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Richard Leghorn

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Interview Date: Tuesday May 20, 2008
Interview Location: New Orleans, LA
Interviewer: Craig Kuhl
Collection: Cable Center Collection

KUHL: Hello, I'm Craig Kuhl. I'm a journalist covering the cable television industry and today we are very privileged to have Mr. Dick Leghorn here who has had a fascinating career both in cable and out of cable. He's been a real pioneer in this industry from the technology and communications standpoint. He's had a spectacular career and a very, very impactful career in public policy, pre-cable days, and he is part of The Cable Center Oral History series. I'd like to introduce you now to Mr. Dick Leghorn. Dick, welcome.

LEGHORN: Thank you very much. I'm going to enjoy this.

KUHL: You've had a very fascinating, very long career spanning approximately seven decades or very near.

LEGHORN: Eclectic.

KUHL: Let's rewind if you will and I'm going to let you tell us your story from your early days at MIT, in fact even if you want to go back to your World War II work we can start there. You start where you want to and then you can lead us up to your work with CableLabs.

LEGHORN: Okay, I think I can tie all that into CableLabs, if you like, because what do they say? The son is the father of the man, or something or other. As I look back, as all the people doing histories like you're doing now, I look back over my career and I realize there was one theme through the whole thing, one talent or one tendency, and that is people have asked me frequently how I get these ideas and stay with them until they become reality, and what I've found in thinking about it is if you've got a good idea and you float it to the world and it doesn't take – it never takes the first time – you back off. I used to keep banging away and that doesn't work. You back off and you wait until the time's right and then you float it again, hopefully it will take that time. That's what I've done. It takes, normally I found, about ten years between getting a good concept. If it holds up it may be ten years before it becomes reality. Let me take, for example, the U-2. At the end of World War II, I'd flown photo reconnaissance over German territory in World War II, and by high altitude I mean as high as you can get. We used to say we were hanging on our props which was then, in the mid-30s, a thousand altitude which is nothing now, but you've got to be careful because you could fall out of that into a spin with a P-38 which I flew. Only 50% of the time the guys got out of a spin, it was very hard. Anyway, at the end of the war I was on terminal leave, I had about 6 months terminal leave because I hadn't had any and it's one month for every year of service. The fellows called me and said hey, Dick, let's bring you back in service. We're going out to Bikini and explode a couple of atomic bombs.

KUHL: Bikini Atoll?

