Voice. It is the new growth engine for our company. As we study what the growth engine might be after this growth engine—which by the way is in the first year of what I believe will be many years of growth powered by CDV—we are impressed by other operators’ success in small and medium-size business.
We made a lot of money in that market with our investment in teleport, which we sold for a billion and a half dollars a decade or so ago. We haven’t reentered that market successfully since.
It seems the infrastructure and technology of IP-delivered voice as broadband over a private, high-speed cable network with our wonderful national footprint, or near national footprint in urban markets, positions us to have a business services unit that could be a great growth vehicle.
We recently [Aug. 7] hired Bill Stemper [as president of Comcast Business Services], who had a great run at AT&T and Cox. We were awarded by The Yankee Group for the quality of our voice services for small and medium-size business. So we have the nucleus of a new growth engine. It may take a few years, but that’s OK.
What are some of Comcast’s hurdles?
Let me start by saying we have three guys named Dave, who all have tough jobs. Two of them work for [COO] Steve Burke, who has a pretty tough job. But [EVP] David Cohen has to face Washington, where competitors have the potential to try to distort reality, to tilt the level playing field in their favor. In a fair fight this industry is going to do fantastically well. We just have to make sure there isn’t some unintended regulation or barrier that would hinder our growth prospects and investment prospects.
Who are the other two Daves?
[EVP operations] Dave Watson, ably assisted by Dave Juliano, has to convince the consumer that Comcast is the company to choose in a world where every one of our products has competition. I think they’re doing a marvelous job, with systems created by Steve [Burke’s] vision, [SVP marketing] Marvin Davis’ creativity, with our Comcastic branding campaign and our simple triple-play execution. We’ve got our company focused in a way that I’ve never seen it quite so focused. And the results are happening faster and better than we budgeted, better than we told Wall Street and, frankly, than any of us personally expected. We’re having a great 2006. Now the key is how do we do it in the second half of the year and how do we do it again next year?
It seems since the Disney situation, you’ve methodically built a significant programming division. What’s ahead in that part of the business?
We’ve had a tremendously exciting year since [Comcast Programming Group president] Jeff Shell joined us. He’s aggressively rebranded our channels, from the hiring of Ryan Seacrest at E! to the up to 15-year PGA deal with The Golf Channel, where literally every single PGA event on cable will be on The Golf Channel on Thursdays and Fridays, to the National Hockey League with OLN, now [called] Versus.
It’s a tough environment in the programming business now, with advertisers having more choices, including the Internet. But it’s also an energizing time. With dislocation there’s new opportunities, and we’re very focused on the Internet. [Comcast Interactive Media president] Amy Banse and her team have sort of shifted from programming to the Internet and are working hand in hand with Jeff Shell, Steve Burke and others. Content broadly defined is a big part of Comcast today and hopefully will be so in the future.
Is it important for cable to have a Hall of Fame?
First of all, it’s an honor for me, so it’s not really my place to have a perfect answer for that. But as I reflect on it, it’s like the advertising campaign at NCTA, “Cable Is a Great American Success Story.” Frankly I would add that it’s really been built in one generation. It’s amazing. To remember your roots and to celebrate the entrepreneurial spirit and to build on that each year by adding people is a lovely recognition. And for me to be asked to be a member, with Comcast people who are currently members, Ralph [Roberts], Dan [Aaron] and Julian [Brodsky], obviously is a very special recognition.
You grew up in cable. How has that influenced the way you run the company?
I think it’s a great advantage to have been around when some of the brightest and most innovative minds were literally betting everything on their future and this industry. Having some of my best friends, [TBS vice chair] Terry McGuirk and [Pilot House principal] Tim Neher, who are my contemporaries, to [Dr.] John Malone, Amos Hostetter, Bill Daniels, Doug Dittrick and Bill Bresnan. To see them in the prime of their business careers gives me a perspective today that the business has changed so radically. That it’s more than just a job, more than just another industry. There is a connection through our roots that doesn’t slow us down but helps ground us when we have tough, tough moments.
So it helps, for instance, when the stock market falls out of love with us, as it tends to do from time to time, with our industry. Look, those guys were literally facing shutdowns. We’re just facing underwater options. It was life and death for some of those guys when those moments happened. So, when the government focuses on our industry from time to time…you feel defensive and underappreciated for the contributions. Imagine trying to get started and get a license for the very first time. So I do think today’s problems are yesterday’s problems, just in a slightly different form.
Do you consult those men when you’re perplexed?
I’m most fortunate in that 15 feet from my desk is my father’s office. I’m there every day. There’s [Comcast co-founder] Julian Brodsky, who used to be the chairman of the board and is still a very trusted adviser to Comcast. [Dr.] John Malone and I are on the board of the Bank of New York together and have frequent contact. [Former Time Warner Cable CEO] Joe Collins joined the board of Comcast a few years ago. [Landmark president/COO] Decker Anstrom is on the board of Comcast. They are frequent advisers.
You may say this is none of our business, but why did you choose to have Julian Brodsky introduce you at the Hall of Fame instead of your father?
No, I’ve thought about it. First of all, I’m sure my father will be there; he wouldn’t miss it. He’s had throat surgery, so he doesn’t relish public speaking as much as in the old days. Julian Brodsky has been involved with The Cable Center more than Ralph has and been on the board. He’s been active with how we bridge the past with the present, which is tricky. I thought it seemed appropriate. Ralph and I have had the chance to stand on podiums in a number of situations, which is incredibly special. But it’s been a long time since Julian and I have. You know I lived at [Julian’s] house when I was 14 or 15 years old with my first summer job. He has three wonderful daughters, but he’s always treated me like a semi-adopted son, and I think it’ll be a special opportunity.
Back to the Hall of Fame. It’s quite a class you’re entering with.
Yes, it’s an honor to join Jim Robbins particularly, my old friend, as well as Decker Anstrom and Judy McGrath and others who I grew up with in this business. It’s nice to see Bob Zitter, who doesn’t get a lot of recognition for the technology advances he’s made, and Ralph Baruch is a legend. Carolyn Chambers is another family business person and she’s also been a role model for many women entrepreneurs. So this class is truly very, very special.
I agree. What do you think the class will talk about most? Will it be business or personal?
Probably personal, don’t you think?
I don’t know.
We’ll have to see. That’s what makes it exciting. —Interview by Seth Arenstein