The late John Higgins, cable’s uber journalist, is like the proverbial gift that keeps on giving.
Each year at this time and for the past few, I’ve dedicated a blogpost to Higgins—that’s what he preferred to be called—since in the collective memory of cable his passing often is identified with Thanksgiving and the start of the holiday season. For a few people, the last conversation they had with Higgins was turkey talk. Each year he would phone his legion of cable sources to swap turkey recipes.
As a reporter, learning that Higgins deftly crossed the business-personal life divide with culinary chit-chat made an impression on me when speaker after speaker mentioned it during his standing-room-only memorial at MTV’s headquarters in NYC in 2006. ‘So, that’s how he does it,’ I recall thinking about the genesis of Higgins’ access, which led to more than a few scoops. Turkey ostensibly was the subject of the call—do you remember the old days, when reporters called, not texted or emailed, sources on touch-tone phones?—but if a hot tip about cable happened to come up during a discourse about basting, who would mind?
In preparing this year’s blog I found out about another Higgins tactic, which also mixed journalism and cuisine. “He threw great dinner parties,” says Patricia Kollappallil, SVP, Communications, TLC & Animal Planet. “And you never knew who might be coming, Leo Hindery or his college buddies,” she adds.
There were many times when cable people would say of this short, stout dynamo of a journalist “Only Higgins.” When you’d see him at 7am prowling around a hotel in his patented black suit, white shirt and dark tie. Or when he’d be working the party circuit that same day, loaded with energy, late into the evening, when most had called it a night—again in the black suit, white shirt and tie. At the memorial when cocktails were served before and after, and a lively after-party was hosted by Cablevision at the Blue Fin, the former Cable Positive chief Steve Villano asked attendees if they’d ever been to a memorial where drinks were served. When finding nobody had, Villano exclaimed, “Only Higgins.” And now, years after Higgins’ last words were written—and they were probably insightful and agenda-setting—I’ll say it: Only Higgins would have the confidence, smarts and, as I’ve learned recently, culinary expertise to invite Hindery, then one of cable’s leading power brokers, to his apartment for dinner. Man, talk about access.
But more about the Higgins recipe that called for mixing top-flight journalism with, well, just about anything. Annie Howell, the former Hallmark Channel and Discovery executive, says, “He would randomly call his list of PR friends and sources, tell them about an upcoming Kate Spade sale, a trunk sale in Soho, the best restaurant he just discovered or discuss at length plans for cooking your Thanksgiving turkey.” (There’s the turkey again, which continues to be a touchstone for Higgins memories.) “In fact,” Howell recalls, “that’s the last conversation I ever had with Higgins, just before Thanksgiving eve. He sounded happy, content and looking forward to a day of cooking with friends and family. He chose brine, I chose marinade. Gulp.”
Although Higgins didn’t make it to Thanksgiving 2006, at least a few cable families have him to thank for the tasty bird they devour each year. “I think of him every Thanksgiving,” Kollappallil says. “He taught me many cooking techniques like brining a turkey to make it moister.” We know of Higgins’ encyclopedic knowledge of restaurants, especially in NY, but apparently he was as comfortable in the kitchen as he was behind a laptop. “In fact, my fondest image of him is in his kitchen or mine, with a towel thrown over his shoulder, in front of the stove,” says Kollappallil, who was a neighbor and had the privilege of knowing Higgins better than most. She benefitted countless times. “Living across the hall from him when I first moved to NY and catching the bus everyday into the city together” was an educational experience. “It was Higgins who taught me NY bus and train protocol: No touching of anything and try to avoid making direct eye contact with the many ‘eclectic’ folks commuting with you!”
Eclectic, in the best sense, is just one more way of describing Higgins, who mixed a razor-sharp intellect with a yen for campy portraits of Elvis painted on velvet. Former CTAM and ESPN executive M.C. Antil, who must rank high on the list of cable’s most eclectic and interesting—he once walked from Syracuse, NY, to Atlanta, GA, to ask Ted Turner for a job—recalls an afternoon with Higgins.”At a time when I only knew John professionally, he came up to my neighborhood on the Upper West Side where we sat down one Friday after deadline at a sidewalk café, had a few drinks, and talked not once about cable.” The subject that afternoon was pop culture…“something I would soon learn was near and dear to his heart. For two hours we drilled deeper and deeper into the music, movies and TV shows the guy loved,” Antil says. “He talked to me at great length and with passion about such things as the low-fi wonder of the Blue Hawaiians, the unadorned beauty of the music of one of his favorite hometown bands, Yo La Tengo, and the unmitigated and subversive brilliance of his favorite film that year , “South Park: Bigger Longer and Uncut.””
Others, including Kollappallil, testify to Higgins’ knowledge of music and culture. In San Francisco for a CTAM Summit, “Higgins introduced me to one of the most incredible places on Earth– Ameoba Music. It had recently opened in the Haight and was filled with thousands of vinyl records & CD’s. We spent hours browsing through nearly every section as he introduced me to bands I had never heard of.” The day began at an amazing brunch place, she recalls, which, almost needless to say, was recommended by Higgins. “He was a big foodie & always knew where to go for the best meals.”
A social animal yes, but Higgins was discriminating. “Higgins let very few people in. And to get there, you had to, at least in his eyes, earn it,” Antil says. And while his talent for schmoozing was rich, the tide could turn quickly on friends in the cable industry. Higgins walked the line between promoting the people and industry he covered and exposing any and all financial or legal shenanigans “as well as any reporter I ever knew,” Antil says. As I did, Antil saw Higgins look the other way when others in his place might have jumped on a salacious but largely inconsequential story. “Yet, at the same time, the man could be as relentless as a dog digging for a buried bone when he sensed an executive was being less than honest with him or was trying to hide, or at least obfuscate, something on a balance sheet.”
Adds Howell, echoing many cable execs who spoke at Higgins’ memorial, “Your heart would stop at the site of his name appearing on your incoming call line [again, a reference to the pre-mobile phone era] — it meant sit up straight, think clearly, strap in…game on. He was quick, smart, and insightful. He did not suffer fools gladly, didn’t miss a beat and would call you on the carpet if he suspected spin or BS of any kind. You had to be on your toes because he was…and he kept you there.” As important as his tenaciousness and ability to analyze the heck out of complicated transactions, “He was always fair, profoundly ethical and accurate…that’s all you could ask for in the end.”
For those who told the truth most of the time, they eventually learned the relentlessness was part of the job only. Howell says, “Higgins wanted you to believe he was a total hard ass but he was more like a Fig Newton — flaky, cake-like, crusty on the outside but ooey, gooey, chewy on the inside. He was a total mush.” And also a total gentleman. He held doors open for women, carried their bags and helped with their coats. Kollappallil recalls Higgins teasing her about buying a large, heavy hard copy of “Gone with the Wind” during an afternoon sojourn the two took to a used bookstore. “He chided me…because he knew he would have to lug it around all day…Incidentally, I still have that book on my book shelf.”
Kollappallil adds, “Higgins taught me a master’s degree worth about cable TV but more importantly, he imparted a lifetime worth of things about life and friendship…I loved him and miss him.”
Antil gets the last word: “If you were one of those fortune few who passed muster, you’d soon realize his exterior of coarse sandpaper was little more than a shield for a man who, at his core, spent his life as an incurable romantic with a heart beating inside him that was the size of the Ponderosa.”