S Listings

Save to PDF


Bob Stanzione

Bob Stanzione

Interview Date: November 30, 2017
Interview Location: New York, NY USA
Interviewer: Seth Arenstein
Collection: Cable Center Oral History Program

SETH ARENSTEIN: Hi, I’m Seth Arenstein, for the Hauser Oral History Project for The Cable Center. We’re here in New York City. It’s November 30th, 2017. And we’re joined by the executive chairman of ARRIS International, Bob Stanzione. Bob, welcome.

ROBERT J. STANZIONE: Thank you, Seth.

ARENSTEIN: Good to have you here.

STANZIONE: I’m happy to be here.

ARENSTEIN: All right. So tell us -- let’s begin your story at the beginning. Where were you born and where did you go to grammar school?

STANZIONE: OK. Well, here we are in New York, and that’s where I started.


STANZIONE: I was born in the Bronx, a little bit north of here. My grandparents were immigrants from Italy, and my parents were born in the US. And I went through first grade in the Bronx, in the public schools. And then through a job change that happened with my dad we moved to Virginia and subsequently to South Carolina, where I went to junior high and high school and went to college in South Carolina, at Clemson University -- national champions right now.


STANZIONE: Football, right. Yes. Very proud of that.

ARENSTEIN: Yeah, because, I mean, you don’t have a Bronx accent, Bob.

STANZIONE: No, I don’t. Somewhere along the way I lost that.

ARENSTEIN: (laughs) Yes. I would say it’s South Bronx. No, no, no -- really -- the Deep South.


ARENSTEIN: I always think of you as a Southern guy. I mean, Clemson and North Carolina and everything.

STANZIONE: That’s right. That’s right, I do -- my heart is in the South.

ARENSTEIN: OK. But born in the Bronx.


ARENSTEIN: So it’s good to be home. What did you study in college?

STANZIONE: I studied engineering. I was a mechanical engineering major, and I had always wanted to be an engineer. My dad was in the manufacturing business during his career. He passed away when I was a freshman at college. And I finished up at Clemson, and I went to work in the Bell System for a long period of time. During that period of time I went back to school and -- at night -- and got an engineering -- a Master of Engineering degree at NC State University.

ARENSTEIN: Do you root for them too or just Clemson?

STANZIONE: No, I don’t. (laughter) No, I don’t. You can only have one.

ARENSTEIN: It’s always interesting to know, like the graduate and undergraduate, which one do you, you know...

STANZIONE: No, it’s Clemson through and through.

ARENSTEIN: OK. You know, people watching this even now -- young people watching this -- and even years from now, when you mentioned the Bell System, they’re going to go, “What’s that?” Why don’t you tell us what the Bell System was when you walked in the door?

STANZIONE: So I graduated from college in 1969. And at that time the Bell System ran the entire communications systems in the United States. It consisted of the Bell telephone companies as well as Bell Laboratories, the long lines, long-distance business, as well as a company called Western Electric, which was the manufacturing arm of the Bell System. And that’s where I began my career was in Western Electric, in manufacturing. And during that period of time I believe the Bell System had over a million employees across the country. In the late 1970s an antitrust suit was brought forth, and the Bell System was broken up, beginning in 1984. And at that point I stayed with the manufacturing side of AT&T -- it was called AT&T Network Systems -- and worked there for a total of about 26 years.

ARENSTEIN: And what did you do at AT&T?

STANZIONE: One of the great things about working at AT&T in a big company like that was that you could change jobs and gain experience in different facets of the business without changing companies. And so I was privileged to be able to do that, although it was a bit of a burden on my family. I should -- I should talk a little bit about my family right here at the beginning.

ARENSTEIN: Sure. Absolutely.

STANZIONE: I met my wife Kaye in junior high school, down in South Carolina. And we got married while I was in college. And so when I joined AT&T in 1969, we began a period of time where we were moving a lot. People don’t do that so much anymore. But in the ’70s and ’80s it was quite common for employees of large corporations to be moved from location to location. So during the 26 years that we were in AT&T, Kaye and I and our three children moved 11 times from one place to another. It just -- it was almost like being a military family, quite honestly. And they were tremendously supportive of that, and I’m very fortunate that I had such a supportive cast around me during that period of time.

ARENSTEIN: That’s nice. And so what -- again, what sorts of things were you doing at AT&T?

STANZIONE: Well, you know, one -- I was in manufacturing, so we were manufacturing things for the Defense Department initially. And then printed circuit boards and devices, hybrid integrated circuits, which aren’t used very much anymore. But towards the end of that period of time, in the late ’80s and early ’90s, I became associated with the cable industry. There was a skunkworks project going on at Bell Labs in Merrimack Valley. I had been transferred up to Merrimack Valley, north of Boston, in 1993, I believe it was. But even prior to that, I had inherited with one of my job changes a skunkworks project called Laser Link. And this is where I became acquainted with the cable industry. And I was fascinated by it and kind of fell in love with it. At the time that wasn’t a very popular thing within AT&T, because we were serving primarily the Bell telephone companies, and they viewed the cable industry as sort of a competitor but not up to snuff in terms of the reliability of the network that they had at the time. But I met some very interesting people in those last years that I spent at AT&T Network Systems. John Egan is a person that was very instrumental in my life, and he was the CEO of a company called ANTEC. And because AT&T did not want to sell Laser Link directly to the telephone -- to the cable companies -- they used ANTEC as a distributor to sell to the cable companies. And that’s where I met John Egan, who, again, was very instrumental in what happened to me subsequent to this. Also met people like John Malone and J.C. Sparkman and Larry Romrell, people that were the -- kind of the titans of the industry at the time. And I was sort of the -- a junior executive at AT&T. And I was one of the few people at AT&T that had any interest or knowledge of what was going on in the cable industry. So those were some pretty heady days for me. But it also caused me to want to -- it kind of set me on a path that brought me to where I am today.

ARENSTEIN: And what fascinated you about the cable industry? I guess meeting John Malone would be one thing (laughs) for sure!

STANZIONE: Well, I’ll tell you, I’ll never forget the meeting we had with John Malone at Bell Labs at Murray Hill. We were preparing for his visit, and I looked at his biography, and I found out that he had worked for Bell Labs at one time. And so we dug through the archives and we found a document that he had authored. And it had -- I think the title of it was something like “Profit Optimization in a Regulated Industry.” Oy. (laughter) Was that a preview of what was to come. So, you know, we went through that, and we became more and more -- I became more and more interested in what was going on in the cable industry. Because things were happening fast in the cable industry. In those days, the late ’80s, early ’90s, we were just beginning to deploy fiber optics. I met the engineering head at Time Warner Cable at the time, Jim Chiddix --

ARENSTEIN: Yeah, sure.

STANZIONE: -- and Jim bought our first Laser Link and deployed hybrid fiber-coax for the first time in Orlando, Florida. And Jim subsequently won an Emmy award, a technical Emmy award. And that Laser Link that we built at Merrimack Valley I think is on the wall in his office right now. So again, another one of the industry leaders that I met during those days.

ARENSTEIN: Wow. What in particular, though, was fascinating about the cable industry at that point? You said it was moving very fast. What did you see as its potential? Why were you so anxious to get in there?

STANZIONE: Right. So as I said, this was sort of a skunkworks at AT&T, at Bell Labs. And I had an organization that covered a lot of different facets, and this was just one of them. And we were working on access technology, the last mile, the technology for delivering video, voice, and subsequently data services over that last mile. And so we were working with the telephone companies -- we were working with Deutsche Telekom over in Germany on fiber-to-the-home technology. And I had the privilege, again, of having some very, very smart people that we -- and we did a study, looking at the potential for network evolution of these various different technologies. Now, this is early ’90s. And we were looking at fiber to the home; we were looking at hybrid fiber-coax; we were looking at switched digital video technologies. And I realized, based on those studies, that hybrid fiber-coax, although at the time was very new and certainly fiber to the home was the headline product, but this hybrid fiber-coax thing looked to me like the most graceful and economical way to expand a network. Now, at that time, it was mostly a one-way network. And there wasn’t much telemetry in the network. There -- you know, when cable went out, the way the cable company found out about it was their customers would call and say, “My cable’s out.” Things have changed a lot since then. And now we’ve got this wonderful two-way communication system. But I could see that that was the way to go. And in fact during that period of time -- this is a funny story -- an interesting story -- I think, from my point of view as to what’s happened in my career -- at that time there was a company called General Instrument that was one of the primary vendors to the cable industry. And became acquainted with General Instrument through the specification-setting process for high-definition television. This all was happening in the early ’90s -- digital television, high-definition television. And I was involved in that and met these people at General Instrument. At the time General Instrument had gone private, and they were about to do an IPO. And I suggested to AT&T that we acquire General Instrument into AT&T Network Systems. I said, “This is a transmission technology, and it would be a great asset for AT&T to own.” Well, that didn’t go very far. You know, I took the proposal to my boss, he took it to his boss, it stopped there, and that was that. Many, many years later, in 2013, as the CEO of ARRIS at the time, we bought General Instrument. And the way it happened was that -- I’m skipping forward now --


STANZIONE: -- twenty years -- but the way it happened was that in 2013 Google purchased Motorola, or the part of Motorola that made telephones as well -- or cell phones -- as well as the Motorola Home business, which was the old General Instrument corporation. And Google bought that because they wanted the patents. And so they sold off the Motorola Home, which was General Instrument, and we bought that. So 20 years -- it took 20 years to do it, but persistence pays off. Persistence.

ARENSTEIN: You know, it’s interesting, though, Bob, when you say that you looked at the potential of the industry and you saw tremendous potential, you saw the future. It’s funny, because, you know, I always ask people with these oral histories, “When -- you know, when you were -- back in the day, when you were doing all these things, did you see ahead?” And most of the time, the answer’s no. But here, you know, we have an example where you say, “I’m looking ahead, I’m looking out, and I saw this potential, and that’s where I wanted to move.” So that’s kind of an interesting wrinkle that we don’t normally get here.

STANZIONE: Well, it was -- I had the pleasure of working with some very, very smart people in Bell Laboratories. And I don’t take credit for figuring all that out. But I saw it happen. The work was done. And it was clear to me that it was possible to have this network evolve into something that it wasn’t at the time. This coaxial cable and this fiber out to a node could do two-way communications reliably. And in fact that’s what kind of brought me over the fence back in 1995.

ARENSTEIN: OK. So let’s move to the -- I guess the early 2000s, and -- or even late 1999 here -- 1998 you become president and CEO of ANTEC.

STANZIONE: Well, right before that, what happened was two companies got together -- Nortel Networks and ANTEC -- John Egan again and a Nortel Networks executive, Ian Craig, had formed a friendship and a partnership. And they wanted to start a company that would focus on the cable industry. And here again Nortel, similar to AT&T Network Systems, wasn’t that familiar with the cable industry. So they decided maybe join forces, because ANTEC did have that familiarity and relationship with the industry. And they decided to form a company, and I was recruited to be the first CEO of that company. The company at the time was called joint venture something. It had no name. And one of the first things we did was come up with a name for the company, and the name we came up with was ARRIS. We looked -- we did a search, we hired a firm to help us look at various names, and this name ARRIS popped up. And the word “arris” means something. It’s a word that means “the intersection of two planes to form a sharp edge.” And I thought, “What better name for a company that was a joint venture of Nortel Networks and ANTEC, two companies coming together with leading-edge technology.” And so the name stuck. And here we are. At that point I was named CEO of ARRIS, and Nortel named the CFO of the company, Dave Potts. And Dave has become, first of all, just a world-class CFO of ARRIS International now, the public company, and also a dear friend of mine. So we’ve worked together for 20 years, and I give him a lot of credit for everything that’s happened -- all the good things that have happened during that period of time. So that was 1995. It was a radical idea at the time that a cable operator could deliver reliable telephone service.

ARENSTEIN: Absolutely.

STANZIONE: Because at the time, let’s face it, the reliability of the industry wasn’t that good, and it was primarily a one-way broadcast system. It was CATV -- community antenna television -- is what it was. But we could see that it would work, and it could work very economically, and it could be an addition to the video services that were being provided. So we came up with a product. We called it Cornerstone Voice. And we sold it all over the world. We sold it, of course, in the United States, but also in Japan and Europe. And it was a success. But we could see that things were going to change pretty fast. Three years later I was asked to move up to the parent company, ANTEC, and I became the chief operating officer and the president of ANTEC working for John, again, directly. And I stayed on the board of ARRIS LLC during that period of time. And then we had the 2000 and 2001 bubble burst in the telecommunications industry, where everything just fell apart. And so did our business, as a matter of fact. And I was president of ANTEC, and Nortel wanted to dissolve the joint venture and sell their interest in it. So with the help of a lot of people, including our lead attorney, Larry Margolis, we figured out a way that we could buy Nortel’s interest in ARRIS out. And we were able to accomplish that in 2001. And we bought their 80% interest in the LLC. We went deeply into debt to do that. We issued a lot of stock to do that. And we renamed ANTEC ARRIS. And that’s kind of the tortuous venture that we went through where ANTEC became ARRIS. It was through that acquisition, and we renamed ANTEC ARRIS as a public company.

ARENSTEIN: OK. You know, there’s one thing that we haven’t really talked about, and I do want to discuss it a little bit. Your training is in engineering, and now, though, as you have told us here, you’ve moved into the boardroom. Now, I know, I see on your resume here that there were some courses that you took and things like that. How did you get ready, or how did you train yourself to move from the engineering side on to the management side?

STANZIONE: Well, I probably had to because I wasn’t a very good engineer. (laughter) I always had this very high interest in business. And I wanted to know about business. I wanted to know what made a business run. And so even in my very first jobs as an engineer at Western Electric, I wanted to know what happened to the product after we built it and shipped it. I wanted to know what the effect was on the profitability of the business. And so I was -- I was always pecking away at that. And one of the roles I played eventually was to become a product manager and learned how to run a product line and understand things like profit and loss. And you just have to run a business in a profitable way. You can’t lose money for very long, right? And I learned about balance sheets and cash flow and those sorts of things. I did take courses in that. I went to school at night -- again, at University of Richmond. I went to Babson College for courses. And even went to Switzerland for a period of time to study over there. And so I just had this broad interest in business and economics and how companies become successful. And quite honestly, along the way I learned about failures too. I saw a lot of failures; in fact, the two companies I’ve mentioned a lot here, AT&T Network Systems -- which eventually became Lucent -- is no more. And Nortel Networks is no more. And, you know, I learned some wonderful, wonderful things about business from being part of those organizations. Learned a lot of things not to do.

ARENSTEIN: Can you give me an example?

STANZIONE: Well, I think humility is a trait that one has to have. I mean, we serve our customers. And the slogan that I’ve applied at ARRIS consistently has been “The customer comes first, no matter what.” If you don’t have customers, you don’t have a business. And we were serving an industry that was quite demanding. And there were other people who wanted to serve that industry. So it was very competitive. It has been very competitive, and it is intensely competitive, even today. And so if you don’t serve the customer and look out for the best interests of the customer, you’re not going to have a business, eventually. So I think just focusing on customers. And just not getting too bigheaded about your success. And I think that happened in -- especially in the late ’90s and early 2000 period of time, when there was just a gold rush going on. And people thought that this telecommunications industry was going to just grow to the sky. And we had a big comeuppance, if you will, during that period of time. So I think just focus on customers. Hubris is a bad thing. I think when you start to think you’re smart, that’s when somebody’s going to prove you wrong. And so this -- paranoia is a good trait.

ARENSTEIN: OK. So let’s talk about the ARRIS years, let’s say beginning around 2000 -- or maybe even a little bit later -- 2003? You’re named chairman as well as president and CEO of the ARRIS Group. And then there are a fair amount of acquisitions. Tell us about the thinking behind acquisitions of -- of what, C-COR and Tandberg Television?

STANZIONE: Yeah, and even before --

ARENSTEIN: Whole bunch of them.

STANZIONE: -- even before that. In that period of time, the technology was changing also. Our Cornerstone Voice product had been successful. However, it was what’s called circuit-switched technology. And circuit-switched technology was giving way to voice over IP. And we knew that if we didn’t reengineer the company quickly that we could fall by the wayside because technology would leave us behind. So during that period of time -- you know, sometimes you’re lucky. And I’ve had more than my share of good luck along the way. We came across this company called Cadent. It was a startup company in Lisle, Illinois. Also led by some former Bell Labbers who had left Bell Labs Indian Hill and had gone to work in this startup company. And they came up with this product called the Cadent CMTS -- cable modem terminating system. And it was used for providing cable modem or high-speed internet service. And we got a good deal. We bought -- we were able to buy that company -- even though we were deeply in debt at the time, we were able to do that. And I think that move alone kind of saved our company, because it moved us from this circuit-switch realm into the realm of internet protocol. At the same time, we had to sell off a bunch of businesses in order to generate the cash we needed in order to make this move into IP. So we sold our power supply business; we sold a consulting business that we had; and we sold our transmission business. Interestingly, I compete with that business now, because we’re back in it. But that was a game changer. That little joint venture -- or little startup company -- that we bought out of Lisle, Illinois -- I think it had 40 or 50 people at the time -- and it has evolved into the industry leading cable modem terminating system company in the world. Our market share now exceeds that of our closest competitor. So very proud of that group of people and that move. Subsequent to that, we did other acquisitions because we realized the industry was consolidating. The companies were buying one another. Our customers were buying one another. Comcast was of course the most aggressive during those days and bought AT&T Broadband, which was originally TCI. And at that time Comcast canceled all our Cornerstone Voice orders. And so we were in a bit of trouble. But we worked our way through that, through this period of time, and we realized that given what was happening in the industry -- not only the technology changing, but the landscape in the industry was changing dramatically with these consolidations that were going on -- that we had to either get bigger or we had to become part of something bigger. And we chose the get bigger. And so that kind of set us on a path of continuing to develop things internally. For example, Bruce McClelland, my successor as the CEO of ARRIS, at the time was running part of the business, and he started our cable modem business, which has prospered through the years. We also looked outside and did a number of acquisitions during those years. We bought a company called C-COR. They put us back in the transmission business. And we did other acquisitions along the way -- several small ones. But then the big one came in 2013. And that was what I referred to earlier, was when Google decided to divest the Motorola Home business. And that kind of put us in a good place.

ARENSTEIN: Talk about that one. Let’s jump to that one.