LEGHORN: Yeah, exactly. At the time, only 200 people, Americans, had seen these things go off and boy, was I impressed. It was the Able Test which was a bomb dropped, just dropped from an airplane, and then there was a Maker Test which was underwater, and the thing that impressed me most was we were I think 25 miles away circling with planes loaded with cameras and instrumentations because we did all the aerial instrumentations and so forth. We all wore dark glasses and you had to put them on because that light came instantly and then the sound wave came, and boy, it bounced the plane around, I'll tell you, even 25 miles away! But the thing that impressed me most was a battleship from the Japanese that had been captured and put in this atoll, Bikini Atoll, and it was 50 feet underwater. One of our pictures showed a battleship – you know how many tons a battleship is – up on its side like that. I knew then that we shouldn't have, couldn't afford to have another war, just couldn't. So I became very interested in arms control and disarmament, and a bunch of guys spent a lot of time doing that sort of thing. Churchill gave his Fulton, Missouri speech, you know, about the Iron Curtain clanging down. I had some personal experiences with that, I almost didn't get out. But anyway, I knew that we weren't getting anything out of spies which you normally do and we knew nothing about what was going on behind the Iron Curtain. What was happening was our generals and admirals, not knowing anything, would say we've got to have so much money and so much procurement for arms control, and the Soviets, seeing us build up would build up and it was leading this arms race. What really stopped the arms race was our photography because we found out... the most impressive thing was when we first got the reconnaissance satellite going, on the first satellite we covered as much territory as all the U-2 flights had in the previous ten years. That was carefully controlled by Eisenhower personally because it was obviously spying and against international law. You may remember when Gary Powers was shot down on May 1, 1960. There was such an uproar, so Eisenhower then cancelled all the U-2 flights, but fortunately, and I've been involved in this, in the planning at the Pentagon, we had the reconnaissance satellite come out and we took the first pictures and returned them on August 18, 1960. So fortunately we anticipated this. When I was called back to service, in Korea for two years, I was called in to Air Staff and asked to do the planning for the development of the intelligence and reconnaissance capabilities out of the Air Force. At that time, from World War II, all reconnaissance was done by taking airplanes and bombers and taking out their guns and bomb bays and stuffing them with cameras and electronics because you had to fight your way in. I said, again this is conceptually, that's not the problem now, the problem is getting this information {pre D-day} prehostilities, and it became known as strategic overflying, and the only way you could get in was fly as high as possible. Having spent some time at Wright Field, having learned something about aeronautical engineering, I described technically this airplane in a paper in 1946 to a group of Air Force generals including the Chief of Staff. Well, they listened and nothing happened. So when I was called back at the time of Korea, I took this proposal into the Pentagon and went through it to what was called the Air Weapons Board, it was two-star generals running it, they didn't get it because again they were so interested and focused on combat aerial reconnaissance and this idea was so different from anything the Air Force would... let me put it this way, institutionally the Air Force was absolutely incapable of doing this thing, they were just so wedded to the... well, finally we got the CIA interested, a guy named Dick Bissell, and we formed, thanks to Bennie Schriever, who was a four-star general who understood this thing and I used to work with him, we got a partnership going between the CIA and the Air Force. The CIA, and this was the U-2, the CIA did all the security and they knew how to keep things secret and also how to do cover plans. They also bought the camera equipment, and the Air Force provided all the support structure and all the testing and everything else. It was really a partnership even though the CIA is given the credit for this Corona. Corona was a super top-secret thing. It was the U-2, basically, overflying the U.S.S.R. in peacetime. The security was very, very tight and in the cover plan they called it Discover, and it was a scientific thing, we put in mice and dogs and everything else. If it hadn't been for Eisenhower the thing would have never worked because we had 13 – this is a very novel thing, this reconnaissance satellite, coming from the U-2, the reconnaissance satellite was the same structure. With the reconnaissance satellite, it was the 13th attempt before we brought anything back successfully and if it hadn't been for Eisenhower – it was very expensive, today they would have had committees here and committees there, it would have been killed before it got up – but Eisenhower who'd been really worried about surprise nuclear attack, remember he went through the Pearl Harbor thing, and he was very sensitive to surprise attack. The thing also was right through World War II when we had the Battle of the Bulge which was the last effort of Hitler, he threw in all his troops and reserves and we finally stopped it and that was called the Bulge, that caught him by surprise. I flew all the reconnaissance in my group, I was a combat reconnaissance pilot, but I was a group commander and we had by then two photo reconnaissance squadrons and a bunch of visual reconnaissance and night reconnaissance squadrons. But anyway, we overflew that whole activity and we were absolutely socked in for two weeks after the German offensive, and we couldn't see anything, pictures or visually. Finally there was a crack in the clouds; one of our visual pilots picked up what we called Mechanized Enemy Transport, and we knew then that the Bulge was starting, this German attack which was their last gasp. Once they lost that we just marched across Germany to Berlin. So Eisenhower understood surprise attack and he was very worried after the war about nuclear surprise attack. So he supported all these failures with the reconnaissance satellite because he knew he had to get that information and the only way he was going to get it was overflying with U-2s and reconnaissance satellites. That long story was an example of taking a concept and it took ten years before it was reality. We paved our road in '46 and the first U-2 flew on July 4, 1955, nine years. I was called back to the Air Force in '51-'53, at the time of Korea, and even before I checked in to the Wright Field office I went over to the aircraft lab and said hey guys, what do you have that flies high? And this became the background for the U-2 and I began trying to sell it unsuccessfully until this general Ben Schriever recognized the value and he called me into the Air Force and the headquarters, and as I told you I headed up all development activities for intelligence and reconnaissance, and we highlighted the strategic reconnaissance, but to get the reconnaissance thing going we had more darn trouble because... well, anyway, it took about ten years from then, '51, until 1960, nine years. So when I came back to the reality of the cable industry, I had this way of understanding these concepts and knowing it took time to get them going. I started working on my proposal for CableLabs, which is the reason I'm getting this award this afternoon, and I remember there was a board meeting, I was on the NCTA then as a board member, I served for 12 years, but there was a meeting, I remember, of the board in California and I made this proposal for an R&D consortium.

