Amy Maclean: What shape is the industry in today?
Michael Willner: I think the business fundamentally is very exciting. I think there’s a complete disconnect between the perceived performance of most cable companies and the actual rollout of our new businesses. There’s no connect-the-dots available to me right now with the way a lot of equity markets are viewing the industry and how the industry is performing.
AM: What’s life like at Insight without the Midwest systems that Comcast now has?
MW: The intensity of our business hasn’t changed. We lost a lot of funny people. We still have a few. … It doesn’t mean that we don’t have a sound and healthy business that we continue operating. It just means fewer systems so fewer customers.
AM: Who was the funniest?
MW: I think Scott Cooley was the funniest. He’s actually not in the industry right now, which is a great loss. Scott had a way of melting everything down to its lowest possible common denominator.
AM: You’ve been very active in DC over the years. What scares you most on the regulatory front?
MW: I couldn’t get any more scared than I’ve already been. The problem that I have today is that you look at some of the things floated around Washington about this industry and you kind of scratch your head and wonder, ‘Where did this come from? On what basis of reality is this point of view being put forth?’ It’s the irrationality that scares me the most.
AM: As you look back on your career in cable, what moment or event stands out?
MiW: As I was ending my term as the NCTA chmn, I left the board meeting to go to the bathroom and came back to find out that I’d been re-elected for a 2nd term when people weren’t re-elected at the time. [Laughter] I realized I should never go to the bathroom during a meeting again.
AM: Well, that was a good thing? Serving twice?
MW: Well, it was a moment. [Laughter] It also was [during that 2nd tenure] when the industry went into a financial downfall and free fall as a result of a lot of the onus Wall St in general was having. We had to come up with some sort of reporting standards on our operating metrics, which was not an easy task. So, the 2nd term was certainly harder than the first.
AM: Are you looking to grow Insight? Are there deals out there to be made?
MW: We’re growing internally. We grew at 5.5% last year in basic customers. We continue to add basic customers at a very rapid clip this year. So, we’re very pleased with our own internal performance.
That said, if the right deal comes along, it’s no secret that we sought some alternatives last summer, including possibly getting out of the business. But capital markets were what they were at the time, and we have withdrawn any consideration of doing that at this point. And frankly, growing the company again makes a lot of sense if the right deals are out there. That said, we’re not going to go and buy a bunch of subscribers just for the sake of growth. We’re going to have to find the right ones.
AM: You’re chairman of The Cable Show ’09. It will be during the inaugural Cable Connection week. How do you think this consolidation of events will work out?
MW: It has to work out. The industry is a different industry than it was when all these things got started. There are fewer companies that serve many subscribers. There just needed to be a rationalization of all this travel that was taking place. We looked for ways to do it that will not detract from the contributions these various organizations are making to the industry. We just needed to be more rational about how they do it.
AM: Do you have any predictions for Nov 4?
MW: Yes, we’re going to have a new president, and it won’t be a Clinton or a Bush.
AM: Are you publicly supporting anyone?
AM: Was there a moment when you realized the cable business had arrived?
MW: There was, and it was very clear to me… I was in Glasgow in Scotland, in a hotel room, and I was watching CNN on the night the US began to bomb Baghdad in the first Gulf War. And Bernard Shaw was the only one reporting live from Baghdad at the time, cooped up in that hotel room. That in itself was a moment where I realized the cable industry was in the major leagues. When I called home to see how my family was doing, I could hear the same broadcast… Not only had we arrived as an industry, but we’d arrived as an international industry, since we were a quarter of a world apart. That was a moment.
AM: You’re a techno-savvy guy. From a personal standpoint, what excites you most about new media?
MW: From the big picture point of view, what excites me is that we’re in the middle of and somewhat responsible for a communications revolution that is just as important to the 21st Century as the Industrial Revolution was to the 20th Century.
There’s no question in my mind that we’ll have no less of an impact on the future of this planet as a result of what we’re doing. I don’t know if it’s possible for me to pick one aspect as being more exciting than all the other ones. Every time someone in my house has a question that nobody knows the answer to, the fact that somebody turns their head and starts clicking on a keypad and gets the answer in a matter of seconds is really an amazing accomplishment compared to where we were just 5 years ago.