STANZIONE: Well, it was shocking, really, that Google would buy Motorola. After all, Motorola was a company that made cellular phones and made hardware for the cable industry, and why would they want to do that? And the answer was that there was a frenzy of patent -- well, we were in a period where patents were valued very highly. And there was a lot of litigation going on. And I think that Google came to the conclusion, and I’m not speaking for Google, but I think they came to the conclusion that the patents that Motorola had in the cell phone area particularly were very valuable. And so they bought the company. They subsequently sold the Home business to us, and they sold the cellular phone business, eventually, to Lenovo, a Chinese company. So now they still have those patents. Anyway, we went through a process. Again, there was competition to buy the company. At the time the ability to borrow money was good. You know, 2013 was a good year in terms of interest rates being low and banks willing to back us. And so we borrowed a lot of money, and we were able to win that auction, if you will, to buy Motorola Home. And it has really returned a good bit to our shareholders. It has really enhanced the value of the company considerably. And it allowed us to make subsequent acquisitions -- for example, two years later, we bought Pace. And Pace is a company that was doing similar things that we were, and through consolidation, economies of scale, were able to bring costs down, take costs out of the business, and remain competitive, which is what we have to do. It also brought with us more of this transmission technology through an acquisition that they had made of a company called Aurora. And the combination of what we got from C-COR and what we got from Aurora has put us in a pretty good position there. And I think as the industry continues to evolve toward fiber deeper, closer to the home, or fiber to the home over this HFC network, I think we’re in a good position to prosper as we go forward.

ARENSTEIN: ARRIS, as you said, when it opened the doors there was nothing, and now -- tell us about ARRIS. Tell us ARRIS International.

STANZIONE: How it became ARRIS International?


STANZIONE: Well, that’s a good question. As I said earlier, we knew we had to be bigger or become part of something bigger. And we noted that there are more people that live outside the United States than live inside the United States, and they like to talk to one another and communicate with one another too. So we’ve built a pretty strong international part of our business. And we did that -- beginning in Japan, I guess, was one of our first international customers. Again, back in the ’90s, there was a lot of investment of US companies in Japan and in Europe, in the UK in particular. And we kind of followed them over there and began doing business there. And it’s evolved to the point today where about a third of our sales are outside the United States. And we’re doing a lot of business in Europe, a lot of business in Asia, Australia has been a strong market for us, and a lot in Latin America. And so we are truly an international company. And one of the things that we did was with the acquisition of Pace, we did an inversion. An inversion is a redomiciling of the company in the UK. So we’re actually officially, although our headquarters is in Atlanta, our official headquarters is in the UK. And so we’re truly an international company.

ARENSTEIN: What is the -- what are some of the challenges of managing an international company?

STANZIONE: Culture. In fact, culture’s the challenge of managing anything. I was at a meeting recently of a company that had just combined two companies, and that’s what everybody’s talking about: how do the cultures match up? And so you have to have these guiding values, and, you know, you have to realize that cultures are different in different countries. What motivates people and what’s important is different. And how people act and treat one another is different in different companies. Some things are fundamental. Respect, teamwork, keeping an eye on the goal are universal. And so the challenge is communicating with those folks. I mean, if you think about a group over in China or in India or in Europe or in Israel or in Argentina, how do you -- how do you communicate? Fortunately, we’re in the communications business. And we use things like video conferencing and that sort of thing. But also trying to -- one of the challenges of being the leader of an international company is being physically there. And that is an important part of it. People want to know who you are and what you stand for, and they want to be reminded of that, I think, from time to time. And they want to be successful. People want to be part of something that’s successful. And I think they’re willing to work hard. People are willing to work hard if they’re part of something that’s successful and they’re proud of.

ARENSTEIN: So there was a lot of travel involved in that for you, I would assume.

STANZIONE: Yes. There was a lot of travel.

ARENSTEIN: And any particular country that you really liked going to?

STANZIONE: No. I don't think there was one that stood out. I have been so fortunate to have met people all over the world that some I still stay in touch with. But to actually work with and interface with and go out to dinner with and people from all different cultures and parts of the world has been one of the pleasures of the job. You know, it's not fun getting on an airplane and traveling for 20 hours to get someplace. But when you get there, it’s just wonderful. Recent trip I made was to India and met with our employees over in India. And just what a wonderful group of people.

ARENSTEIN: You know, I can’t let you go here, Bob, without asking you what you see coming for this industry, or, to even make it more general, coming into the home. You know, you talked about back in the late ’80s, early ’90s, looking out and seeing that there’s this thing called the cable industry, and you wanted to get in there, and you could envision what was happening or what was going to come. So, what’s coming?

STANZIONE: What’s coming? Well, that’s the $64 question, isn’t it?

ARENSTEIN: Exactly. (laughs)

STANZIONE: You know, it’s hard to say. We’re always surprised. And I think one of the things that is an ingredient to success is being ready for the surprise. Just be ready for something you just don’t know is going to happen. And I’ve seen so many things happen that weren’t anticipated. And so in order to prosper in that kind of an environment, you just have to be on your tiptoes at all times. But to answer your question, what’s coming, I think mobility is key to everything. I think in just a couple of years, probably half the traffic on the network is going to be video traffic, and it’s going to be delivered to a mobile device of one type or another. It’s already heading in that direction very fast. And so I think that there’ll be continued changes in the makeup of the telecommunications industry, where cable companies may get into cellular services -- in fact, they’re already doing it. And we’ll have to provide the technology. One of the trends that I don't think is going to stop is that traffic on the network has been growing at a breathtaking rate. It’s been growing at 40%, 50% a year, which means that every 18 months the amount of traffic doubles. And so imagine if the traffic out on those streets doubled ever 18 months or two years. It would choke. And the reason we’re able to cope with that is the technology continues to improve, and we’re able to squeeze more and more traffic through the same network. And so I think that what we’ll see over the coming years is gigabit speeds delivered to homes and businesses, and I think people will find uses for it. You know, the smartphone is only 10 years old, a little over 10 years old. The tablets are around that same age. We didn’t see that coming. And so who knows what comes next. I think things like virtual reality will become a reality. Right now I don't think we’ve really found the sweet spot for the use of virtual reality. But I think we will. One of the things that we’ve got to do is kind of match the Wi-Fi speeds to the speed of the network over to the side of the home. So if you got a gigabit coming to the side of the home, what do you do with that inside the home? We need to come up with ways of improving Wi-Fi connectivity throughout the home so that when you put on a virtual reality set you don’t have an HDMI cord hanging off of it. You can do that wirelessly. And we also have to have enough bandwidth coming to that so that you don’t get seasick when you are enjoying your virtual reality experience. In order to do that it just takes more and more bandwidth. Things like artificial intelligence are -- you know, these are things that have been talked about for a long time, and they are -- they’re really happening. We’ll have machines talking to machines. We’ll have people talking to machines. I think -- those are the kind of things that I think are exciting and will continue to stress the networks, and I think technology will solve those bottlenecks.

ARENSTEIN: You’re not worried about the network getting -- as you say, getting choked?

STANZIONE: No, I’m not. I think that we’ve got things -- we are -- our company, our customers, our competitors -- we’re all working on ways to open up the network using new technologies. We’re now deploying things like DOCSIS 3.1, which, again, just another step in the evolution of that HFC infrastructure. We’re looking at or we’re doing a lot more fiber to the home. And I think the economics of those things are improving to the extent that we can deploy them.

ARENSTEIN: Bob, are there people -- you mentioned a whole bunch of people. You mentioned Jim Chiddix and others. Are there other people that you look to as great influencers for you over your career?

STANZIONE: Well, gee whiz. Uh, I almost hesitate to start listing names, because --

ARENSTEIN: Because you’ll leave somebody out.

STANZIONE: -- I’ll probably leave somebody out, but, you know, I give a lot of credit to one of my old bosses at Bell Labs, Bob Sanferrare, who was a person that really encouraged me in my career -- supported the skunkworks that I was involved in that kind of led me here. And I’ve mentioned John Egan and -- you know, I’ve got some wonderful board members that have been great mentors and advisors. Alex Best, who’s the former CTO at Cox Cable, is a guy that I admire a lot and has been a great advisor to me. Gosh, I could go on and on. Most of all I give credit to my wife, though. She’s a fabulous woman. We’ve been married -- if we can make it another month, it’ll be 49 years.

ARENSTEIN: Congratulations.

STANZIONE: And she’s always been there. And been very supportive of all these crazy things that I’ve done.

ARENSTEIN: What is -- what’s something that you’re most proud of in terms of technology and cable and -- you know, to me, I think one of the big untold stories -- although the people in cable know it -- but untold in a general public way is this whole infrastructure that cable set up that now is the -- is the foundation for so much -- maybe everything in this country. Is that something that you’re -- and you’ve played a big part in that.

STANZIONE: Well, I played a part.

ARENSTEIN: Is that your legacy?

STANZIONE: I wouldn’t say it was a big part. It was a part.


STANZIONE: I was there.

ARENSTEIN: You were there.

STANZIONE: I was there when it happened. And I think that this development of hybrid fiber-coax is probably the turning point that happened back in the late ’80s, early ’90s. And I’m proud that I was involved with that. But I guess when I look back also, I’m just so proud of what ARRIS has become. Starting out with two companies supporting us, but with nothing. You know, we started with zero sales. And we’ve built it into a $7 billion public company with just a lot of great people in it. And I have to say, I’m so proud of the team that is leading the company now. I’m phasing out. And we’ve got a great leader in Bruce McClelland. And the team that we’ve put together as the supporting cast for Bruce and the leadership of the company is, I think, the best of the best. And I believe that deeply, because I can point to the reason for it. When we were ARRIS before the Motorola Home acquisition, we were a good company. We were a strong company. We were highly regarded in the industry. We bought Motorola Home, who were a strong company. And then we bought Pace. And we’ve got these three companies that had some of the best leaders in the industry, and we’ve taken the best of the best and formed the leadership of ARRIS. So I think ARRIS is on a path to continue to prosper. And I think in a few days we’ll be closing our latest acquisition, which is the acquisition of Ruckus Wireless from Brocade. And that will add another dimension to the company. And I think the company has to keep moving in that direction, keep changing, you know, don’t look back; look forward. And I think that there’s a lot more to come.

ARENSTEIN: So let’s look ahead with Bob Stanzione. What’s ahead for you?

STANZIONE: What’s ahead for me? Well, I am, again, just privileged to be able to stay involved with ARRIS. But I don’t have to work as hard as I used to. And that’s the great part about it. You know, I just am not doing as much traveling as I did before. I’m not the CEO anymore, and the company’s in good hands. And they’ve given me the opportunity to remain involved as the executive chairman, and I can offer advice and participate in decision-making in the company, but I don’t have to work so darn hard. So I’ve taken up some new things. We bought a farm. And I’m doing things I never dreamed I would do. You know, boy from the Bronx owning a farm is kind of a leap. It took a long time for that to happen. But we’ve got this land in Georgia, not far outside of Atlanta, and we’ve got some horses, and we just acquired some cows, so I’m now raising cattle. I’m not doing the work, though. I’m providing the land and the financing, and I’ve got some great partners working with me. So we’re going to do that, see how that works out for a while. And I also have just a wonderful, wonderful family that I’m surrounded with. We’ve got three great kids, two daughters and a son, all married. We have 12 grandchildren. And that keeps us --

ARENSTEIN: That will keep you busy.

STANZIONE: -- pretty busy.

ARENSTEIN: They could work on the farm.

STANZIONE: They -- I’m not sure they’re up to that.

ARENSTEIN: When they get older.

STANZIONE: We’ll see what happens.

ARENSTEIN: All right. You know, I hesitate to mention, because I know you’re a modest guy, but there are so many awards here. Is there one that stands out for you? I know there’s a Vanguard, there’s the Cable TV Pioneers, the Cable Hall of Fame...any of them stand out in particular for you as particularly significant?

STANZIONE: Well, there are a couple. I mean, the Hall of Fame was a highlight for me. There are only about 100 people that have achieved the Hall of Fame designation -- just over 100. And to be one of 100 people in an industry like this that has been given that honor is just unbelievable. It’s a night I’ll never forget. The whole family was there and we enjoyed that a lot. Because the kids never really knew what I did. You know, they would always say, “What do you do, Dad?” I said, “Well, I go to meetings, I get on airplanes, and that sort of thing.” But they got to meet a number of the people in the industry that I deal with, and that was an honor. And also, I guess one other I’d like to point out is my university honored me a couple years ago with being designated as a member of the Thomas Green Clemson Engineering Society, which is something that is one of the highest honors of the engineering department. As I said, I’m not much of an engineer. But that was a big honor. And the neat thing about is my brother Dan, who’s a couple years older than I, had been honored with that same designation a couple years before I was. And we’re the only brothers that have ever achieved that. So I’m very proud of him, and -- gosh, I should have mentioned him along the way as one of the people that’s had a great influence on me.

ARENSTEIN: How did he influence you? What did he do?

STANZIONE: Well, he led the way. I mean, he -- older brother. He -- I’m second of five, and Dan was the number one. He went to Clemson. I followed him to Clemson. I actually joined the Bell System before he did because he remained in school longer than I did and achieved his PhD. He became the president of Bell Laboratories. And is just a fabulous person and had achieved a lot of great success in business. And it was good -- a good period. This is where the name thing comes in, by the way --

ARENSTEIN: Yes, right. You said that.

STANZIONE: Because it’s funny that at the beginning of this interview you asked how to pronounce my last name, and I said, “Stan-zee-o-nee.” And my brother pronounces it “Stan-zee-own.” And we have argued about that for years and years, decades. And I still contend I’m closer to the right name.

ARENSTEIN: Yes, you are, you are.


ARENSTEIN: Having lived in Italy, I can say you definitely are. (laughter) No question about it. Well, Bob, thank you so much. This has been a pleasure.





Save to PDF


Gary Shorman

gary shorman 2018

Interview Date: July 31, 2018
Interview Location: Anaheim, CA USA
Interviewer: Lela Cocorosr
Collection: Cable Center Oral History Program

Cocoros: Hi, I'm Lela Cocoros and this is the Independent Cable Show in Anaheim, California. The date is July 31, 2018. My guest here is Gary Shorman, who is president and CEO of Eagle Communications, and also on the executive committee of the NCTA [The Internet and Television Association] and treasurer as well as the chairman of the NCTC [National Cable Television Cooperative]. So, Gary, lots of responsibility on your plate.

Shorman: Sometimes it seems like a lot.

Cocoros: Welcome. Thank you for taking the time to join us today.

Let’s start with how you got into cable.

Shorman: That’s a fun story. I don’t know how far back you want to go, but—

Cocoros: As far back as you like.

Shorman: You know, it kind of took a different route. I started in cable back in high school, and kind of unintentionally. One of the goals—I grew up in a small community in Kansas, just north of Abilene, Kansas. They didn’t have a local radio station there. So in high school a buddy of mine started working on putting together a radio station, and the only way to get a radio station on without a transmitter tower was to go to the cable headend and hook up the wires and broadcast over the community cable system at that point in time. One thing led to another and eventually we were doing video programs over the cable channel, over the local cable channel, and doing that, I ended up going to school with the same buddy. And came back with a radio station on the air. Did the thing back in the hometown of Clay Center. Ended up on the radio side of things until I had an opportunity to join the company that I'm with now, Eagle Communication.

Cocoros: So what time frame was that?

Shorman: The time frame of high school was back in the mid-70s. So it was back in the day when you walked into the cable headend; there wasn’t all the security you have now. You had the old camera that would go back and forth on a little rail and do that. So we found that you could put photos up of things you were talking about and it would go, and it would show and now you may miss the time that revolution because your photo is up in front. We basically had the ability to plug into the video channel for that lineup and do that. That’s the mid-70s when there were seven, eight, ten channels that were on that local cable system at that point in time. But it really spawned the notoriety that two high school kids got when you became that local voice of that community.

Cocoros: It’s kind of a YouTube predecessor.

Shorman: Had we had YouTube, we would have been in real trouble with that whole thing.

My buddy, friend of mine that was there, started the same way, is now on Fox News. Steve Doocy, who is on Fox & Friends in the morning. So going to college, we did the crazy stuff there, and got on the radio first day at school. We’re on the radio, we’re doing these things and I ended up going the radio route. He's on the TV side of it. The cable thing started when I took a job at Eagle as a radio manager and then moved into a job as vice-president of the operation, which included the cable television side of the business. So I sort of morphed into the cable side through my radio side of the business, and since that time it's been fun. That’s been in the last—that was 1998 when I took over the role that I currently have at the radio station and the cable division as well.

Cocoros: Great. So tell me a little bit about Eagle.

Shorman: Eagle is unique in the sense that we are one of the very few employee-owned companies. Our employees—we have about 300 employees that go across the platform of 28 different radio stations and 60 different cable communities. Our cable communities are located in Nebraska, Kansas, and a couple of them over in Colorado, on the eastern side of Colorado. The employee ownership side of it, it makes it unique because everybody owns a piece of the cable system. A lot of times in the cable world, you have big companies own the cable system, and a whole group of employees, great employees. In our case, everybody’s part of the ownership aspect. So as you get into smaller and smaller communities, you actually have an owner of that system that if they’re engaged in a part of what’s going on. You're in the grocery store line and somebody has a problem, you go fix their problem. So that part of it is unique. Growing up on a family farm, everybody had to work together to win and it just seemed very natural to me to see how we can get the employees engaged just as much as you would on a family farm or a family business where you're trying to grow that and make sure there’s a responsibility there to have a great business.

Cocoros: That’s great. I don’t know if there are a whole lot of other companies that are 100% employee-owned like that. I don’t think there are a whole lot.

Shorman: There are other companies across different platforms. But very few in the cable and the broadcast side of things. I know in Kansas, we’re unique in Kansas. Maybe a couple others that are partially employee-owned, but not like that. So it gives us kind of a unique spot in the world of being really, really, maybe really close to the customers we take care of.

Cocoros: Who in the industry has influenced you? There are so many different people in the industry who are kind of role models in certain ways. Who inspires you in the industry?

Shorman: Initially, and probably top of the list, would be the founder of our company, Robert Schmidt. He was involved with a local radio station that got started. Ended up building the cable systems there in the communities. Like many early entrepreneurs in the radio/television, the next step was to bring a cable television system to those communities. And then we continued to expand from there. But in the world of what—the way I look at it, it's not what we do as much as how we go about doing it. And so you find somebody like Mr. Schmidt, who really wanted to work with that local community, really wanted to be responsible to do that local community from first the radio side, then television and then the broadband side. So that ability to say OK, if we’re going to be in a community, we have to be responsible to that community and how do we go about doing that? So that bar was set a long time ago. Had a chance to work with him for almost thirty years, and he passed away last year. And you still go back and think, OK, how would he have gone about doing some of these things? So you have that model, not necessarily directly cable-related, but how to take care of people and how to take care of your community with your business, which in our case happens to be cable and broadband.

Cocoros: So in your career in radio and cable, what stands out as an accomplishment you're most proud of?