KUHL: What was the date? When was this?

LEGHORN: As I remember it was in '84 because Congress had just passed, or was about to pass, something called the Cooperative Research Act of '84, and that spelled out that companies could get together and do R&D collectively which normally would have been a no-no from the standpoint of anti-trust laws but it defined a bunch of rules and if you followed those you were immune from anti-trust laws. Actually CableLabs and Dick Green with his efforts on behalf of the cable industry took more advantage of that in developing new capabilities than any other industry. I'm bouncing around a little bit, as I told you I might, free association. Looking back over this 20 years that CableLabs has been going I recognize that in the beginning the industry was way behind. Take broadcasters, they were kicking the hell out of cable in a business sense, and Hollywood was not cooperating because we didn't have a decent copy protection thing. Our release windows, they called it, came way behind everyone else where now it's right up there with the release to motion picture theaters, sometimes in advance of motion picture we're able to get their things for the cable industry, their pictures. And of course, entertainment, Hollywood stuff, and sports are the things that have driven everything, those two types of content. I proposed the thing at this board meeting. I remember everybody yawned, they were very polite and listened, but everyone was so busy, all the cable CEOs were so busy acquiring other systems and chasing franchises that they just couldn't be bothered with this notion of R&D. Time went by and I remember distinctly, and I've got copies of these letters for you in a briefcase I brought in – I've got all the documents to support what I'm saying – Jim Mooney who was then president of NCTA – my goodness, I saw him last night – and he was a very smart guy and he listened to that thing and he called me and sent me a letter in October of '87, and he said, "Dick, the time's now come for this thing." So I wrote him a letter from all this stuff. He reconvened a committee, he wanted to have NCTA organize a committee to get CableLabs going, an R&D consortium for the cable industry. He recognized from the beginning, he's a very bright guy, that it shouldn't be part of NCTA. NCTA was so busy lobbying they couldn't possibly handle this right. Look, a lot of industries have tried to do this and they put it under their trade association, broadcasters and Hollywood, and it doesn't work because they tend to focus on short-range things and using technology to do better what they're now doing and that doesn't get you out ahead which was what the idea was behind CableLabs. You would do that but you would also reach ahead. So we organized this committee, got John Malone to chair it, and John, as you remember, was the 800 or 1,000 pound gorilla of the cable industry in those days, and that's what made it go. There were two people really that – no one does anything by himself – that were so helpful, it wouldn't have happened, CableLabs, without Jim Mooney and John Malone. Jim Mooney, who recognized the need for the thing, set up this committee and NCTA supported it completely, gave us a budget to get started with; and then John Malone taking on the committee, and we organized this committee. The first meeting was in January. We were organized as a company by May, we sent out a letter which John signed proposing – remember we fortunately got this committee of cable leaders, and it was approved by this committee – and proposing that the cable operators join, pay 2 cents a month. How we came to 2 cents a month is an interesting story in itself. What happened was we thought maybe half the industry, or the industry representing half of the subscribers, would join up but actually we got 85% fairly immediately. It was amazing because we sent this letter out June 9th – I've got a copy for you – and by August we had these people signed up, we hired the top recruiter of technical executives, Heydrich Struggles, and we looked at getting our CEO once we got our board. We looked at thousands of possible candidates because they had them all on databases that other recruiting firms share. So we started with 200 names that were pulled out, worked it down to 20 and then worked it down to 6 or 7, then had our committee interview all these fellas. Dick Green, I just insisted that he was the man. He stood out above all the other people we interviewed including folks from within the industry and outside of the industry. At the time he was Senior VP, Technology and Operations of the PBS system, and he understood this concept. People talk about technological advance in three stages: invention, innovation, and diffusion of technology, and invention is invention and patents and all that kind of thing, but innovation is a toughie. That is the introduction of a new technology into the marketplace successfully. That requires adding to the technological opportunity, market pull and operational capability, financial, marketing and all that as a business function. In organizing CableLabs we focused on that innovation stage, and we left invention for the suppliers, hardware and software, and if a cable operator wanted to do it, fine. {But all of the systems were nearing what was called inter-operability}, getting all the pieces to work together was a function of CableLabs, and Dick Green was the only one that really understood this. Furthermore, he had worked with membership organizations like the PBS stations were getting all of those people to pull in the same direction took certain skills, and that skill is one of the reasons he's been so successful. The cable CEOs, particularly at that time, were a bunch of wild cats going their own way, and he pulled them all together and got them moving in the same direction and he's still doing it. In setting up CableLabs, we recognized that this was a business function, this innovation, and we wanted to have CEOs on the board, which we did. As you know, we got people like Glenn Britt, but most particularly Brian Roberts. Brian and his father, Ralph, were very, very supportive. So we through that committee organized by NCTA, we got this thing going. By having the CEOs participate in this thing from the beginning, it became a business function. It wasn't just the fact that they would support it financially because they were involved in the board of CableLabs, but they understood that it was important to get the possibilities and opportunities from new technology in to improve their business capabilities. So it's been very, very successful. One of the reasons, of course, is we've had the CEOs controlling the board, these days particularly Brian Roberts and Glenn Britt. They sort of alternate as chairman. Brian's the current chairman. I guess Brian's going to be with us, and I've got to congratulate you, Brian, for really having made the thing a possibility. One other thing – when we got CableLabs going, Dick Green by then onboard asked me if I'd come back and do some work on the telephone industry, how to get cable into the telephone business because they'd been trying and hadn't done very well. So I organized a committee and I went to Ralph Roberts and I said, "Ralph, I can't do this job. I don't know anything about telephony. I'd like to get some of Mark Coblitz's time because he was a very good strategic planner, and Ralph said, "Help yourself." So that started Mark's working with CableLabs. As you know, he's intimately involved with the committees in working with CableLabs and also with Comcast. So that has greatly facilitated moving technology into the cable operators' hands, and you've got to give Mark and Brian a lot of credit for the success of CableLabs going forward.