Shorman: There are several things. One on the employee side. Being able to involve the employees of the company in the ownership aspect—that’s really unique. Because we have people here at the show, they're all engaged. They all have their own area they're working on, but they're engaged in what they do, and that engagement then leads to a different level of responsibility back to our customers and everybody else in the company. So that part of it is unique, and we use it as a three-legged stool. We have radio stations, we have cable systems and broadband, but our employee ownership is really the third leg of our stool. And if we do that really well, the other two are going to succeed whether you have a great business environment, or not a great business, or looking for ideas going forward.

Cocoros: So given that you're involved in both NCTC and NCTA, and obviously ACA [American Cable Association] as well as a member, you're kind of touching all of those different types of businesses and companies within the industry. From your perspective, where do you see things going from here, specifically in the area of having a smaller independent cable system?

Shorman: If you look at just the business model in general, this show is a good example of that. You think, well, cable TV has been there, it's old school. There’s the Googles and all the other things in the world out there—they're the next generation of “cool product.” Then you show up here and you see 24 new booths/exhibitors here at the show.

Cocoros: Wow.

Shorman: That’s a big percentage here. OK, what's happening? It's not that we’re putting more channels on the system. We’re not going from 50 channels to 100 channels to 200 channels. We’re building systems and expanding them to provide a broader bandwidth or faster speed or more Internet or more selectivity by our customers to be able to go out and pick and choose a certain product, or a different product. If they don’t want linear, 7:00 at night television where you watch the same show every night or whatever, every week, it allows us to really be able to take from one end of the spectrum and provide broadband on your iPhone or iPad to the other end, which I'll put my mom and dad in that category. They're in their upper 80s and Dad likes to sit down and watch the news. And he likes to watch the same news at the same time and that’s his life. So we’re able to really provide everything in between. Then you start looking at some of the new generation products coming out. Whether it would be those things involving home health, things involving home monitoring, family monitoring; you know, you get into a lot of different things that you can put into play. And what used to be that first place I went, the little shed that’s out underneath the tower, has now become a whole industry of helping people be able to view what they want, see what they want, learn what they want, and opens windows for people who maybe can't do things to travel, to now be able to virtually go places. They can do things they really have never imagined they can do.

So that’s what makes it exciting. And what's happening today is only the start of how that’s going to continue to grow. Because the bandwidth will get more and more and more, and the opportunities will be more and more…

Cocoros: You see it as kind of wide open for opportunity in all these different avenues of using broadband and technology.

Shorman: You look at the history; from an AM radio station, it took a few years and pretty soon there was FM, and nobody believed in that. And then you have the cable TV part of the world where you put a few channels on the air. I think our first package was four channels for five bucks. And people thought that was way too expensive. They still think cable and video is way too expensive. But you have hundreds of channels for 80, 90, 100 bucks. When you look at how that has changed and how that has grown, the complexity gets more and more. But with the complexity becomes the opportunity, and that’s where I look forward and see that happening. Whether we start now with 1 MB of service, and 1 GB of service, then the next is 5 GB, and 10 GB. We looked at a chart the other day that talked about a TB. You get a TB of speed to be able to do all sorts of things.

Cocoros: Do you have any favorite stories that you might want to share kind of about your experiences at Eagle?

Shorman: We had one not too long ago, and when you're around long enough, you end up collecting some fun stories. But we have a small community in northwest Kansas. And without going into a lot of detail, we struggled trying to find a way to take an older cable system and upgrade it into a new fiber-type system that would allow us to bring not only broadband to the hospitals, but local stores, local businesses, and doing this. So we worked with the community over a couple of years. The community was very supportive. They were trying to find a way to do that; government funding was not available. So they said, “Tell you what, let's all work together and see. What do we need for a customer base to be able to build this town into a next-generation of fiber-to-the-home?” They got together, we got together with them, and we ended up…saying, “If we can get 200 new customers, we’ll come up and build this town with fiber.” The next thing you know, that town is rolling, we have now 400 new customers, but we spent a day as a team—there were 25 of us, myself included—get in the car, five in the morning, drive two hours to get to this town, and started installing, and putting the fiber connections into all these homes. I ended up at a pharmacy with a giant drill bit, drilling through the side of this pharmacist’s wall. And I was with one of our techs that actually knew what he was doing, and I said, “This is more for you.” So he gets on and this drill bit is bending going through this wall. Finally we come chunking out the other side of the wall. We spent most of the day getting that set up. The pharmacist then takes us in and said, “This is what this is going to do.” And this is, again, a little town, about 1,000 people or so. They had an automated drug dispensing unit that the fiber was hooking into to be able to go and take the drugs, hook that up and do that, to really allow them to provide a much quicker, faster pharmacy service to the local people in that community. That’s what broadband is doing, is able to do that, and we as companies can make that happen. I'm not sure that putting a big drill and a drill bit in a CEO’s hand is that smart a thing to do. But we had fun doing that. By the end of the day, I think in that one day, we hooked up 40-some customers in one day, including a little old man that was in his chair, and his wife. We walk in the door, knock, and say, “We’d like to hook up this Internet for you.” And they said, “Well, sure. Come on in.” They don’t move out of their chair, we come in. We’re under their TV, and it's not a flat screen. It's one of those big giant—so we drag it out. It hadn’t been cleaned out in behind there in probably 30 years. We cleaned that out, run the fiber in, had the team in there, get that done, hook up their Internet, and they proceed to tell us why they want to do that. To share email with their son and photos of their grandkids back and forth. You're going, boy, this is why we do this. It's not that we can sell another customer. It's the fact that it allows that customer to be connected with people in their world. And in this case, it was an older retired gentleman and his wife, who just really wanted to connect with their family.

Cocoros: That’s great. I think a lot of the time those stories are kind of lost in a lot of the noise, you know, around with all the whizbang things that are happening. But those basic stories of connecting people and people who are connecting to the people, as you said, within their own worlds and it's so important to make sure that that continues, and you can bring the grandchildren to the home through technology. That’s wonderful.

How do you see the future for the cable industry as a whole?

Shorman: I'll talk about what the NCTC is doing with that group. Because they are very much connected. When you go around the floor and talk to people, whether you have 100 subs or 100,000 subs, you're very engaged in the communities you serve. That will make a difference

The second part of that that we’re going to have to do is make sure that as we bring technology forward, we also have to be able to work with those businesses, those people in the community to actually how do you use this correctly; how do you make sure that the people in the community, just because they can connect with the Amazons and Googles of the world, that that doesn’t become their supply source and become the local community, I guess, delivery system. So that local mom-and-pop business, that local store, doesn’t go out. So I see us going forward, we’re going to bring more and more broadband, we’re going to bring more and more information into towns, we’re going to bring more and more connectivity of people not only inside the town, but outside. But there's going to be that responsibility for those of us as we do this, to make sure the community stays intact. How do you make sure those things are staying in the community? So that it just doesn’t completely go away in those smaller communities that we serve, just completely go away, or just become an endpoint for somebody’s data that they have.

Cocoros: Right. And it's really important to keep them connected because the future of their community is at stake, really.

Shorman: It’s at stake on both sides because if you buy everything through Amazon, you're not going to have a local business. But if you don’t have the Internet there, you're not going to have the connectivity. So how do we as local and smaller cable operators really use that to our advantage because we’re there? And in our case, our owners are there, to be able to help grow that community in a way that is positive, grow in a way that keeps the community safe, because there are so many things on the Internet that aren’t. How do we make sure that we train and teach and coach and help build those communities that we serve?

Cocoros: So these associations really can help bring those resources to their membership.

Shorman: I think the resources and maybe even the collaborative effort of what's happening in one part of the country, or one system over here. How can we adapt that to what Eagle can do better? How can some things that Eagle will do maybe be used in some other areas as well?

Cocoros: So sharing best practices.

Shorman: Best practices and even…

Cocoros: What doesn’t work as well.

Shorman: We have some of those out there. You know, in technology, you want to make sure you're at the cutting edge, but you also don’t want to just be out there because most of us don’t have a public market that is funding us. So we have to make sure—I know in our company, talk about that, we have to be able to fund what we use and then get revenue back, so we can fund more projects to continue to grow. So with that thought in mind, we don’t have unlimited resources, we have to be really smart. And what I'm excited about in this particular show is some of the vendors are really working on ways to do that. Working on ways to navigate. It's great to have an app that has 100 channels on it. But you can't cut off your linear TV that my dad and mom watch and say, “OK, Dad and Mom, here's an app.” And they're going to go, “I don’t want an app, I want to be able to sit down to watch my news show.” So you have to be able to migrate from this side of the scale over to the other side. I think that’s what a show like this really helps finding ways to navigate. Eagle may be at this point in their path, somebody else over here may be over here in their path. Somebody else may just be starting from scratch and going, all we’re putting in the ground is fiber right now. But the NCTC and the group of members that they have, sharing ideas and you listen to stories that other people are using and can really use that to your advantage and use that to overall help the industry as well.

Cocoros: Anything else you'd like to add, any stories you'd like to share?

Shorman: You know, when you're in a rural part of the world, one of the things that we do—and you don’t think about this. If you’ve driven through Kansas, you drive through Nebraska, really any state, you see the big grain elevators. Early on, we knew that a lot of our rural customers didn’t have very good or any Internet, so started using those grain elevators as a distribution point for Internet. That’s not a brilliant thing, but it's a very practical thing. If you had unlimited resources, you'd put up a tower every five miles and do all the stuff and make it work, lay fiber in the ground and do this, but be able to set up and using, I guess, creativity and what you have to make it work. So many times government funding is the only way people look at how to build. But like our story in St. Francis, being able to use the energy of a community, the people in the community, a good team of employee-owners or a company to make things work, really can make a difference. And that grain elevator story is sort of—find a grain elevator, put something on, and now connect more people.

Cocoros: Because for me it brings to mind wireless as well, as wireless becomes more prevalent.

Shorman: In some of those rural areas, it's going to be real hard to drag fiber through cornfields, etc. Whereas a really good wireless connection will give that person and that family the Internet they need to be able to connect to the outside world.

Cocoros: Right. It's so important.

Well, Gary, thank you very much for sharing all your stories and it was great to get the chance to hear what you had to say. This show has been really fantastic. I haven’t been to an Independent Show for quite a few years, and it's very energizing. I'm very excited about a lot of the opportunities that are out there.

Shorman: If you happen to drive through Kansas, we’d love to show you our place. We can even crawl up on that grain elevator or two and take a look over the plains and you can see Kansas from a different spot.

Cocoros: That sounds pretty cool. Thanks so much.

Shorman: Thank you.


Save to PDF


Robert Shema

Robert Shema 2018

Interview Date: July 31, 2018
Interviewer: Lela Cocoros
Collection: Cable Center Oral History Program
Note: Audio Only

Cocoros: Hi, I'm Lela Cocoros and this is the Independent Cable Show in Anaheim, California. It is the 31st of July 2018, and I'm here with Rob Shema, who is EVP of member services for the American Cable Association. Rob, welcome.

Shema: Thank you. I'm glad to be here.

Cocoros: It’s been a great show so far.

Shema: I hope so. I hope the members are really enjoying it. We've had a lot of great success gathering speakers and creating the right content, I think, for our members. And I'm hearing a lot of good feedback from the members about the sessions they're attending and the show floor, and it's very vibrant so it's exciting. It takes you back to the old days of cable when we used to have the Cable Show.

Cocoros: It does actually. OK, so let's start with how you got into cable, what kind of brought you into the industry, a little bit about yourself and your career.

Shema: So what brought me into the industry goes back—I started actually in the music business. And when I was in the music business, I was working for a few different folks and my wife and I—at the time she was my girlfriend—were moving to Philadelphia. And we moved to Philadelphia and I was going to go to work for a gentleman by the name of Steve Mountain, who had Cornerstone Management Company. And when I got to Philadelphia, Steve had actually sold the business to his brother. So no more music business opportunity for me. I had to re-invent my career at that time and went back to paralegal school at Villanova University. When I graduated—at the same time, my wife and I had gotten married—she was working for a company called NovaCare. When she was at NovaCare, she was the assistant to the chairman of NovaCare. And NovaCare was doing a deal with this gentleman by the name of Pat Croce. And Steve Mountain was actually his manager. And they came in, and Steve Mountain looked at my wife’s nametag and said, “Brenda Shema, are you related to Rob Shema?” She said, “Yes.” He kind of said, “Well, what's he doing?” And she told him that I was at paralegal school. He was like, “Is he still interested in the music business?” She said, “Yes. And trying to figure it out.” He said, “Well, I might have something for him.” I think Steve called down to Comcast, who was about to do the deal with Pat Croce to buy the 76ers, and the buildings, and they were going to have a music business. It just so happened at the same time, Arthur Block, the vice-president at the time of legal at Comcast Corporation, was looking for a paralegal. And I was graduating paralegal school and I went in and Arthur liked me and Stanley Wang, the general counsel, liked me, so I ended up being Comcast’s first ever paralegal. With the intent that I was always going to move down to the music side when they finally closed the deal on the music side. That never happened. I got cable into my blood and ended up staying on the cable side.

Cocoros: What year was that, or timeframe?

Shema: That was 1995.

Cocoros: All right, well. So it's been 20+ years in the industry, and I hear you're going to be inducted into the Cable Pioneers this year.

Shema: I am.

Cocoros: Congratulations.

Shema: Thank you very much. I'm very excited. It's a true honor to be inducted into the Cable Pioneers. I don’t know if I'm worthy, I don’t know if it’s just an age thing, or if I've actually made the commitment and contribution worthy to the industry. I hope so. I enjoyed my time at Comcast and all of the growth and things that we experienced there. And I think what we've contributed to the industry from that perspective, and my time there, all the things that I did there, as well as working with the independent operators and hopefully giving them a leg up and having them contribute to the industry. So I see myself more as somebody that enables others than really does anything myself.

Cocoros: Behind the scenes.

Shema: Yes.

Cocoros: So talk a little bit about how you transitioned from working for Comcast, which is obviously the big guy, and joining ACA and representing the smaller independent operator.

Shema: So I get asked that question a lot, or I got asked it a lot throughout my career. And it really wasn’t that much different if you can believe it. When I started at Comcast, I had interactions everyday with Mr. [Ralph] Roberts, and Brian Roberts, and Julian Brodsky. Folks that created the business and were true entrepreneurs. When I joined Comcast, it was much smaller, and it was much more interactive, and you had much more interaction with the senior leaders, the folks that actually built the business. And so when I transitioned over to the small guys, it was like working for a bunch of Mr. Roberts’s. It was just terrific in that I got to go back to that entrepreneurial stage and work with folks that were truly building businesses. When I joined Comcast, they had maybe 2.6 million subscribers and a little tiny piece of QVC. When I left, they had numerous television networks and about 27 million subscribers. So Comcast had transitioned into a much larger company. I don’t know that I did. So when I moved over to ACA, it was just like coming home for me.

Cocoros: Nice. Who were the people in the industry who influenced you? We talked about obviously the Roberts’s and Julian Brodsky. But are there other people who have molded you over the years in the industry?

Shema: I have been so fortunate. I'm going to tell way too long stories and you can definitely cut them out if you like. But I think I need to share them because I've just been so blessed to be touched by so many great influencers and so many great mentors in my life.

I mentioned earlier Arthur Block hired me, and he’s now the EVP and general counsel of Comcast Corporation. What an amazing man. If they don’t teach the E! Entertainment Television acquisition at Harvard Business School, they should. Because Arthur, just the way he built that transaction, was brilliant. He is incredible from a perspective of structuring a deal. Our President might be “king of the art of the deal,” Arthur is the king of the structure of the deal. And being able to work with him one-on-one in such a close proximity and basically being his assistant and being part of how he structured deals and learning from him was just an amazing opportunity. I then went into the cable division and a gentleman by the name of Mike Tallent, who was the president of Storer Communications at one time, the largest operator in the country. He was Comcast Cable CFO at the time. And he would take me in on Friday afternoons after the week had ended, and basically talk to me about what Comcast Cable had gone through in that week from a financial perspective. Just learning from him and seeing how he dealt with different transactions and how he focused the business and how he dealt with issues and challenges and problems the company faced was just an amazing learning opportunity.

Then Steve Burke came along. And I tell people, I was so fortunate because I didn’t need to go to the Harvard Business School, I went to the “Steve Burke Business School.” Sitting four doors down from Steve and watching him deal with people, how he managed people and how he led an organization from a small family-type background to the big conglomerate it is today. He actually kind of dragged the company in that direction. And watching him lead that transition was just an amazing opportunity.

Then lastly, I went out and worked for Mike Doyle at Comcast—my last position at Comcast was working for Mike Doyle, who’s president of the eastern division. Mike is a legend in the industry and everyone knows him. But I got to know him really close and it was really great. I'd come up with different problems and go to him, and Mike was just kind of this guy. It was just fascinating to watch his mind work. I'd ask him a question, he'd stare at me for a little bit, not say anything. Had a guitar in his office. He'd pick up the guitar, strum a few notes looking out the window, and I'd be wondering, “OK, am I going to get the answers or am I in trouble here/” All of a sudden, Mike would turn around and say, “You need to go do this, this and this.” And it was just amazing to watch how he had throughout the years dealt with all these problems that I was thinking were new. He already knew the answers and it was great to see him focus and work and how his mind worked to help me solve problems.

Now, I probably work for one of the greatest guys in the industry: Matt Polka. I mean, there's no better boss, no better person to take me into this stage of my life than somebody like him who is a truly passionate person about the industry and about the people we work with and for.

Cocoros: That’s great. A lot of people there that are—

Shema: Sorry there's so many, but I've been so fortunate.

Cocoros: —well-known names. That’s great. Of all your accomplishments in the industry, which one stands out as the most impactful for you?

Shema: So, again, as I started, I don’t know that I'm so much the guy as BASF. I kind of make everybody I work with better in my mind. It's not about me, it's about the goals and objectives whether it's the company or the people that I’m working with. And one of the things I think was great to look back on and say I was part of was the launch of high-definition television. When you look at where we've come as an industry from broadcast channels to broadband and beyond, HD was an interesting transition for the industry. And folks were like, are we going to make money with this? How are we going to do this? What are we going to do? My boss at the time was a gentleman by the name of Michael Snyder. And Michael just believed, from day one, in HD television, and just thought we needed to be there. And kind of dragged Comcast Corporation from the little Eastern Division, dragged the whole corporation into this HD frontier, and got Comcast engineers to buy in and start working on it. I had to go out and do the first HD deal. And the only HD programming in the country at the time was with PBS. And the Philadelphia PBS station didn’t have it actually. It was up in Boston. So we had to work this very complicated deal to get the folks in Boston to give the rights to the folks in Philadelphia and get the folks in Philadelphia to actually start airing this content when no one had the ability to receive it at the time. And we accomplished it all, and Comcast’s eastern division was the first to launch HDTV. I know it was the first for the company. I think we were probably the first in the country, and it was just amazing. We did it with one channel. Now everything’s HD, right?