KUHL: What would you feel at this point to be CableLabs's greatest achievement, and your impact as well? What do you feel that you have contributed to CableLabs, a legacy for you at CableLabs?

LEGHORN: Good question. As I mentioned, CableLabs and the cable industry took better advantage of the opportunities of the Research Act, Cooperative Research Act of '84, and as a result of that... maybe I mentioned this, 20 years ago the broadcasters business-wise were beating up on cable, and the Telcos are doing the same, and Hollywood wasn't giving us releases. Today, with the broadcasters, it's reversed. Cable's success is really giving broadcasters a bad time. The Telcos are sort of neck-and-neck with being well behind, and as far as Hollywood goes, they give us all the early release windows because of work we did on copy protection and that's what they needed. So broadly speaking, the contributions of cable, you can talk about the technical things, how you now worked up into DOCSIS and DOCSIS 3 – DOCSIS 3.0 is going to be the main engine going forward today, and it came out of this earlier concept and it's going to, I think, change or keep the industry going. As you know, DOCSIS, one of the things it does, it puts the 6 megahertz channel, the normal channel, and screws them together so you can get higher speeds and you can distribute more cost-effectively to a lot more programming – a cable operator can. That has got us well ahead of Telcos now. Verizon with their optical fiber is beginning to catch up and some of the CableLabs studies show that in 3 years or so, the two industries will be really kind of neck-and-neck and they'll stay that way. So competition is real, going forward. But if it hadn't been for CableLabs we wouldn't be there, so it's been a very significant contribution to the success of the industry. Our function of CableLabs, as I said, was not invention but is improving the business capabilities of the industry and it's been extremely successful. No other industry has done anything like it. I can elaborate on that point. CableLabs has not had the recognition that it deserves and that's one of the reasons when Dick asked me to come down here and get this award, I wanted to start the process of giving the cable industry the recognition it deserves, and another thing I've done is talk with the Sloan School at MIT, which MIT's business school, as you know, does more with technologically-based companies and Harvard Business School focuses on financial-based, and they're going to do a study of what CableLabs has done in comparison with other industries. They can get that study out and journalists can take advantage of it and then that will begin this process of getting CableLabs the recognition that it deserves because it has put the cable industry well ahead of its competition and deserves a lot more recognition for what it's done than what it's got so far, and that's one of the reasons I'm down here, to start that process going.