Cocoros: I remember at the Western Show one year, there were all these companies that were demonstrating it. Like Sony and all of that. They had pictures of flowers. Just so beautiful. These ladybugs on these leaves and things like that. It was mind-blowing. You never really thought that television could get better visually, and then you saw something like this and you just freak out.

Shema: It was just amazing. When we went and saw the signal for the first time at the Philadelphia PBS station, it was just, wow. Just brilliant. It wasn’t too long after that that the Discovery (Channel) came along, and all the cable nets started to jump in with their own HD content. But it was just an amazing opportunity and it is something I'll look back on for the rest of my life as being part of, that was really exciting.

Cocoros: So let's talk a little bit about where we are today in the industry, and what you consider like the biggest challenge the industry faces from your perspective and from the ACA’s perspective.

Shema: I think there's a lot of things going on in the industry from a merger consolidation standpoint and how that’s all going to shake out. What are going to be the threats? You look at wireless, you look at 5G, you look at all kinds of different technologies. I think it depends where you are in the ecosystem as to what your threat is. You look at 5G, and if I'm Comcast, I have to get into the mobile business because 5G is going to play a huge role in NFL cities. When you get out into where my members operate, I think you have to figure out how 5G works and how wireless works, but are they going to be part of the solution by being the backhaul in building the fiber for these 5G networks? Are they going to go move into (that) business? You see the larger operators really jumping into the enterprise big business solutions. Is there an opportunity for midsize and smaller operators to play a role in that enterprise solution? As companies grow and become global, and the US becomes even more global than it is today, what's going to be the role for the smaller independent operator as the true fiber backbone in these rural parts of America? So I think there's a lot of challenges, there's lots of threats, but there's also lots of opportunities for members as they look at how they build their networks and the investment they make in their networks, and how they drive fiber deep into their network, so they can help with the globalization of the world’s economy.

Cocoros: So if you have a small independent cable system, when you're looking at the future and you're talking about a lot of opportunities, if you were an independent operator, how would you approach some of these new technologies? Earlier today we heard, always start with the customer, right? Are the customers in rural communities, are they making the demands that those customers in larger urban locations are, or is there a difference in terms of customers, in terms of what they're looking for?

Shema: I think the answer is, it depends, right? If you're in rural America, we heard today on the wireless panel, they're looking for how do they manage their tomatoes, and how do they manage their water sources, and all of those kinds of things from a wireless perspective. I think the demands depend on where you are. But even in rural America, we have a member—I'll call him out because he does such a great job I think in service to his community—by the name of Earl Kuhn. Earl built his system. In 1967, Earl was the guy, he was working for a cable operator during the day and at night, he and his father were out stringing cable in the next town over, which would turn out to be his system. And I just had a conversation with Earl the other day in that there's lots of folks moving from the Baltimore and Philadelphia area into his rural mountain markets in the mountains of Pennsylvania as they retire. And he's working with his retirement community because they're saying we want all the bells and whistles that we had in Philadelphia and Baltimore from (Comcast’s) X1. Well, how does an operator with 2,000 subscribers offer X1?

Cocoros: Exactly.

Shema: He’s looking at Mobi and TIVO and how can you do that? So the thing about these smaller operators are from Dick Gessner to Earl, they’ve always figured out a way to do what they need to do in rural America when the solution wasn’t available to them in the industry. They would figure it out and get it done. I think Earl’s going to come up with a solution for his customers. Will it be X1? No, it won't be X1. But it will be close enough. And I think that’s what's going to happen for our members is when folks want a GB, they’ll figure out how to get them what they need. Whether that’s truly a GB, or something a little bit less, or if they need 10 GB. They’ll figure out what the customer needs and how to get it to them—

Cocoros: And deliver it.

Shema: Deliver it. Absolutely.

Cocoros: That’s fascinating. I guess it reminds me a lot of the old days of cable with the larger companies where you just find a solution, figure it out and you use the materials that you have in front of you or whatever—much like the Apollo 13 analogy where they had to throw all those things that were up in the air in the aircraft, and figure out a way to bring them down.

Shema: It could happen. So that’s what our guys do every day. They find a way to make it happen.

Cocoros: Is there anything else you'd like to add…?

Shema: So I didn’t tell one good story, and I'm going to tell it at the Cable Pioneers. So if you do release it, it will take the thunder out of my Cable Pioneers, but I know Mr. Brodsky will be in the audience, and I have to tell his story because he's a true mentor, he was a true supporter, he actually wasn’t my second, but lobbied for me to make it into the Pioneers and I'm still a paralegal, right? And Julian Brodsky was the vice-chairman of the company. I was this little paralegal and he just took me under his wing. The story about how he took me under his wing is a great one. So I was maybe about two weeks into the job, I'm a nervous new guy, just first time at a big corporation. I'd always been in the music business, which was always not big corporations. So I was working for this large corporation—it was not large (as it is now), but it was a large corporation at the time. And my first real legal job. I come into the office one day and there's a pile of paper clips and a little yellow Post-It note that says, “Paper clips don’t grow on trees. JAB.” And I said, “What's this?” Right? So I take the Post-It note and I go into my boss, Arthur, and I say, “Art, what’s this?” He kind of smirks at me, and says, “You have to go see Stanley,” who was his boss, Stanley Wang. So I go into Stanley and Stanley says, “Oh, you’ve got to make an appointment with Mr. Brodsky.”

“I have to make an appointment with Mr. Brodsky?” He was like, “Yep. Take that over to his secretary, Diane, and get an appointment.” So I went over—I had known Diane, I'd been working with her on some documents—and I said, “I got this note.” She was like, “OK. Mr. Brodsky can see you at like 4:30 in the afternoon.” I sweat all day and I go in to Mr. Brodsky’s office. And to those of you in the listening world who don’t know Julian Brodsky, he's about 6’4”, about 240 pounds with a huge bellowing voice. And I go in and I hand him the note and he says, “Do you know who JAB is?” And I said, “No.” He says, “What's my name?” And I said, “Julian Brodsky?” He says, “My middle initial is ‘A’.” I said, “OK.” He says, “Comcast didn’t get to where it was by throwing paper clips away.” So he taught me the lesson that even as vice-chairman of the company, he's watching. He's watching every paper clip that was tossed in the trash can, and that attention to detail has pulled me through the rest of my career. From that point on, Julian and I just hit it off and he just always just watched out for me. It was just an amazing story in my life that I wanted to share with everyone else because it just really shows the attention to detail, but the heart of the man as well. How focused he was on the business, how much he cared about the company, and how much he cared about the employees who worked there.

Cocoros: That’s a great story. Thank you for sharing that. That’s wonderful.

Well, Rob, thank you for your time and congratulations on a very successful show.

Shema: Thank you very much. I'm glad you guys are all here and participating in it.


Save to PDF


Quentin Schaffer

Quentin Schaffer

Interview Date: December 1st, 2017
Interview Location: New York, NY USA
Interviewer: Seth Arenstein
Collection: Hauser Oral History Project

Seth Arenstein: Hi, I'm Seth Arenstein for the Hauser Oral History Project at the Cable Center. We're in New York City, it's December 1st, 2017. I'm here with the EVP of Corporate Communications at HBO, Quentin Schaffer. And I have to mention this because Quentin is also a Cable Center Innovation Laureate and he is a member of the Community of Innovators. He does all sorts of great things for the Cable Center, goes out to the community. He talks to people, he talks to students, and he's going to give a Mavericks Lecture.

Quentin Schaffer: Thank you very much, it's a pleasure. Can't believe it's been ten years!

Arenstein: Great to have you here. So yes. Let's talk about 10 years. Your first oral history ended 10 years ago and literally at the time "The Sopranos" had gone dark, literally. Now we've had Bob Zitter here, I don't know, a year or two ago. And he told us about the technical side of going dark at the end of "The Sopranos," and a little bit of the angst that was going on. What about on the PR side? Was there any angst?

Schaffer: Oh I can tell you when "The Sopranos" went black, literally, a number of us had seen in advance the final episode. And I actually had brought it home. You know this is when we could take VHS tapes home. I brought it home, was sworn to secrecy, but my wife watched it with me. We got to where it went goes to black and my wife goes, "oh they didn't trust you with the final VHS." I said "No no they told me this is it." "No I think they left out a part." I said "well, no, I think this is it." And she goes "well if this is it, you're screwed." She said "people are going to be really angry." And I said "well we'll have to talk to David Chase about it and see." And so I got in the next day and called up Ilene Landress, the producer, and she goes "No, that's it. That is how it ends." And at one point David wanted to end it in black and then have the black continue for like eight minutes, and they realized that was too long and it was going to look like the whole network went down. So they said no the credits have to come up within a reasonable amount of time. But then what we did from a PR standpoint in New York, I had a number of journalists who came in to watch the final episode an hour before it aired on HBO. So they would have a jump in terms of writing about it, and then we were there to talk them through. But David did not tell us what he meant by the ending. So we were floundering a little. But the critic who captured it best at that time, and remember a lot of people just castigated us, was Tom Shales of the Washington Post. He saw it and he felt it was the only way you could end the show. It was a brilliant ending because you're basically saying this guy can't even feel safe in a small diner. You know at some point is going to catch up to him. David Chase, meanwhile, had fled to a home he owned in France. I would try to reach him there. He had a little fax machine there but he didn't want to talk to anybody. Then after a couple of days he decided, I'm doing one interview and one interview only, and he did it with Alan Sepinwall of the Newark Star Ledger because Newark was New Jersey (where much of The Sopranos took place). But he never explained what he meant. He left it open to interpretation. When “The Sopranos” went black, that was the same month when "Deadwood" had gotten shot (cancelled) after three seasons. Should have had a fourth. But they ended it too early to David Milch's dismay. David Milch had another series he wanted to do but he didn't expect to do it that soon. "John from Cincinnati" which didn't quite work. So we then had a lot of people asking HBO, "well, what now? What's your next Sopranos?" And we knew there's not, there's never going to be another Sopranos but it's going to be what is the next quality show. But the cupboards were fairly bare there and we made an early mistake, "Mad Men." One of the writers of "The Sopranos" Matt Weiner had written "Mad Men" as a spec script to get the job at Sopranos and he wanted to do it at HBO, and it went over to Josh Sapan and AMC.

Arenstein: Who we talked to the other day.

Schaffer: And that really was a tipping point in terms of opening up the gates to other networks out there that are doing shows as good as anything HBO has got. And that was a moment in time where we had to start to say, what is next? And we went to our new co-president (overseeing programming), Richard Plepler. He went out to Hollywood and he did a listening tour and he started talking to agents, reporters, producers, and said, "Tell me about your experience with HBO" And he said "I want to hear good and bad." And they said "you know, you guys are a little arrogant, you know, a little rudeness there. We went to this other network because we thought we'd be treated better or we'd get more attention." So Richard’s first mandate was, I want to change this. I want people to be bringing their shows to us and you know with Matt Weiner going out the door, that was not good. And then really for us it was about a year but we got rescued by vampires, when "True Blood" launched and had a very long run. And that was Alan Ball, a show runner we'd worked with before in "Six Feet Under." And he captured the zeitgeist at that moment. That show, which started out talking about the disenfranchised, the vampires were the disenfranchised, all of a sudden took on this life of its own and became a big hit for us. And what was unique about it too was that the books, these paperback books. Charlaine Harris wrote the books, and they were very popular at airports. After the show her book sales skyrocketed and we saw the power of HBO visibility for a book. It was immense. We had seen it a couple of times before, I think "Barbarians at the Gate" was a best seller. After we did the movie that book was back on the bestseller list, so we had done this with other things, but that was a big, big moment for us.

Arenstein: Back to the going to the black with "The Sopranos". Well the first point you have to make, here it is how many years later, and we're still talking about it. So okay, mission accomplished. But the other thing is, did you warn affiliates? Or on the PR side, did nothing?

Schaffer: No we could not really tell anybody. We were told you have to just let it air. Everybody was going to watch that night, that was one of the biggest TV nights. I think it was 20 million viewers. But we were sworn, there was a very small group of us that we're able to see it. And as tough as it was to not say anything, we realized if we did there's no way we could explain it and we'd have to have problems. So once it aired, yes, then people spoke to it. Cable operators heard from a lot of people who complained, saying what happened? I lost my cable, my cable went out. I missed it, who killed Tony Soprano? And you know we said, well, nobody killed him officially.

Arenstein: Right, right.

Schaffer: So that was, yeah, a real wild moment. And it showed how many people were vested in it and just had lived with these characters and wanted a resolution. People wanted this resolution, they weren't used to it. And I think that's what cable did that was very different. We didn't follow the usual network protocol of you're going to have a beginning, middle, and end. There isn't going to be a neat tidy ending, and Sopranos warned you about that over the years. They were certain episodes, the Russian who disappeared in the woods, his story never resumed and everyone's dying to know what happened to him. The rapist with Dr. Melfi never got resolved. So you should have seen that David Chase was not going to give you some clean ending. And I think that's what was so brilliant. He always did things a little differently.

Arenstein: Speaking purely from a PR point of view though, would you have, if you could have scripted it out, you probably would have called some of the affiliates and said, "look, you're going to get a lot of calls on Sunday night at ten." It was on from nine to ten? Yes. "And you're going to get inundated with calls complaining about their cable service. Here's what's going to go on." You probably would have done it that way, probably.

Schaffer: They would have said "what do you mean by that? Is it a very gruesome ending? What is it going to be?" It is almost best that we didn't, that we weren't able to do it. We just let it go organically and then we handled it in a less proactive way than you might be used to.

Arenstein: OK. Tell me about what you do on a day-to-day basis on the PR side at HBO. What kinds of things, must be different every day?

Schaffer: Every day is different. You never know when you come in in the morning. You can have a set schedule and you have no idea. I mean as you can see lately, there have been so many different crises, so you may have a focus on a few other things and then you walk in at the end of the day you've worked on three other projects. I think for me a lot of what we do, being that it's PR, and not everything PR related is tangible. You have several things that you're doing that maybe are quite visible that people say, "oh wow, great feature you placed here. Great interview." And there's a lot of invisible things you do. Things you head off at the pass before they become problems.

Arenstein: Stories that you keep out of the paper.

Schaffer: Stories you keep out of the press. So part of our job is just that, getting stories in the press and keeping stories out of the press. And it's a juggling act that you do. How serious could this issue become? Are we being oversensitive? Because you have different show runners, you have different artists, and you may say to them, "you know I don't think this is going to work well" and you might be able to get people to listen, particularly our programmers. I've got a number of different areas under me. One would be media relations, which is all the program publicity. Corporate affairs, which is dealing with our ancillary businesses. Marketing stories. International. We've got our corporate social responsibility, that's now under PR and that's a lot of social good that we do. We've got our consumer affairs which handle the e-mails that come in. It used to be the phone calls and the letters, very few letters, few phone calls. But mainly e-mails. We respond to as many of these as we can. And then we have our Talent Relations and Special Events Group because we do a lot of premieres and we also have to take care of talent. In fact, we do so many things with talent, you have to take care of their hotel, their airfare, their travel, their per diems, and keeping them happy. So they want to come back.

Arenstein: And you know people talk, at least in PR, they would always say "does PR have a seat at the table?" What about at HBO?

Schaffer: HBO PR has a big seat at the table and I'd say it has for quite some time. Richard Plepler, who is our CEO, came out of the PR side. And so he has tremendous instincts that he's developed in advising CEO Jeff Bewkes when he was there, Bill Nelson, Chris Albrecht, all various CEOs we've had. He's had a major seat at the table and he's then continued this tradition. He likes to hear from different voices and he wants to know what people think. He does something very smart. Some CEOs would say "let me tell you what I think" and then they'll say "now what do you think?" And you know any smart person is going to say, anybody, as Richard would say, anybody who has a mortgage is not going to tell you what they really think. In his case he will just say you know we'll discuss something he'll say "now what do you think. What are your thoughts about this?" And he'll try to get an answer from you before he tells you where he's coming from. It's really I think it's a very good way to do it. You know you talk more freely. Occasionally you might think, "well I wonder where he's coming from?" But I'm going to just tell him quite frankly what I think and I've enjoyed that part of our relationship. It's very transparent, everything is very open and candid. We don't have to soft shoe around things, everything is an open conversation.

Arenstein: What would be something, can you give me an example of something that people would be surprised to hear that you deal with, or that PR deals with at HBO?

Schaffer: Boy that's a great question.

Arenstein: Because it sounds like you're all over the place.

Schaffer: We do everything. I don't know if it would surprise anybody, but I think when you're dealing with talent-- A lot of our executives who have one-on-one relationships with talent, they start to get to know the talent, the ones who do it best. They get to know maybe what books they like, what social causes they like. When we find that out our corporate social responsibility group might say, oh breast cancer is a very important cause for this actor. You know I wonder why? Well, his mother died but he, I'd love him to do some spots. So that's something we do that I think's very effective and actually the talent love this. The talent are very moved when they can help a cause that's important to them. You know many of them will come to a cause to support it. We just did the autism concert with Jon Stewart. Now all the talent there didn't necessarily have a connection to autism. Many have a relationship with Jon Stewart but they all came out it was a very positive, good thing. But when you have a talent that really is passionate about something and will even travel for that cause, that's something we do that I don't think people know that much about.

Arenstein: Talk about things that people don't know that much about. HBO documentaries are fabulous. But if you talk to the average person on the street and say, "HBO" they'd say "The Sopranos," they'd say "Trueblood." They probably wouldn't say Sheila Nevins' latest great documentary.

Schaffer: Yeah. Well I'll tell you, what we look at it is, we always look at HBO as more than one show. So we look at HBO as the brand, and what we really want people to know... It may be a small percentage that watches a docu but we want them to know that when we're going to do a docu it's going to be something really good, really important, and something that is going to resonate. We have late night shows with John Oliver and Bill Maher. We do some comedy, some music concerts, original movies. We have a very good mix. "Vice" had a show that this summer, with its Charlottesville story, garnered more attention than perhaps any other news story. It was amazing the coverage they got. So we like to say we're a package, we're not just "Game of Thrones." Which is why when people say "What are you going do after 'Game of Thrones?'" like we're only one show, we're going, "Well wait a minute, you're missing something, we have a lot of original shows and 70 percent of our schedule is theatricals." And right now if you want to get a theatrical, there's very few blockbusters left, right? You basically can go online and pay five dollars for a single movie, or we'll have it. We have four of the major studios that have deals with HBO. And I think that's something that people value because the ratings for those movies are enormous.

Arenstein: Wow, I didn't realize that 70 percent is theatricals.

Schaffer: It's funny the programming gets all the attention but the movies are a major backbone for the network.

Arenstein: So HBO as you pointed out is not always the hot show at the moment. Sometimes it's not. But the record at the Emmys has to be something that's to be reckoned with, there is no question about that, and that is an overall quality. How do you answer people when they say to you "oh gosh no more 'Sopranos,' no more 'Girls,' 'Sex and the City?’” What's your response?

Schaffer: I think the thing is you have to tell somebody about the value proposition. For HBO, and let's say HBO is averaging fifteen dollars, $14.99 a month. You want people to understand what is the value they're getting for that. And I think if they go out to see a movie in a theater you're spending 10, 11, 12 bucks just for one person, for one movie. Plus your popcorn, plus your partner. So it's very easy analogies. And I think for us what we found and I think the Emmys is one gauge. I mean we like the fact that we've won more Emmys than anybody for the last 16 years and had most nominations for the last 17 years. Does the Emmys boost our viewership? No, but in the Hollywood community it's the ultimate triumph, and all the agents, managers, they want to come to the HBO party, everybody wants to be with HBO. I think what the Emmys also do, I think it shows the diversity of programs that we have. We're not limited to just a comedy series or drama series but our shows, you know John Oliver is winning, and we'll have original movies winning and we'll have maybe a music show or a comedy show. We win in all these varied categories and we always come away saying you know that shows the diversity of the programming that we've got. Just this week, Rolling Stone came out with their 10 best shows of the year. On that list, five of the best shows were HBO shows. And that's just one outlet. We see this with a lot of other outlets, this time of year when they do their end of year lists. We always seem to score more than anybody. And I think that's a mark of the quality we continue to provide.

Arenstein: So while we are on the Emmys theme, I've got to ask, what do you and your department do in terms of Emmys, Golden Globes, etc., awards, what role do you play in that?

Schaffer: There's an Emmy campaign that we've done for years and years. And what I'd like to say to everybody, because you know we usually don't do any interviews specifically about the campaign, because we don't want it to look like oh PR is driving the campaign and making it look like these shows would win only because of the PR campaign. What we'd like to say is listen if the shows are good the PR campaign can help bring awareness to it. So the way we look at it is HBO is not in every TV household. We're in a 30 some odd million homes. For the TV Academy which has a membership about 22,000, I know that not all of them have HBO. So our first goal is we have to make sure everybody who's an Academy member knows what shows are eligible that year. So we have to make sure we get the noise out there. These are the shows that are eligible. Then you want to make sure people have the opportunity to see those shows. And so we still do a mailing, a DVD mailing to the 22,000 members. We also have people use the Internet as well. You know with the Academy you can provide links for streaming, although we found that people aren't using the links as much as you might like. We have the data on that. I think the DVDs are still the way to go. You do a few ads and the ads are more just reminding people these are the shows that are on. And now what the TV Academy has added are these panels that you do in Hollywood so you can't do it for everything but you probably put four or five of your top shows. You do up a session and you show the show again and then you have the talent on stage and people come to talk to the talent get pictures. But at the end of the day I think when it comes down to the voting and people are looking at the ballot and there's five shows I think people are going to vote for what they think is best and that's where we are. We feel our main role is just making sure they know what shows are eligible and that they've had a chance to see them.

Arenstein: You just said something that's always intrigued me. And it's a little parochial I will admit. DVDs, having the DVDs sent to a critic versus telling them that there's a link out there and you do this and this and there it is. You just said that the DVDs work better, or at least for the Academy.

Schaffer: For the Academy they do. For our TV reviewers we actually now do provide links, and that's one hundred percent, and we had a transition there two years ago after "Game of Thrones." We had four episodes of "Game of Thrones" that got pirated, traced to a DVD that went out for review. And so we changed our whole policy two months after that and started doing the links. And the links we can track and track very easily. But I think for the Academy we've talked about it, but right now we don't want to get ahead of technology. We're sort of saying we'd rather be a little bit of a laggard. If people still want to put a DVD in and are watching it, we'll do that. Many of our other competitors are still doing the same. And I think there'll be a point, maybe in another year or two, where that might go by the wayside. But right now you know we may have 40 shows that we're pushing and 40 DVDs you want to get out there and to 22,000 members of the Academy. And they take it. You know they never provide you with their mailing list. They're the middleman. You've got to pay them, work through them, to get it to people. I think they want to protect their members, otherwise the members could get bombarded. You'd have a hard time, you could compile a rough list but it's not worth it. It's better just to go through them.

Arenstein: Now, Millennials. We wanted to ask you about Millennials and how HBO appeals to Millennials in the sense that these are people who probably didn't grow up with "The Sopranos," probably didn't grow up with "Sex and the City." Does HBO consciously think, "oh gosh, you know we've got a different young group there and we have to appeal to them?"

Schaffer: Well you know it's funny you say this. Our new Head of Programming, Casey Bloys, has a real interest in finding those shows that would resonate with Millennials, with Gen Zs. He has done this before. I mean you know "Girls" had a terrific run, and we find "Silicon Valley" resonates. "Insecure" we're doing now has resonated. But he really wants to find those shows that would work for Millennials. I have the benefit that I have three. I've got a 26-year-old, so she's a millennial, and then I have two Gen Z-ers in the house and. And they're my little focus group on stuff. I hear what they watch. They watch, they love "Vice." A lot of times they're watching on their phones. They sometimes needle me. "Dad. You don't have this show that this network has or this streaming service has." But I want to hear what they're watching. And if they don't like something we've done I kind of want to understand. I tell them not everything we do is for everybody. But I think what we found with them, I think the Millennials and the Gen Z-ers are, they have very short attention spans. So they do like the shorter stuff. And this is a positive for us, they have a social conscience. They are global citizens. They want to evoke social change. A lot of our programs, some of our original movies, some of our docus, have always fit into that. And you don't want to thump your chest "hey look what we've got." But they tend to find those things and I think that makes them feel better. The point I can make now that just came up is, the New York Times is doing a piece. They just called up and said "We're doing a piece on holiday parties. And you know with all the sexual harassment going on we want to understand from you guys, what are you doing this year?" And I said "well listen we did away with our holiday party two years ago. This is the third year we're not doing one." "Oh really, why?" "Well they're expensive things to do. Only half the company went and it wasn't in the spirit of the holiday. It was fine but felt a little bit like a dinosaur." "So what are you doing instead?" "Well you know what, we do a give-back program where different departments have a day where they spend helping a different cause in the city and we select from 12 causes. And the Millennials and the Gen Z-ers in the company love that." And that, I found, says a lot. We know that we've got a very diverse audience and we know that the Millennials and the Gen Z-ers, the Gen Z-ers are the most diverse audience that has ever come around. So what it's doing right now, which is great, you're seeing more diverse types of programming because that's where the audience is. And you know you want to keep them, you want to grab them. I shouldn't say keep them because we don't always have them right now but you want them. They've hopefully had a taste of HBO programming. We have a college program that is giving them a taste. And you just hope that down the road they're going to subscribe and say this is a great value.

Arenstein: I have to ask this question: is there a show or two that you saw in previews and said "oh, this one is going to hit big" and it didn't? By the same token, you saw something that you thought, "I like it but nobody is going to watch it" and it did hit big. I recall Chris Albrecht saying "nobody really watches 'The Wire.' We like it but nobody really watches it. We're probably going to cancel it." Well that didn't happen, good thing it didn't. But I remember him saying that so many times, he'd say, "there were more people at my Bar Mitzvah than watched that show" or something like that. So were there any examples where you said oh yeah, this is going to hit and it didn't? And then you saw one and said, well..., and it hit?

Schaffer: I would say one that I thought was going to hit, and it had all the ingredients, was our series "Vinyl." And the reason I thought it was going to hit, it was sex drugs and rock ‘n' roll. So boy that covers a good swath. You had Martin Scorsese directing it and as a producer, Terry Winter who wrote for “The Sopranos.” You had Mick Jagger as a consultant and very involved in this, this for him was an important project. And some terrific actors, Bobby Cannavale, Olivia Wilde. And Ray Romano was great, and I loved the pilot and I said, "wow, this thing is going to take off." And it was a very expensive production and it got about half the audience we thought it was going to get. As each week went on it was losing some viewers and we started hearing from people saying "you know it's not fun, it's too dark. It's not what I had hoped it was going to be." And I think if it had cost half the money you could have justified keeping it on, but it was one of our high budget projects and sadly they decided we can't continue this for a second season because the audience has dwindled, it's not doing what we had hoped. So that's one. I think you sort of hit-- you know there are shows like "The Wire". It was definitely one, that's a show that I always was surprised did not win Emmys. It got one Emmy nomination in all those years. You'd think at least it would get that respect. Now many call it the greatest series of all time.

Arenstein: Exactly.

Schaffer: But I think that was one that we-- And David Simon was a genius, and he has stayed with HBO for 20 years because you know he can do something and it doesn't have to get an audience. But I think that was one that I thought probably could have been discovered earlier. And I that we sort of look back at the PR and we just say you know I don't know what we could have done differently. One year with "The Wire" which we did and David gave us-- We actually, this is before bingeing of course, we sent out the fourth season of "The Wire" which was when they talked to the schools and education, we sent out all the episodes. And at the time they were concerned about our home video area. "Oh boy, no one's going to buy the home video if you do that." But I checked with (home video president) Henry McGee at the time, he goes, "no, you know what, we make a certain amount of money, I don't think it will affect it." So we actually did that and got the best reviews because critics saw the whole story arc.

Arenstein: Right. I guess the other David Simon show that I personally thought was fabulous was "Treme."

Schaffer: Exactly. "Treme" we knew had a more limited appeal because you didn't have your drugs and shootouts. But David evoked that world, that music world down in New Orleans, and he did a terrific job with that. I think in the three seasons he had he was able to complete the story arc that he had. And now he's back with us with "The Deuce" and "The Deuce" really resonated. It's a show that really did well, it debuted in the fall. But it was averaging 6 million viewers. And you know with James Franco, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and really captured that era. And in fact one thing David does, he manages to make something so authentic that there's not a single historian that ever has come out who said "boy this is wrong." Not on a David Simon production.

Arenstein: You know it's funny you say that because I remember watching a Spike Lee documentary about post-Katrina New Orleans and I think it might have been on HBO, I don't remember.

Schaffer: Yes, it was, "When the Levees Broke."

Arenstein: Right, and I'm watching the people that he interviewed and I'm going "those people were in 'Treme,' he took that right from 'Treme!'" And then I realized, it's because David Simon was so historically accurate that these people seemed like they were from "Treme."

Schaffer: So exactly right. We did that. That was a brilliant docu, Spike Lee. I think, honestly, I think someday he should be known more for his docus because I think he's done some brilliant docus. And that was one we premiered down in New Orleans. There's the Superdome there, next to the Superdome is this 20,000 seat theater and we premiered it in there and allowed the citizens to come and it was great. Showed all four hours, it was a long film. But you know when you're living that, you want to see it. And he came down and it was very special.

Arenstein: So, Quentin, you know I hate to say it, but part of PR, and a big part of PR now is dealing with crisis and crisis PR. And HBO, as most major brands, has not been immune to crisis. So there are a few that I can think of, and one is about the President's head and "Game of Thrones." Another one is about the horses dying on "Luck."

Schaffer: You know we've had so many different crises over the years. But I mean this is one where-- "Luck" was a show that David Milch did with Dustin Hoffman. I really liked it. In fact, when you talk about shows, I wish this one had continued. I think it had tremendous potential. But when you're working with race horses, what they don't tell you upfront is race horses are highly fragile and very high strung. And so we have the AHA monitoring the horses. How many hours they work in a day. Many of these were former race horses. So there are certain criteria you need to follow. We actually added to that criteria other things. We took x-rays of the legs and we went to great lengths. And I think when we lost the first horse, it was as the end of a day shoot and it happens. It stepped the wrong way on the track and broke the ankle. That unfortunately was a terrible moment. But this can happen. Then there were two other incidents where they happened not even during the shoot. And so at the end of it we were basically sitting around saying, "listen, how many horses can you afford to lose in shooting a show?" And the answer should be zero. So we basically at that point said you know we have to cancel the show. And Richard Plepler had a major role there and said we just can't continue. We took a big write down, several millions, tens of millions of dollars. But it was the right decision. And then a lot of people don't know I think we had about 20 horses that we had purchased for this, shooting the show, and we actually placed every one of those horses so that every one of them was put to a nice retirement place. You know that was a responsibility that we wanted to see through. So that was something that was one that something you can take all these precautions in the world. But there was nothing you could do to prevent that from happening. You couldn't substitute a Clydesdale for a racehorse you know. And these horses, it's probably why you haven't seen a lot of horse racing series before. Working with animals is tough enough but they are very fragile.

Arenstein: Can you take us behind the scenes a little bit on that one? And talk about HBO's reputation which many people attribute a lot of that to you and your steady hand, being there for so many years. Did somebody come in, maybe Richard Plepler, come in and say, "gee, how big a hit are we going to take PR-wise if we continue the show, if we don't continue the show?" Was that kind of thing going on?

Schaffer: You know it was also more about what is the right thing, and it was really more like, yes, the PR thing, that's not good, but really, should we be doing this? And I think Richard asked the question "can anybody here guarantee me we won't lose another horse?" And nobody can. You know these were accidents, no one even expected that, and I think he really made the sound decision that as much as we like the show and we'd love to see it continue, it is not worth it and we basically canceled it. There was no major animal protest, no PETA-- PETA has sort of a thing with AHA so they had their own thing. But no, we were heading this off just saying no, that can't continue. And I think the actors were disappointed but everybody understood. You know they say now, "I understand why you guys made the decision."

Arenstein: OK. And now that the hacking. Tell us about that.

Schaffer: Yes, the hacking. You know if you look at the country today you have two types of companies: one that's been hacked and one that doesn't know they've been hacked. It's fascinating when we were working on this you started hearing about everybody being hacked. The New York Times has been hacked. You know there's really not a company or outlet that you don't hear about. So while we're working on this, the first thing you do, you first have to-- you're kind of surprised when this happens because this letter comes in and the hacker is making this threat. And you're trying to think "Oh God this is real," and they're giving you a deadline and they're asking you to make a payment, and they're telling you don't go to law enforcement. You know just like out of a movie. You first you need to get a major law firm behind you, a major crises PR outfit that can advise you because you know very little information. When the incident first occurs, you do not know that much. So any statement you make-- Your instinct is normally to assure everybody, "oh we found out the hacker" but you don't know that. And if you make a statement you can look like a fool the next day when something, when it changes. It changes daily. And that you don't know what the hackers' next move is going to be. You get law enforcement involved though they tell you don't go to law enforcement. You know it was usually the kidnapper that would always say that in the old FBI series. Well you know you get them involved, but listen, the FBI was hacked. The CIA has been hacked. There's no one who hasn't been hacked, but you get them involved because they've dealt with other cases like this and they understand, and as you probably saw they actually tracked down where this came from, an Iranian hacker. But I think what you had to be very careful. When you're doing this you have a lot of unsettled people and you have to look at your stakeholders and the most important group are your employees. You want to make sure your employees know, that they're informed before they're reading about it in the press. So you're trying to tell them a little bit as you're going, a little bit here, a little bit there. Telling them maybe there's a new security system that's just been put in place. You have hired these major tech security companies. They're looking and tracking, and then you're trying to let them know if their personal information has been compromised. All of those steps have to be taken in addition to people who are your clients. Actors that you may work with. If their Social Security numbers were compromised because of contracts you've got to let them know, by law you have to let them know. But you want to let them know so they can still do something, they can take measures. Being hacked is a very agonizing process because it hits, and then several days go by. You're waiting for the next hit. And what's interesting is the media, they play a role. Now some of them are very responsible. You have to-- they're going to report this company's been hacked. But some of them become a tool of the hacker who then uses them and says, "Hey, I'm next dropping this information" and they sort of feed the information to the outlet, and then the outlet runs it. There's a great conversation to be had with the media about where the responsibility lies and where you are violating that and you're becoming an accomplice to the hacker. Because that was something we really learned you know with certain outlets. And luckily ours had a happy ending. I mean the hacker did not have "Game of Thrones." There were scripts that had already been online that had already been stolen. They did put up a few shows but the shows they put up, "Insecure" and "Ballers," they actually ended up getting higher viewership numbers this summer. So it was sort of, it didn't have the impact. And I think when everybody looked at how we had handled it they said "you guys seemed to handle it very well." It's a jolt for any company. When you realize-- it's very invasive, you feel violated. And now as a result it makes you much more careful about what you put in e-mails, what you save. It's anything you're sent. You know I don't open anything unless I really know who it's from. And our security outfit. They test people in the company. They sometimes send a fake e-mail or something to see if somebody will open it. They want to see if people are being vigilant. Because all it takes is-- This is the key, it takes one or two weak links. You can have everything strong and one person lets in a hacker because they haven't thought "Who is this person?" So that was actually something that I think a lot of people were asking us about since it all happened, because they want to be prepared and they want to know what steps did we take. I'd say another thing is you also you get your I.T. people very involved. You don't put your CEO out there as the face of this. You use your I.T. folks when you're responding. You just don't want to say a lot because you don't know a lot. So you want to kind of make sure before you're saying anything, that it's all been verified and you're good to go.

Arenstein: And then the one that I don't know anything about here at all is the President's head in "Game of Thrones."

Schaffer: This was an awkward one. This was one where when we did Game of Thrones there was a home video release and in the background was President [George W.] Bush, there was his head on a spike. And somebody had had his head from another movie and it was on a spike in the background, it was so subtle you could barely notice it. But when somebody brought it to our attention, Lisa de Moraes from the Washington Post, all of sudden we go, "wow we didn't know, we didn't see that." And we then tried to track down where this might have happened. You'd have to freeze it to see it because it was so--, but nowadays everybody can freeze frame stuff. What we had to do is we really had to pull those DVDs from the shelves. We had it blotted out. We tried to track where this came from and it happened at a period where we had just done a wonderful film on Bush 41, terrific documentary. And this happened literally a week or two after that and was very unsettling because we just said "oh my god, we just did this great event up there (in Kennebunkport) and now we have this." We don't really know where it came from. You know there was a prop box of lots of heads and somebody puts these out there. But it was a very awkward moment which we dealt with very quickly and resolved as quickly as we could. So if you hadn't seen it before it was going to be hard to find it after that because we took care of it.

Arenstein: So I guess this leads into another question we have here on the list and that is: How has the role of PR changed at HBO since you've gotten there?

Schaffer: It's sort of you're involved in everything. There's really not a department, an area, we don't deal with regularly. And I think you kind of realize that you want these different areas-- Your general counsel you want to talk to if you're dealing with a sexual harassment case tied to a show, you understand their perspective. Everything that you deal with there's a different area that probably plays a role, will help you. Be it our marketing or I.T. folks, our programming folks. Programming checks ideas with us. They'll say "hey, we're thinking of doing this thing with this actor. How promotable do you think that is for you guys?" You know it's not the only reason they may do something but they do check with us which I think is really helpful.