KUHL: Moving forward with CableLabs, let's maybe look five years down the road, what impact do you see CableLabs having on not only the cable industry but the telecommunications industry overall? Where do you see some of the key components, key areas that CableLabs can make a contribution to not only cable but to communications in general in the next five years?

LEGHORN: Yeah, and let me, if I can, take the next 20 years. What a few other industries are doing, and the cable industry through CableLabs, has looked at new business models. In other words, innovate business models and not just components. Some months ago Dick asked me if I would write a memo on my thoughts on the next 20 years. I spent some time on it and he's circulated it somewhat and no one's raised any problems, so I think he's going ahead and planning to move CableLabs in that direction. But the first thing was to innovate the model and mount a business model for the cable industry because it's done a terrific job of exploiting its present model but one of the impacts of technology is going to be to change that. I like to quote Joseph Schrumpeter. He was the Austro-American economist who wrote the book on creative destruction and the impact of technology on industry, and his contention was that it's the root of capitalism because of this dynamic or "creative destruction" as he called it. The companies that appreciated this and adjusted would go on and flourish; those that didn't will die. The example I like to use is transportation. When the internal combustion engine was invented, people transportation was the carriage trade, the buggy whip people as they used to call them. They didn't get it and they just faded, but a lot of entrepreneurs started these automobile companies, they finally concentrated in Detroit. But that's a good example of this creative destruction and the fact that you needed to go ahead, you had to understand this process. And so CableLabs has helped, and will help in the next 20 years, the cable industry to do that. Now as a specific example, and what I think is going to happen, cable will move from its present business model to become in effect a competitive carrier, not a common carrier. It's a big pipe, and although a portion of it is bandwidth, it should be devoted to negate all the things that are going on with the pressures of Congress and competition for the openness... the phrase skips my mind. It'll come back.

KUHL: I'm trying to help you with it to and I can't think of it.

LEGHORN: It'll come to me. Where were we?

KUHL: With CableLabs in the next 20 years, your thoughts?

LEGHORN: So I think it'll move in this direction and it will carry programming limited by the anti-trust laws which basically are now just 30-35% of the programming can be carried by cable. Comcast is going through this now. The government isn't letting them expand beyond 30% of the programming and that will continue. But the cable industry is sort of drifting toward this being a carrier and I'm saying you've got to be careful guys, you'll end up with a dumb pipe unless you take most of your capacity and make it a private, competitive carrier and just leave a little bit of it to be the common carrier to take care of the political types in Congress because it's going to come in the re-write of the Communications Act – the last time it was rewritten was in '96 – is beginning to stir in Congress and cable industry led by CableLabs better get ready to deal with that. One of the things I'm doing for fun is writing a draft testimony for that and trying to deal with all my thoughts on the policy issues going forward and doing it as an example of what the cable industry has got to do to get ready for that re-write or it'll end up the wrong way and they'll end up with a dumb pipe. You know what I mean by the dumb pipe? They're all afraid of it, the common carrier status. So that is the most important thing and the most controversial is to work on innovation for the business model of the cable industry. I could go into other things but maybe there isn't time. But that's so important and so controversial that I've started to push it.

KUHL: Dick, let me ask you this – maybe branching off of CableLabs now and kind of rewinding for a second in your cable career, you know, during your phenomenal career through these years, was there a one defining moment or influence on you that sticks with the most? Was there a defining moment or time that convinced you that the cable industry was an industry that would be not only a good business for you but would really impact and change the communications world?

LEGHORN: Let me give you two things that happened to me. In Cape Cod I had a summer home with a huge antenna on it, huge, very ugly, and my wife was complaining about it and so I said, "Well, honey, that's easy. Call up the cable company and get cable." Well, of course there was no cable and so I started Cape Cod Cablevision, made every mistake in the book, fortunately learned from it and finally ended up with... I won't go through all the mistakes. The first one was to try and do a leaseback with the phone company and they squeeze you so you couldn't make any money, you had to put in your own cable to the home. We started with ten miles making all these mistakes and ended up with 27,000 subscribers which I sold to John Malone. We signed in '82 and he finally closed in '84. At that point I said I've got to hand something back to the cable industry. I really felt I'd done so well. I had 7 or 8 cable systems of which Cape Cod was my favorite because I lived there. So we started CableLabs. The cable industry didn't have anything like that. So that sticks in my mind as how I got into the cable industry and got interested in the R&D consortium for cable. I wanted to hand back something, do something for cable because it'd done so much for me. Anyway, that answers those questions.