Arenstein: So now we talk about this very competitive universe that we're in now. You have people like Netflix, you have people like even Amazon and AT&T is doing very good pieces on DirecTV and things. A lot of people making content. How do you as a PR person strategize on that?

Schaffer: A lot of them are touting their program budgets now. You know Netflix will say oh we're spending 8 billion dollars, or Amazon I think is 4 billion dollars. And I think the press have reported that we're about maybe two and a half billion dollars. But we always have looked at it as it's not-- and Richard's line is "more isn't better, only better is better." And we're all about quality. And I think our attitude is there's so much programming to watch, 500 scripted television shows that people can't sift through it. So what they don't want is another 500 hours of scripted television. What they really want is quality. (Note: the 500 scripted shows = 4000 hours and add to that 750 unscripted shows = 5000 hours for a total of 9000 hours) So what we try to do is we try to curate what we're putting on and try to put on things that we all think are going to resonate. And you don't have to spend this, as Richard said the other night, "Monopoly money" on a show like "Lord of The Rings." I mean Amazon is going to try that. I think that's good. They hope it becomes a "Game of Thrones" for them. But what we do is pick our shots and I think we have this diverse mix so that we're not about just one show. And when you're looking at the whole mix of our stuff, we always-- every month there's going to be a lot of things because we are always voted on each month. People's pocketbooks, they got to write that check. You don't see that with network TV. Right. Network TV, although I watched that the other night, couldn't believe how many commercials. That's another thing, we don't have commercials and that's still been a very valuable thing. The other thing is too, we also stream our programs. Because of HBO Now we're able to stream and we're reaching a younger demographic. We're reaching people who just wanted HBO. So while it was great when we were part of the cable package, in the skinny bundle we're doing very well. But we've always been the last thing added to the big cable bundle. We helped carry the bundle. But I think now we feel pretty good about our position. And then I would say, the other thing we say, there was a period where Netflix as an example was saying, "you know, it's Netflix versus HBO." They initially were trying to do "we're going to be them before they're us." I think we've seen sort of a different attitude. I think when you're not the disrupter as much anymore but you become more accepted and established. They now say what we say. It's Netflix and HBO, or it's FX and HBO. It's like, it isn't either or. We had for years and years-- There were a lot of cable networks we've always been mentioned with. Oh it's HBO and-- let's say the FX guy or Showtime. Well no it's HBO and Showtime-- You know they always dragged us along. There was a great quote by a journeyman basketball player whose name escapes me. His first name was Jack [Haley] and he was traded to the Chicago Bulls and his first game with the Bulls Michael Jordan played. And this guy Jack played in the game and scored zero points and Michael Jordan scored 52. And Jack’s quote was, "I'll always remember it as the night Michael Jordan and I teamed for 52 points." And so it was one of those lines. That's how I felt. A lot of our competitors are always sort of dragging us in because they might have one good show. And our attitude was, as long as we're always part of the dialogue. Where you worry is if they're not talking about you anymore. That's the thing. We always want to make sure we're-- our program resonates.

Arenstein: So from a PR standpoint you sort of stand back a little bit.

Schaffer: Yes, exactly. And you know you can't force it. If something's not good then you kind of have to accept it and move on. There'll be shows that maybe you're not sure will really take off. You know you just never know. Over the years some I've hit right and some I've hit wrong but it doesn't diminish-- You know when the company’s agreed to get behind something, whether I like it or not, we're going to do that. And sometimes it might be something I might love and they say, "no, we're not going to put as much effort behind that. It's not quite a--" And those, you have some pet projects like that. But you know it's all fine.

Arenstein: The future of HBO? You've kind of touched on it with HBO Go and HBO Now. Where do you see HBO in about five years?

Schaffer: I think we still look at the HBO brand as being so well-known, so well-established. And I think our hope is that we continue this. Remember we're still only in 40 million homes so there's a lot of growth that we could pick up. I think what we're trying to do now, a lot of our deals are such where our price isn't going to be continuing to go up. We're trying to get more people, but you know keeping that price down. I think people are very price conscious particularly Millennials and Gen Z-ers who like things free. And I think we haven't utilized data as much as some of our competitors. But I think as we're starting to get more data I think that's going to be very helpful for us, particularly with our marketing. I think our marketing will benefit greatly and in terms of finding those new undecideds, those people who don't have HBO. That's something where we're hopeful that will work. So I see us doing-- I think the HBO brand should be thriving and doing very well. There will probably be some other fall out then. And I think there are other networks, I won't name ones, but I think there will be some others that may fall by the wayside that just can't keep up. I think you're going to have to be in that mix of four top networks. That's where you are going to be safe. You got to be in that mix and that includes streaming service. But you're going to have to be in that mix and I think we're up to the task.

Arenstein: So, Quentin, if I were to shadow you for a day at HBO and I'm sure it's different every day. But what would I see? What do you get when you walk in the door? What's the first thing you do when you get to your office here? Assuming you're here in New York. You probably travel like crazy.

Schaffer: The first thing, really, you're going through all the media that's come out. Digital media, all those stories about HBO and our competitors-- just to get engaged before you begin your day. I get in early, try to get a grasp on that. That sentiment dictates then what your day's going to be. And then after that it varies depending on the time of year. If it's an awards period, a time we're launching a lot of new shows, a time we've got various crises that we're dealing with. Every day is different. There's no pro forma day or no pro forma week. But I'll be in touch. I have a weekly, I've had for my entire career, with (now Chairman & CEO) Richard Plepler. We sit down Monday morning first thing. Well first thing meaning 10:00 in the morning. We've had this forever and that's how we sort of set our week. We kind of go "OK what could go wrong this week? What could go right? What are the things we need to focus on?" And we take it from there. And I think that at the end of the day I think one of the things we look at is-- you know Richard always says "what defines success?" So be it the hacking, be it a promotion here, a crisis here. At the end of the day, what is it we want to see? And then how do we get there? Too many people I think start "well let's do this, let's do this" and they're not looking at what their end goal is. And that's one thing we do and I think that informs our strategy.

Arenstein: That's a total PR type of attack.

Schaffer: It really is. And we are also very good. When Richard and I talk we have a shorthand. So we think very much alike in how things should be handled, but we also then bring other people in. And I think what I found is when we do events and we do a good job we give a quick pat on the back but we don't linger on the praise. And so one of the things I have sort of picked up from Richard-- I mean I kind of had this from an early mentor, but it was really, don't seek praise. If it comes great, but see constructive criticism. Sort of figuring out, OK this is what we did, but what could we have done a little different, a little better. There's always something. And that's how we grow. That's how we've over the years been able to correct something. So in a week we might finish and had some success and say "you know, we handled this great. The one thing I would have done differently if we did this again--" And these all for PR, like law, become case studies. So you'll look back and say "yeah how did we handle that? Well this is how we handle it. Now we're going to do it a little better." I think with digital and social media and everything is being so fast you need to be very careful about how you deal with that.

Arenstein: I recall I was talking with Dave Walker in New Orleans about how “Treme” was received tremendously in New Orleans, which you know, can't get a better compliment than that. But what about geographic series? What about "Sex and the City" and things like that? I know you have a whole bunch of anecdotes about how you do these geographical launches.

Schaffer: Well I'll tell you years ago when we first launched "Sex and the City," very New York show, you know high fashion, we really weren't sure if it was going to resonate around the country. We did a premiere in New York. It was the first TV premiere. No one had ever premiered a TV show in a theater before and it was one of those proud moments because I didn't know if people were going to come out for it. People came out for movies but who's going to come out for a TV show? And it played really well and then we said "boy let's do some screenings around the country." So we did Chicago, San Francisco. We would screen it at clubs. And people would have drinks and we all of a sudden realized, boy, the show is resonating. This is about people who are single in the city. And it's all about looking for love and romance. And it was not particular to New York, it was universal. So then you jump ahead to some of the other shows, be it a show like "Veep," where-- "Veep" did have a lot of consultants and research and Frank Rich played a very good role in this to make it authentic. It could have been laughed at and discarded. But it became, it was so dead on in Washington. And I remember the same was true with "Silicon Valley," our series "Silicon Valley." Mike Judge who did it, Mike, years and years ago and early in his career, worked as a software engineer up in Silicon Valley and he hated it. He was totally bored and one day he went in to quit. They said "why do you want to quit?" And he said "well I don't like the people, the work is boring, and every day at the end of the day I want to kill myself." And they said "well if we up your stock options would that help?" And he kind of looked and said there's a show here. And then he came back and did the show for us. And the great thing about "Silicon Valley" is he brought in all of these consultants and experts, and it resonated with Silicon Valley. We did a screening up there the first year. Elon Musk came and a bunch of others came, and we really saw, wow, they've captured it. Because they were laughing at things that we wouldn't have understood. Somebody is riding a bicycle, they said "oh my god that's so exact," and we're thinking "how is that funny?" And so what I realized after that was, it was a quote really and I'd heard early on from Suge Knight who talked about rap music. And he said when you set out with a rap song you first have to capture the neighborhood, the urban neighborhood, because if they don't think it's authentic, that show is crap. It's not going to take off around the country. And so I always had that in my head. I think OK, when we did “Westworld”—“Westworld” was about artificial intelligence so that is bringing us back up to Silicon Valley. So what we did is, we had met, Richard and I had met a Russian billionaire Yuri Milner who had invested early in Facebook, Airbnb. And we had met him and we said "listen would you be interested in doing a premier of a screening of this?" And he's really only interested in science, projects that are science related, this felt like it fit the bill. He said "Yes I'd like to do it but I'd like to do it at my home." And he has a very nice home up in Silicon Valley. "And I want to invite my audience. If you have some other people..." He invited the 100 top AI engineers and incredible people. We had dinner that night, a private dinner he put together that Sergey Brin came to. It was very surreal. We brought our talent up there, showrunners Jonah Nolan and Lisa Joy, Jeffrey Wright, Evan Rachel Wood, and Thandie Newton. They screened this and people in the room, came up to Plepler and said "You know I really don't watch TV." Because they were, if anything, they're watching things on their laptops. "But boy this thing was really good." And there was a woman who is married to a guy from Google was like the number 7 employee, and she goes "do you know who's in this room tonight?" I go "no, I don't know anyone." And she says, "you have everybody who is important in AI in this room tonight." And that started-- After we did that screening, we kind of started feeling a buzz up there, and people up there were alerted, "hey this is a cool show, and this gets it right." And AI can be very dangerous and in fact there's the OpenAI group that is trying to protect people from AI going out of control. And did we have to do that screening? No, but I think because we did it, it really helped the series in gaining this stamp of approval.

Arenstein: Most influential people in your career, a few of them?

Schaffer: I would say probably the most influential has been Richard Plepler, my boss, who has really been a tremendous mentor, someone I highly respect. He's incredibly honest, thoughtful, totally open, transparent, and really seeing somebody who could rise from where he did. He's a real quick study. To become the head of the company was tremendous. Also within HBO over the years, Seth Abraham was a guy who was an early boss of mine who I had tremendous respect for. And he understood PR. He was the sports guy but he also had a PR background. Very smart about talking points and remarks, and a very decent guy. So at HBO, I think those two. There's many others that I've worked with who I've really liked. I think in the industry itself, I don't know Brian Roberts and John Malone but I have the highest respect for them because I see what they've done. In terms of people that I've met and know, I'd say Josh Sapan and John Landgraf. I think they both are so secure. They take the high road. They're very positive. You don't see them getting out of control. They do high quality stuff. I have the highest respect for them. And then talent being the third category. There's so many. But over the years the way I look at talent is: who have I met, that I maybe met early on, that is just the same as later on. You know people like Tom Hanks or Lena Dunham. There are people that haven't changed, that success hasn’t ruined or spoiled them. And there are many others but those are the ones I appreciate the most because I say "boy you know these are good people." And the same is true with the late Jim Gandolfini. He was the same guy he was from the start. And we were all devastated when we lost him.

Arenstein: What are you most proud of?

Schaffer: I would say when I mentioned earlier, I love the idea that years ago when I came up with the idea to do the premiere of "Sex and the City." I remember going to Plepler and I said there's a New York Observer column-- I said "would it be OK if we did a screening?" It was only for 200 people. And he goes "you think people will come?" And I said, "I don't know, but we have Sarah Jessica Parker." And it was a big success and now everybody does these screenings. And I remember then we did, a few years after that, we did "The Sopranos." The first year we did that, a screening at a theater for 300 people, Springsteen came, and we did the after-party at Joe's Pizzeria because no one knew what the show was. By the end of the show we're doing it at Radio City Music Hall. So I had a lot of pride there. These Hampton screenings we used to do, Hollywood comes to the Hamptons, right. I did approach Michael Fuchs many years ago. Michael Fuchs was out there in East Hampton. David Brown of Zanuck/Brown was from Southampton and they hosted the first one and everybody came to those. And then I would say, the two other things I would like to highlight: "Band of Brothers" of course. Launching that, being on the beaches of Normandy with Hanks and all the veterans coming. That was an unbelievable, unforgettable event. And I would say there's so many little ones, and I'll just give you one example. We do a lot of these documentaries and with documentaries, you feel you've made a difference. Two years ago we did a documentary on the diver Greg Louganis. And Greg Louganis is probably the greatest diver of all time, won more Olympic gold medals. Unfortunately he never at the time got this recognition because he was gay and HIV, and so Wheaties never put him on the box. And they put lesser athletes on the box. So we did this documentary and how he really never made the money he should have, didn't get the endorsements he should have. But he's such an up guy! Very, very positive. He was about to lose his house in California, was having some issues. And we did this documentary and a woman was watching it on cable, watching HBO at her home in Chicago, and she started online, "hey, let's get some signatures. This guy should be on the Wheaties box." And about six months later General Mills, to their credit, put him on the cover of the Wheaties box. And I just felt good about that. That's a small one, but we've had a lot of shows like that where you just feel, "boy you know what? We made a difference. We were able to nudge the world a little and it felt good."

Arenstein: Quentin, this was a pleasure.

Schaffer: Yes, Seth, thanks so much.



Save to PDF


Susan Swain

Susan Swain 2017

Interview Date: December 13, 2017
Interview Location: Washington, D.C. USA
Interviewer: Seth Arenstein
Collection: Cable Center Oral History Program

Seth Arenstein: Hi, I'm Seth Arenstein. It’s December 13, 2017. We’re in Washington, DC, in C-SPAN’s studios. And we’re here for the oral history project of the Cable Center—the Hauser Oral History Project of the Cable Center—and we’re so happy to have Susan Swain, president and co-CEO of C-SPAN, with us today. This is her second interview, her second oral history, I should say. The first was done in 1999. Welcome, Susan.

Susan Swain: Thank you, Seth. It's a good thing we are in our home turf here this morning, so I feel comfortable in my surroundings. I understand I'm interview number 39 for you on this project.

Arenstein: Yes.

Swain: You can tell me the history of the cable industry.

Arenstein: Susan, it's great to have you here. So from 1999, can you remember what was going on in this building? Were you in this building in 1999?

Swain: Oh, yes.

Arenstein: Was C-SPAN here?

Swain: We’re actually been in here growing over the years since I started, which was in 1982. We had a little tiny space and now we’re on three floors and we've got multiple studios. This has been our home for a long time. It's right adjacent to Capitol Hill. So anytime we've thought about moving away, we start to think about how much distance Senators and Congressmen will have to travel to do the interviews, which is a disincentive, so we’ve stayed put and grown within our own space.

Arenstein: Right. Now the thing is of course, C-SPAN has really been growing, especially since 1999. You’ve added other networks, you have radio now, you have all kinds of things going on. You have this wonderful video library that’s available to anybody. And I know that was one of the things that you pushed for. That was one of your pet projects, let’s say. How did that all come about?

Swain: On the growth thing, actually let me just say a word about that. We’ve topped out at about 280 people and that’s been a while back, and we have not grown since then. The reason for that is that we have really tried, with our relationship with the cable industry, to stay within our means. To make sure that our service is always affordable to our affiliates, and that they won't have an excuse, saying, “It just costs too much,” to not carry C-SPAN. So we have continued to grow, but we've also, like everyone else in the business, have been able to introduce new technology that means we can deploy people in other places. So we've added new projects, but our staff size has been stable for quite a while.

Now the video library: the video library is our entry point into the digital age. It started back in 1997 and I really had nothing to do with it. Brian Lamb is an alumnus of Purdue University. He went back in 1986 to his alma mater, spoke to the political science class and said, “You know, this network is so small, we keep having to erase our videotapes. And we’re losing all this history.” It had been started in 1979. And that’s a painful thing for us. But everyday we would look at what we covered and we put a little red dot on videotapes that needed to be saved for posterity and the rest of them got erased. That’s painful to think about, isn’t it? So one of the political science professors, Dr. Robert Browning, put his hand up and said, “I'm interested in technology. I think I can help you solve that.” And he started the first C-SPAN archives, which has been recording every moment of what we've done since September of 1987. The most significant thing that happened, the story that you’ll hear whenever you talk to C-SPAN people, is that it’s a story of our board of directors giving us direction, the cable industry support, and people inside the organization figuring out how to get it done. And the archives is truly an example of that. Dr. Browning built all the technology, but our board said to us at one point, because we actually gave the product for a long time to Purdue University, and it was run out of Purdue. And they said, “The digital age is coming. You need that product. Product is going to be everything. And you need to bring that back into the fold from Purdue.” Which we did—we basically bought back our archives. And then later on they said to us, “This is only going to be valuable if you digitize it.” So we digitized going forward, but we also started a multiyear project digitizing everything backward to 1987. So now we have 235,000 hours and growing every day of every single piece of American history that C-SPAN has covered, that you can sit at your computer or on your phone anywhere in the world and search and call up. It's really a magnificent public service that was the brainchild of a lot of people, none of whom was me, Seth. But I'm so proud of it and I think it's the most significant thing that happened, really, in our history, because otherwise we were ephemeral. We'd cover something and it would go away, and the archives has preserved this for the future and captured an important amount of American history.

Arenstein: And I’ll tell you, Susan, as a reporter, and as a C-SPAN viewer, and working as a reporter, I should say, you know, you watch something in the morning on C-SPAN, on Washington Journal, or a hearing, and then very quickly you go to your desk and there it is, available to you.

Swain: Sure.

Arenstein: And you can go frontward, backward, find something right away. It's very user friendly, and I'm sure that doesn’t happen by accident.

Swain: And then you see funny things along the way happen that makes things more useful. So government mandated closed-captioning, which was a big lift for a little organization like ours, but it meant that the video library could be completely searchable. So in the end, the merging of those two things created a product that’s eminently more useful over time.

Arenstein: It’s certainly useful.

We kind of jumped right into that, but I would like to really start with the culture of C-SPAN and what C-SPAN is. I mean, I think in my research—I'm looking back and about 1999 or somewhere in that timeframe, the idea of branding, I guess—we use this word today, I'm sure we didn’t use it back then. Branding C-SPAN as "cable’s gift to America." Tell us about the culture, tell us about some of the rules about editing or not editing here at C-SPAN, and how you show both sides, or many sides of the political debate.

Swain: I think it's an interesting concept, especially now, because we are living in an age with a president whose favorite expression is “Fake News.” And what we end up having created—by what I mean, the royal we—the cable industry, people who work here and the many other constituencies that helped build this place over the years—is a place where you can go to get the whole story about Washington. So if someone is saying, “I didn’t say that,” or “That’s not how it was cast,” anyone who's interested and particularly journalists—it's really been a boon to journalists—can go back and say, “I can watch the whole thing.” But what we really love is that any American, any person, any interested citizen can go back and say, “You know, they're accusing the other side of this not happening. Let me watch it for myself.” The idea from the get-go here was “show the whole thing.” So we started with the House of Representatives, then added the Congressional hearings and the press conferences, conventions and then the think tanks and the things that influence Washington. But from the get-go, the mandate was always do it without editing so that the whole story is available. Now in an age when we’re all watching three seconds of Facebook video, it's not the most exciting thing, but it is an important niche and an important public service, and our challenge is going to be preserving it in an age when people have less patience.

But I think the thing that we have done to grow our usability over time is that we look at ourselves as trying to be everywhere where people are today. So we’re on cell phones, we do podcasts. And all that excerpts portions of programming, but we do it under the C-SPAN mission, of which you alluded to, which is that we never manipulate someone’s point of view. So if we’re going to edit, we take the whole thought so that we’re true to what someone’s expression was. And then we show both sides. And that means that the D’s and the R’s and if it's a larger case, the Greens and the Independents, get their shot at it. The importance of that, I guess, is just having a place in our political culture where people don’t just hear the majority point of view or whoever’s yelling the loudest. And I think that’s what we all ascribe to here.

Arenstein: Let us in behind the scenes. It looks very orderly when we watch it on television. People on the Right, the Left, as you said, maybe Independents and Greens. But what's going on behind the scenes? I mean, are there calls from either side saying, “You're too to this side, you're too to that side.” What happens? And is that good for you, when you're getting calls, does that mean, “We’re doing our job?”

Swain: Every one of our units, whether it's the Washington Journal or the people who select the shoots during the day, all of our Communicators programs, Newsmakers, all of those folks keep records of who they have on. And we make sure we check against them. Our video library is also a really good honesty-maker because anybody can go back and check that we've been fair to all parties when we cover things. So everybody understands that the goal is to, if one week you have a D and maybe have two D’s in a row, well, the next couple of times you're going to see some R’s there. The nature of what we do is we’re covering individual events. They are by their nature, they're going to generally have a point of view. But we always look for alternative points of view. So there are discussions that go on at the editorial table, which meets everyday to decide where we allocate our camera resources. Then social media—the calls have always been part of our network. So from the get-go we've always opened ourselves up to praise and criticism right there live on the air. And every host has always experienced someone calling up and saying, “You're biased.” But then two calls later, you'll get somebody that will say, “I watch you too and I don’t see that.” So I do experience this as a journalist. If you feel that you can defend your editorial decision, then you are on the right path. There will always be people who disagree.

Social media has been a game-changer in this because people are screaming at you all the time. It's really the nature of the beast on Twitter. And you can find all kinds of people who are yelling about this decision or that. But our defense is always to them: you're looking at it through the lens of one decision on one day. And we've got twenty-four hours times three going on here. So if we can't stand the test across that broader spectrum, then we are in trouble.

Arenstein: So in 1999—you just mentioned the times three. In 1999, what did C-SPAN look like in terms of numbers of networks, do you remember—you’ll have to look at your timeline.

Swain: I do have to look things up because I'm remembering when we launched things. In 1986, the Senate went live on C-SPAN 2 so we had that—C-SPAN 3 was a little evolutionary. And C-SPAN 3 is a great testament to our board of directors because the board said to us, “You need to be in the digital space. It's evolving. So start that network and over time, we will add it as we can.” So C-SPAN 3 came along—if I can find it here—it's somewhere in that vicinity, 1999-2000 that we launched it. It started as a part-time service and we called it “C-SPAN Extra” in 1997, and as C-SPAN Extra. And then we moved it to C-SPAN 3. Don’t you love our naming system here? You know, it comes from Lafayette, Indiana. Which we always laugh because if you go visit Lafayette, which is where Brian Lamb was born and raised, if you're on the street by the river, it's called River Road. If you're on the street where the markets used to be, it's Market Street. So he brought that naming sensibility to this place and we name everything exactly what it is. C-SPAN 1, C-SPAN 2, C-SPAN 3, Washington Journal, Call-In Program—I mean, call it as you see it. But any other fancy name for the network probably wouldn’t have flown anyway. It made things simple for us.

Arenstein: What about things like BookTV? Tell us what BookTV is.

Swain: BookTV was an evolution. It started actually with Booknotes, which was Brian’s interview program. We got into the book space as a way to talk about politics and history with a different lens. And there are all these books and now you see every presidential candidate: how did they launch their candidacy? They write a book, they write their biography, or they write their story about their world view. And this was obvious to us twenty years ago. So Brian began now thirty years ago with Booknotes interviews. And one author a week, for one hour, and a set just like this with a black background, and the rule that he had was you could only go on one time. Well, it's kind of limiting isn’t it because there are some fabulous writers out there who write multiple books, right? So we realized that there was more to cover there. So we started it as a small block on the weekends called About Books, and it was on Saturday nights, maybe three hours, and just to see if there was enough out there to cover. And we quickly found, yeah, there's a lot going on. So we launched it as a 48-hour block on the weekends. And its 20th anniversary is coming up next year

I think we’re all really happy about the book space because I think for awhile people were predicting the demise of books and I'm not suggesting we had anything to do with helping to preserve the medium. But we certainly created a place where people who care about books could congregate in the media. And then we started covering book festivals, and the nice thing is, there are more and more book festivals popping up around the country that we can go to. It is a different audience by and large than probably watches political and public affairs programming. They may only watch BookTV. And it's an intellectual feast. So if you spend fifteen minutes listening to an author interview and you're going to a dinner party with your friends, you can sound like you're informed on the latest thing coming out from your favorite author. So it's a way to stay connected. I think we continue to try and figure out how we can grow that space a little. The book festivals connect us with people. Now that writers are in social media, we’re trying to expand our reach in social media through that. Since this is going for posterity, I'm going to tell you that we’re going to do a special project next year that we’re going to take our InDepth program and violate the mission just a little by doing a non-fiction writer—excuse me, fiction writers. But they're all fiction writers who do the kind of research, I mean historical fiction.

Arenstein: Historical fiction.

Swain: But these guys often, guys and women, often have huge readerships. And so what we’re trying to do is bring more people into the BookTV fold. So that will be a fun project to work on.

Arenstein: So we've talked about the fact it's not just C-SPAN, there are a couple of different networks going on. So there's something called “History TV,” or American History TV, Susan. I know you wanted to talk about that. And we mentioned during our talk about books, we talked a lot about books, and you’ve actually written a book and you’ve been a co-author of a book. Talk about some of that.

Swain: Well, the books came directly out of Brian’s Booknotes program. So we work with a publisher now, Perseus Books in New York City. Peter Osnos, who was a Washington Post reporter, was the publisher and came to us and said, “I think there's a book in those interviews.” It ended up being five books of Brian’s Booknotes interviews. We also did one specialized on Abraham Lincoln, because he had done so many interviews about Abraham Lincoln. And we also did one that was called Sundays at Eight, which was Brian’s best interviews from both Booknotes and his successor program called Q & A. My job in all of those was to be the editor. Brian did the interviews, so he produced the original content. My job was to form it into book form and then I would have a small team, two other people who would work with me that would make transcripts of all of these things and edit them into chapters and decide how the book would go. It was really fun to work on. It's really a neat thing. Here I am working in television so every day we see the product we create. But it's a really neat thing to walk into a bookstore and see a book on the shelf that you’ve helped to produce. There’s a permanence about that that is really special. You go into the Library of Congress for all time. So we have done all of the Booknotes books and the ones that I've mentioned, and then I got to do one out of a project that I was involved in. We did a yearlong biography series of the First Ladies. And the First Ladies have really interesting stories. There's a whole group of them in the middle that nobody knows anything about, and there's no records of them, which is a statement on women’s worth in society that these women at the pinnacle of society had no records. That’s another point. But we did manage to do a program about each one of the 45 women who by then had occupied the White House in some capacity, either as Thomas Jefferson’s niece or some of the daughters of First Ladies—of Presidents, rather—who served. We produced a book out of that a year after. And then I got to go on a book tour, which was really lots of fun. So books have been one of our ways to be everywhere where people are. So it's been another great marketing tool. We've tried to do this also with the C-SPAN traveling bus. This is a place with a very small marketing budget and any way that we can get in front of people that’s unique and different, and books have certainly been a part of that. I don’t know if we have—we've got another one up our sleeve. We’re doing a history book of the U.S. Senate that’s going to complement our next history program. It's a beautiful photographic coffee table book. And then we do small books, like with our Landmark Cases project. We’re doing a complementary book that has in written form the summaries of each one of those cases. And we’ve sold 4,000 of those. The last series, we've actually only had permission from the publisher to do 4,000. So we sold them all out and I'm sure we’ll do it again because people want to learn. The people that watch this network really want to learn.

Arenstein: Absolutely.

Swain: So that’s been great.

American History TV: So it's logical, when you are in a place that covers politics, to say, “Has this ever happened before?” And the great comfort of history is knowing that things have happened before and the republic has stood. You know, really, the republic still stands. And so, history has always been of great interest to us, and we did it sporadically. But back in 2011, we decided to make a commitment to 48 hours every weekend on C-SPAN 3. It also gave us another story to tell about C-SPAN 3, which has always lagged behind in subscribers. So we have two messages to carry to affiliates about why you should put it on your system. But it's also given us a home for constant exploration of the American story. One of the most popular things we do on it—and it's also our most popular podcast—is Lectures in History. And it's a very simple concept. We've identified history professors all across the United States and say, “Give us your master class. And we’ll bring cameras in.” So anybody that follows that, it's just this constant education from the finest universities in the country of a historian’s master class. And I'm not surprised that it's popular. But we also go to museums and to archives. One of the really neat things, we have a producer that works all the time on diving into the government's archives, and finding interesting audio and video from the archives—that there’s been thousands of people involved in preserving, but really doesn’t see the light of day. And we’re putting it on television as timepieces of the American story: how it looked through the lens in 1945 or something. They’re fascinating to watch.

Arenstein: Talking about all of this, the First Ladies, American History. Two silly questions, but I want to ask them. Who’s your favorite or most interesting First Lady? And what period of American history is your favorite?

Swain: Well, you’d have to really compliment Dolly Madison, and I'd also say, it’s hard for me between her and Abigail Adams, who’s so important.

Arenstein: Yes, I would have said that, too.

Swain: So important. The one thing that she did, which we understood the full scope of, is the letters that she wrote to John Adams, all preserved in Boston, in their archives. As we talked about it, there are a whole raft of First Ladies that’s there’s no history preserved. Some of them ripped up the letters that they wrote to their husbands. Abigail and John preserved every one of them and they become the only real written record of what life was like in Revolutionary American time, especially for women. So such an important thing she did in preserving that. Plus she was pretty feisty in making her opinion known, and really carried the home fort while John was off doing government service all the time.

Arenstein: Exactly. Putting together the country.

Swain: I mean, there was war raging around their homestead in Boston, and she managed to keep the Adams home together. And Dolly Madison was just, you know, a character. She lived through many decades. She was an important point in diplomacy. We all know what she did in preserving the White House when the British burned it. But also she was flamboyant. And she got women involved in politics and allowed them to talk about it in salons in ways that wasn’t possible before.

So I guess that period of time is so interesting and important because it's the founding period. But I do like some of the First Ladies who were in the early 1920s. So, Grace Coolidge, interesting story that she has. Florence Harding. Florence Harding was really ahead of her time. She had been a newspaper publisher, really interesting. The Hardings made the first connection between Hollywood and Washington, which has been an ongoing story since then. She showed movies in the White House, brought stars in on the campaign trail, so very modern in her own way, and unfortunately didn’t live out the full term. But a real big personality, and was really responsible for her husband getting into the White House in the first place by pushing his career along. So, you could get me started on First Ladies and I can go for too long. But I think what's wonderful about them is that they are a reflection of women’s changing roles in American society through the years. And that’s been a fun story to be able to tell through the prism of their lives.

Arenstein: Right. And is there a particular historical period that you like?

Swain: I've actually been doing more of a deep dive right now into very recent history. I've been interested in Vietnam history. I just finished reading the Richard Nixon biography that John Farrell wrote. And that was an early, but very formative period of my own life, but I wasn’t enough interested in politics that I understood all the pieces in play. I’ve really appreciated going back. I have a family member who is a Vietnam veteran, and was actually a prisoner of war. So it's a family story for us that I was a little too young to appreciate. Now that I have the chance to go back and look at it through slightly older eyes, and learn about the cross-currents that were going on around the country when I was young—I mean, I'm of the age where the guys I knew had draft numbers every year. So it affected all of our lives. And understanding a little bit more about the power plays going on at the national and international levels is interesting to learn about.

Arenstein: You know, you talk about the people here and you talk about books. But tell us about the people who work here. I recall, oh, maybe five or ten years ago, you had a party for people who had started in the early years of C-SPAN, and are still here.

Swain: What we actually do, Seth, is every couple of years we have a 25th anniversary party for staff. So we started in 1979, so our 40th is coming up. But Brian Lamb and Jana Fay have been here since the very beginning. But we've got a sizable percentage, we probably have 18, 20 people who’ve been here almost since day one. Myself included. Kathy Murphy, Terry Murphy, Roxane Kerr, Peter Kiley, Bruce Collins, Richard Fleeson our fabulous chief engineer, and I'm starting to name names and that’s always dangerous. But there's a group of us who have kind of been here and helped to grow the place. But there's a large majority of our staff who’ve been here at least ten years and longer, and I think that—

Arenstein: That’s got to be a point of pride for you.

Swain: Oh, sure. First of all, it's a great place to work. When people come to visit, when you're walking them out the door, they always say to you, “You know, this place just feels healthy, happy. Like people enjoy being here.” We work long days and there's always stress in producing television and we’ve got deadlines like everybody else, but I think we've managed to create an atmosphere in the organization where people are here because they believe they're doing something—you know, it's a “white hat” organization, you're doing something to help society as a whole and we get to do it in a really interesting space: television, radio, podcasts and the like. So I think that’s what contributes to the longevity. Here on the edge of technology, in the capital city, watching national and world events going on in front of you and yet doing it in an environment where people aren’t cutting each other’s heads off in the control room while it happens. And that’s a good thing.

Arenstein: Now what about the future? If you look on most of the channels around, you know, you would flip around, you would see people cutting each other’s heads off. I mean, they live for that it would seem. And maybe to the detriment of really reporting good news. Not good news, but important news. Important stories—it's more of the hole, not enough of the donut.

Swain: Right.

Arenstein: What’s the future for, as you say, people who like books and even historical fiction, and people who want to watch an entire House Armed Services Committee hearing on base closures or something like that. Where do you see C-SPAN and serious kinds of journalism fitting in down the road?

Swain: Right. Well, the best thing our board of directors did at the very, very beginning was decide to make this a not-for-profit organization. So we never had to deliver eyeballs to advertisers. Now in the digital age, while we don’t know who’s watching our television networks, we certainly can follow and do track how many people are on our website, how many people are listening to podcasts. So that has put a little healthy dose of awareness and competition into a non-profit organization that’s good for us. There are many, many people in our space in a place where you look back at 1999, our threshold year for this conversation, people thought, long-form public affairs, who’s doing that? Now every single news website you go to—Washington Post, Politico—they're carrying the big hearings for people who want them. And ironically, using our pool coverage that we provide on Capitol Hill, which is probably a story for another day. So there’s a lot of competition in that space. Competition is healthy and good for an organization. The fact that we’re a nonprofit means that we can for the most part keep on producing long-form public affairs programming, but we want to do a service that’s useful and we also have to get paid for it. So I think the longer challenge to us is what's happening with the cable television industry. Right now our board tells us and we can see trends where cord-cutters and cord-nevers are impacting the industry in the low single digits. If that plateaus, we’ll all be fine. If it's a huge trend that gets to a really low number and most viewing is done on individual choice basis, that’s a big challenge for us because our funding model is all linear television carriage. And we don’t know the answer to that, I have to tell you. But we have been guided for such a long time by people who believe in this organization and believe that what it does is important that I have ultimate faith that we’ll all figure it out together. In the interim, we’re building the infrastructure that we are where everybody wants to be. Now we’re not going to go direct-to-consumer because that breaks the funding model with the cable industry. We would never want to do that. But we can be in the consumer space. We are on cell phones, but we’re in the so-called walled garden of the cable companies and their “TV Everywhere” offerings. But we’re also available a bit on Facebook, a bit on YouTube with our political coverage that’s ubiquitous. So we want to be important to people in order to preserve the franchise and provide a useful public service and do that in a thoughtful way and we can because we’re not facing that competitive pressure every day.

Arenstein: OK. You just mentioned all the different kinds of coverage. There’s a story, there’s a particular story I know we wanted to talk about. In 2016, when the cameras were turned off in the well of, across the street, tell us about that.

Swain: Sure. One sort of backstory to that is over our history, every time we've had the opportunity to ask for access on behalf of the American public with our cameras, we have done that. So every time there's been a new Speaker, we’ve written a letter to the new Speaker asking, can we put our own cameras in the chamber? The House and Senate chamber are the last two places really on Capitol Hill where the cameras are still government-run. The answer has always been “no” to that by every Speaker. They want to preserve that government view and not have any of their members perhaps have shots that they're not happy with. So that’s a non-productive conversation, but one that we are going to keep having.

Likewise, we've written to every incoming Chief Justice, asking for cameras in the Supreme Court. We've petitioned—during the Obama Administration, to cover the healthcare hearings, which he talked about on the campaign trail. So our history has been one of trying to knock down doors for access. The particular incident that happened was the protest on the House floor by House Democrats. And what the Speaker, Paul Ryan, did was shut down the cameras. And the Democrats, duly elected representatives of the people, continued on the floor of the House. And the lights were on, by the way. (And that becomes an important sidebar.) So what happened is our producers were watching all this—we track a lot of Members’ social media feeds—and we began to see that some of the Members were putting it on Facebook, or putting it on Twitter. And so we had a discussion here, the producers—Terry Murphy, our vice-president of programming, and myself—“Shall we do this? Because if we do, we’re going to be with it till the sit-in is over. You can't start this process and not carry it through.” And we decided that when duly elected representatives were on the floor of the House of Representatives, it's well within our responsibility as journalists to let people see that. So we had to work with our technology folks here to figure out how to get that signal from Twitter and Facebook onto our networks and you know their bandwidth would always get interrupted, so we’d have to switch between feeds all the time. But we did it all overnight until the next morning until the sit-in ended. And there was a great big rally on the Capitol on grounds—I don’t know if you went to that. But I walked down about 11:00 at night to watch all the people out there.