KUHL: What about your involvement in technology and communications from early in your career? How influential was that? How much of an impact did that have going forward? I'm sure that a lot of that contributed to your work with CableLabs. Just link those together.

LEGHORN: When I was 15, as I recall, MIT used to have open houses and I went in. Particle physics was just then coming into its own, it was the thing and I was absolutely fascinated and decided to go to MIT, but instead of getting into theoretical physics I got into applied physics, and a lot of the reason was there was a guy named Dick Fineman who was brilliant. He stuck with it and he – he died a few years ago – was a Nobel Laureate. So I got interested in applied physics and therefore in thinking about the applications I began to think about this process of innovation as part of applied physics. Physics for me, I became a conceptual thinker, that's one of the advantages of studying physics regardless of whether you apply it in the detail sense. So that's when I first got interested in this function and it led to CableLabs because I was interested in... Now, after I got out of MIT, I was hired by Kodak and tried to get something going. Actually I made a proposal that Kodak acquire technology from a guy in Columbus, Ohio – I'll think of his name – and he was working, instead of silver, he was working with electrons and Kodak wasn't interested because they made their money by having silver and it required huge factories, huge investment and nobody else could do it except the Japs came in with Fuji eventually. So they didn't get this idea that imaging would come with electrons and finally Mark Tyler and I, he was a real physicist, a Ph.D., and we got together and left and started Itech which in the beginning was thinking of doing that kind of thing. Coming back on track...

KUHL: Dick, kind of link us up now with your early technology experiences and how that impacted you.

LEGHORN: When I went in to Kodak that weren't doing this and I started pushing. World War II was brewing and everyone knew it was going to come, so six months before Pearl Harbor, or it was about nine months, I volunteered to go back in the Air Force. I was in the ordinance and I said I'd go back in. George Goddard ran a thing called Photolab at Wright Field, and he put in for me and I ended up six months before Pearl Harbor working for him because it was very clear by then that World War II was coming. So we got into that sort of thing for the Air Force at that time. I was in the Army Air Corps.

KUHL: Talk to me a little bit about some of the innovations in cable that you see being of importance in the next five or so years, not just through CableLabs but in general some of the new technologies, some of the new innovations that you feel are going to add to cable's impact.

LEGHORN: From an engineering standpoint, DOCSIS 3.0 is really going to have major impact over the next 15-20 years of the cable industry. But the next thing is the research, the new things that are coming along and I've recommended to Dick that he gets a couple of scientists in to begin tracking these things, and the first is quantum computing. Quantum mechanics deals with subatomic particles and I saw some of the first computers based on this five or six years ago at MIT and I just knew that this would spread into communications. Computers and communications, they both use information, the same thing. The other one is nanotechnology, which is dealing with particles that are molecular in size, bigger, so that's going to have a big impact on the information industry. The information industry is going to get wild as your ability to handle these small particles increases. The cable industry has got to be aware of that and start following it and be prepared to make adjustments, or they'll fade away.

KUHL: If we can wrap this up, Dick, and look back on your career now and when people are at a cocktail party 25 years from now and your name comes up in conversation, what do you want them to be talking about?

LEGHORN: It's sort of come up here and that's conceptual thinking and getting new concepts into the marketplace which is practical application and which is behind CableLabs and I hope I can continue to do that. As a matter of fact, I think I've got some things in mind that are going to happen 20 years from now. I've forgotten what I'd like on my gravestone, but I've got a way of saying that in a few words.

KUHL: Well, it's been a pleasure to have you here, and congratulations on your award for CableLabs, too, by the way, and we're really delighted to have you as part of The Cable Center's oral history series.

LEGHORN: Well, thanks, because what you're doing I'm sure will help some of this recognition that I may or may not deserve, but it's always welcome when you get it. So thanks very much.

KUHL: You're a real contributor to the industry and I know that everyone is real proud of that. I'm glad you could do this.

LEGHORN: Thank you.

KUHL: This has been a pleasure to interview Dick Leghorn. Dick is now going to join the archives as a member of this oral history series for The Cable Center, and we just want to thank Dick for being here. From New Orleans, thank you.