The Speaker was not happy. There was some suggestion that credentials to cover Congress would be reviewed. And I understand that he would be a bit peeved with us about that. We heard from their press spokesperson that what we did was outside the rules of coverage. But I would do it again and frankly, here's the part I wanted to tell you. Two years earlier, there had been a similar thing with the Democrats in charge, and Nancy Pelosi turned off the cameras, but she also turned off the lights. It was also earlier in bandwidth transmission of cellphone pictures, but there were some Republican members who were transmitting from within the chamber and we picked that up then, too. So equal opportunity coverage is the point I wanted to make.

Arenstein: Let’s get a little personal. If you were able to put a camera somewhere in the political process, and let’s open it up to dinners at Congresspeople’s homes when they're talking to lobbyists, they're talking to potential funders. The cloakroom of the House or the Senate. Conferences between the Supreme Court Justices. Where would you, Susan Swain, want to put a camera?

Swain: Well, I do believe that people need to have some space to be able to discuss things. And it's important to the political process. So I really wouldn’t want to be in the cloakroom, I wouldn’t want to be in their dinner parties. I also think the conference of the Supreme Court understandably, where the real arguments happen, would be very different if there was a camera in there. But the easy answer is, I think all of us here fundamentally believe and continue to argue that those 75 Supreme Court oral arguments every year should be open to the public. People can sit in the courtroom and listen to them. They put them on the Internet in audio form at the end of the week. We should be able to let the public see those, and we still cannot. I don’t see a time in the immediate future when it's going to change. So that’s the most important answer because look at how many instances that we've seen of how the Supreme Court impacts our lives on a daily basis. The importance of that institution has become so clear in the past maybe ten years or so with the big cases in front of the Court. And we should be able to hear those arguments.

So we do the best thing we can. Only C-SPAN would do this, but we put the whole hour oral argument audio on air on Friday afternoon when the Court makes it available. So it's several days old in that case, already been reported upon. We put still pictures [with the audio]—it's terrible television, but it gets the job done.

Arenstein: Speaking about audio only, I live here in the DC area and I've been a longtime listener of C-SPAN radio. Now you can get it on Sirius-XM, I believe. You can get it all across the country. But when I talk to a lot of people from out of DC, and I say, “I listen to it on C-SPAN radio,” they don’t really know what I'm talking about, all of them. But some of the things that you put on there, like conversations that LBJ had with people on—just listening to it on the radio, not great audio. Of course on the radio there are no pictures. They're fascinating.

Swain: C-SPAN Radio is something that stands apart from C-SPAN television because the medium is so different. I took a lot of communications classes in college and Marshall McLuhan was a big theorist in the 1970s and 80s, and he always used to say "the medium is the message," and television was a cool medium and radio was a hot medium. Well, what does that mean? We learned what it means here when we were thinking about doing the radio station. So as we were preparing for it, we were trying to experiment with how would we I.D. people, how do we do it without interrupting? We made some sample tapes and we were all going to get together and listen to different styles of I.D.ing, and I realized that hot medium thing when we all sat around the table and the first thing that came up was, “Wait a minute. How did that event end?" Because it was really interesting and we cut it off. Because we were just doing a sample. People were into it and they’re into it because when you listen with your ears and your eyes are not engaged, your brain works. Television, you could have it on in the background and never do anything, but radio is an involving medium. So a lot of the events we cover translate very differently when you're listening on radio. For me, I listen—it takes forever to get here in the morning and get home at night—I listen to C-SPAN Radio and things that I've had on at my desk on television, I'm suddenly realizing I can really understand somebody’s point of view or see how passionate somebody is about something by their tone of voice. So radio is really important. By the way, all of your friends that live around the country can get it because it's an audio app, a free audio app. And we have C-SPAN Radio and the audio from all three of our channels plus podcasts so there’s lots of information. And it makes Washington portable. And there are times that you really want to know. So for example, we’re talking at a time when they’re redoing the whole tax code. It's going to affect absolutely everybody. And if you care about that and you want to listen, you can be at work or if you have a weekend house, or you're away, you can listen to the debate on your phone. So you don’t have to miss it if you don’t want to now because of technology even if you're far away from the television set.

Arenstein: You’ve interviewed so many people, and I'm thinking about—you know, you're talking about the Supreme Court. I remember a program you did. I don’t know if it was at the Supreme Court—it might have been—that you hosted. It was fab—you had a lot of the Justices.

Swain: We had all of them. That was one of the wonderful things we've done. Mark Farkas is our executive producer for our special programs. We've done so many of them. We've done American presidents, we did the First Ladies series, we did landmark Supreme Court cases which we’re about to do a second season of. And we did the Capitol, the White House and the Supreme Court. The program you're thinking of, is we did a history of the Supreme Court building, which was our entrée, because the Justices themselves will never sit down for interviews to talk about cases. They don’t want to be quoted on case law because they think it might suggest a point of view when they argue. But we could engage them in the history of the Supreme Court, the creation of the building, and so we managed with Mark’s perseverance to get every living justice, current and retired, there were eleven at the time—everybody but Gorsuch—and they all sat down for interviews. I did six of those, and if you want to ask of all those thousands of interviews, I'd say that experience was the most compelling. To sit down with the Chief Justice for 45 minutes, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas—they're all so very different, but they're all so smart. And their awareness and knowledge of history, really impressive. That was really—not many people have had an experience like that. I feel very fortunate to have done it.

Arenstein: Another question that I've always wanted to ask you about: being on-camera, but also being off-camera. How do you mesh those two?

Swain: Well, I think it’s the thing that’s kept me so interested in my job. The fact that from the very beginning, probably six weeks after I started here, I was doing on-air television. But as my management responsibilities grew, sometimes it was harder. In fact, I stopped doing the morning Washington Journal because I was doing it two times a week and getting up at 3:30 in the morning and it was killing my circadian rhythms, I've got to tell you. I did it for ten years and then it’s just, a) I was getting older, and b) I was tired a lot during the week and I just couldn’t afford that any longer. So now I’m do special projects and I do a weekly Newsmakers program. I miss those callers in the morning, but my sleep patterns are much better.

So I think it's what’s kept me interested because I'm always having to stay abreast of what's going on. I wish everybody who ran television networks could actually work in television. Because often you find when you move in management, you get away from the things that brought you into the business in the first place. So I still get to make television, do television. I love that. But at the same point, I’m working with all the folks here in a very different role. The producers are my boss when I'm doing it. I take direction from the technical people when my mike’s in the wrong place, or I'm not looking at my camera as I forget that all the time. So I get to interact with people as they're doing their daily jobs. It makes me a better manager. I can have conversations that are different from sitting in my office. So it's worked on so many different levels and it's been the very best thing about my job over the years.

Arenstein: I would also have to say getting up at 3:30 in the morning, I’ve noticed about your interviewing style in the way you run a program, both on television but also live. You're so well-prepared. You're so well-prepared.

Swain: I think it’s “always prepared.” I think that’s the thing—we stay ready all the time because we have all this content coming in. So if anything, I never shut it off. I think maybe that’s the bigger problem in my life. Put the phone down, stop reading the Twitter feed.

Arenstein: All right. This is sort of a segue to talk about two people I know you wanted to talk about. We mentioned Brian Lamb, we’ll also mention Rob Kennedy. For my money, I've seen Brian Lamb interview obviously politicians but I've also seen him interview Shaquille O’Neal. And he’s such a good interviewer. Did you learn a lot from him?

Swain: Oh, absolutely. But we also translate that to all the people who work on the air here. There’s a C-SPAN style that it's important to note. I mean, we’re not doing the “gotcha” interviews. We go in saying, “What can we learn from this person and how can we have the conversation in such a way that they’ll reveal it.” So that they’re not feeling like they're about to get attacked. And I think really letting them tell their stories, not interrupting. Brian’s got a classic one that I think went on for one answer, 18 minutes. You’ve got to have patience, both to sit as an interviewer and listen to that as a viewer. But that tells you a lot about that person’s mind, how it works, connecting one thought to another. And it's not for everybody what we do here. But it is a distinct C-SPAN approach to interviewing.

I think the other thing that really guides Brian’s and mine and I hope the other people here: we’re really interested in people and what makes them tick, how they think, why they got involved in the subjects and a great thing to do is always to find members of Congress who have sponsored legislation about something that they're really passionate about, that gets them away from the party line. And bring them in to talk about that. And then you can get to the other things, but find what animates them as a human being. Because most of them are here for a purpose. There’s something that brought them into politics in the first place.

Arenstein: And I know you wanted to talk about your partner for many, many years here at C-SPAN, Rob Kennedy, who we've done an oral history with.

Swain: I know. So we can invite anybody who gets this far in this conversation to go find Rob’s interview in the Hauser Oral History Project.

Arenstein: It's a good one.

Swain: And Brian’s also.

Rob and I have a great partnership. We've been working together for such a long time, thirty years, my goodness, thirty-plus years. And in different capacities over the years. But we've been essentially running the day-to-day operations now for quite a long time. But our interests are different, our personalities are very different, but we really respect each other so much. I think it’s—I hope he feels the same way—but I think it's really been a great blessing to have a partner who you respect enormously, whose big mantra is, “I'm never going to undercut you, I'm never going to surprise you. So I’ll tell you things you need to know, I'm not going to bother you with a lot of details on things that I'm working on that aren’t in your wheelhouse, and I’ll make sure you have the information that you need to do your job well.” Plus, we like each other. Our offices have been right next to each other for a really long time. We’re old enough to remember that old commercial with the medicine cabinet where people are in their side-by-side apartments and they would open them and talk to each other. Well, Rob and I can just talk in a little louder voice. And the nice thing is, they put us in a hallway all the way by ourselves, so we can do that. So if you happen to be wandering down there at 4:00 in the afternoon like yesterday, I'm like, “Rob, have the results from Alabama started coming in yet?” You know, Rob is watching them at his desk and answers me back. Or, “Gosh, what's the name of the hotel we used for such-and-such project?” So, you know, we've been working together for such a long time, we've got that great relationship, but we also bring different things to the table.

We’re not social friends; we don’t see each other on the weekends, but, gosh, we've spent a lot of time together over the years and we rarely have disagreements that I can even think of on the direction of this place, and we both care so much about preserving it for the future. That’s the important thing.

Arenstein: Let’s talk about the future and what the cable industry looks like in the future. What does it look like in the future, do you think?

Swain: Well, I'm certainly not wise enough to know what's going to happen with the big MSOs as they move more and more towards broadband subscriptions. And we move more towards IPTV. I don’t know, our board members, the ones who run the biggest MSOs, have told us the video package model is going to be around for a long time. I gotta hope that, right, with the kind of place that we work at here. But clearly, people are interested in watching what they want to watch when they want to watch it. We all kind of want to do that; not be beholden to program executives who are deciding what goes on when. And we want to access them on the devices we want to watch. The industry is filling that niche with a lot of competition, frankly. I think the biggest challenges really are less in the infrastructure part because the players are going to figure that out and deliver. And the programmers have the huge challenge. You might know that I've been privileged to serve on the Discovery board, and as a commercial company, they’re facing the same kind of challenges that everybody is, from Amazon, from Netflix, from Facebook, Apple, and those are really deep-pocketed organizations. And the competition for talent and also the competition for programming is fierce. So I'm fairly comfortable in my little niche here where there is not a lot of people who are trying to undercut us in long-form coverage of Congress.

So the world is going to be really different, I think, and re-align itself over the next decade on the content front. But what an age of content! Nobody can ever even find all this stuff that’s out there, let alone think about—anything you can think of to watch—to let alone all the individuals who are producing things and putting it on platforms like YouTube. So, it's a real golden age for content, isn’t it? But you can only guess that in the big producers, the chess pieces are going to be aligning differently over the next decade.

Arenstein: What's cable’s legacy, do you think?

Swain: Well, it democratized the access to content and it also democratized the content production through technology. In the initial age, that was getting all of the channels up on satellite. It broke the monopoly that the Hollywood studios, that New York City had on Americans’ tastes, on what people could watch and when they could watch it. And began to produce so much content so that it allowed people who could never have access to those fiefdoms before to create content and make it available. The next wave, of course, is now the digital age, and the age of IP, and that has further democratized it because anybody with a cellphone can create content and things can go viral. So we’re on a whole new age, but once again, it's the broadband that the cable industry created that’s allowed that to happen. It has been globally, but particularly in this country, a great democratizer and it has fundamentally changed society.

Arenstein: OK. You told us what one of the great experiences for you was talking to the Justices. What do you feel your personal legacy, or what do you hope your personal legacy is?

Swain: Not something I much think about. I would say that all of us here—I haven’t mentioned the other constituencies and I want to say a word about them because it has been a real story, and it's kind of a little Horatio Alger story in a way. A guy from Indiana has that idea to televise the House, and a group of capitalists, frankly, who are wanting to build a big infrastructure say, “I'm going to help you do that.” So we've got people like John Evans, who helped us get the signal out of here for the first time. Frank Drendel, he helped us with fiber and gave us the first equipment to do live hearings. Bob Rosencrans, who brought other people to the table. John Saeman, who helped us with creating a business infrastructure, as did Jack Frazee. I mean, I could go on with all these founding fathers of our network who were the first wave. But it's also the story of journalists, and it's a really important story. A lot of journalists care a lot about this place, and over the years, they have contributed their intellectual capacity by coming and doing our interviews for free. All these years, you know, you get a coffee mug when you're on C-SPAN. And that’s it. But that’s been enormously important. Writing stories about us. Keeping us in the mix is so important because there's too much information, and unless we’re in front of people, we’ll be out of their frame of reference. And journalists have been really important. There have been many people in the cable television industry besides our founding fathers and board chairs and board members. The heads of the NCTA over the years who make a point, every year when there was a convention, to talk about us. Barbara York, who would get us prime convention space on the floor when there were thousands of dollars competing for that, so we could be there. Jadz Janucik would get us on panels in front of state legislators. There's a whole team of people, you know, from the early days of the Cable TV Public Affairs Association. They were the people doing press relations at the MSOs who cared about us as a concept and helped us in our organizations. And then also viewers, because they have been passionate about keeping us on and if somebody messed with the signal, they would be loud enough to have, you know, help us get restored in those cases. Have participated in our call-in programs. Have been part of our contests over the years—all that sort of thing. So it's been each of these constituencies working together because they really honor the fact that this place has brought the political process to the public. And the public can decide if they want to watch it or not. And probably only small numbers really do, but you know, my great metaphor for this place, stolen from a cable trade reporter, is that it is like church. There are some people that are going to go religiously, and some people who are only going to go when things are a mess. And so the infrastructure is here with C-SPAN, so that if you really are worried about something happening in Washington, you know it's here for you to watch. And all of those constituencies have helped build it. And one last one: the people in the control room behind us, that are working on it, and all the folks working in our place around here—it's been a real story of building together, figuring out the technology that’s contributed to what C-SPAN is.

Arenstein: Sort of a microcosm for the whole industry, isn’t it?

Swain: Yes, absolutely.

Arenstein: Susan, it's been a pleasure.



Save to PDF


Rob Stoddard

rob stoddard 2017

Interview Date: June 14, 2017
Interviewer: Stewart Schley
Collection: Hauser Oral and Video History

SCHLEY: Hello there and welcome to The Cable Center’s Hauser Oral and Video History series. I’m Stewart Schley. We’re in Denver, Colorado, at The Cable Center studios on a lovely June morning in 2017 and privileged to be with a longtime friend and longtime colleague, Rob Stoddard.

STODDARD: Stewart, great to hang out with you, spend some time.

SCHLEY: Thanks for making the trek and the journey and conversing with us.

STODDARD: Happy to do it.

SCHLEY: I say longtime and I mean it because you and I have tracked a lot of the same career progression and the same tenure and history over the years and I think in many ways of you, and I think other people do too, as sort of the face of the cable industry. Prominent spokesperson.

STODDARD: Thank you. As they say, you have my condolences in that case. But thank you, it’s a high compliment.

SCHLEY: But Rob is presently, and has been for around 15 years, senior vice president of communications and public affairs at NCTA, the Internet and Television Association.

STODDARD: That’s right, very good.

SCHLEY: Long known as the National Cable Telecommunications Association. And we get a chance for about an hour to talk about your perspectives on the industry and your personal role over the years in it. And I’d like to start at the start sort of. You held a succession of radio broadcasting positions in the New England area before you joined the cable industry. And just talk a little bit about what that was about.

STODDARD: OK, so I was incredibly fortunate to go to journalism school in Washington, DC at the height of Watergate at American University, actually from ’72 to ’76 so this at the height of the Watergate era, and I still have fond memories. This is all pre-internet, pre-digital stuff, but bounding out of bed every morning, shuffling to the door of my dormitory room, opening the door and looking down at the Washington Post to snatch it up in both hands and to hungrily read what Woodward and Bernstein had just written about the President and his men on any given day. So it was a phenomenal time to be in journalism school and an amazing place to be. And during that era I was incredibly fortunate to learn under a professor, an amazing guy named Ed Bliss, Edward Bliss. And Ed had been the editor for the great Edward R. Murrow and then went on to be editor for Walter Cronkite when Cronkite did the evening news during the 1960s. And Bliss had semi-retired, had started teaching broadcast journalism at American University. So Ed, more than anyone, really first of all gave me the greatest gift, taught me how to write for the ear, how to write for broadcast, and then turned me on to radio. I would like to have done television, there weren’t many opportunities in those days, so through the great help of a mutual friend my first job out of school was in beautiful Keene, New Hampshire, which in that era, in the summer of 1976, was the sixth largest city in the state of New Hampshire with 20,000 people. It was the hub of the Monadnock region in southwestern New Hampshire, just north of Massachusetts and just east of Vermont. I had grown up in Philadelphia, gone to school in Washington, DC, this was truly God’s country and far away from anything I was remotely connected to.

SCHLEY: And you’re doing news? You’re doing daily breaking news.

STODDARD: Yes, there was a great little -- still to this day it’s there, a great little AM/FM combination, WKNE and WNBX FM, in the Monadnock region. And I was one of two news people working at the station. So I had an air shift, I had to be in to work at 3:00 am every day and I had an air shift that would run through noontime. And then maybe, I mean the on-air stuff was fun, but the best of all things was I got to be a street reporter then. I would run around and I’d cover board of selectmen meetings and school committee meetings and really get my feet wet. In retrospect it was a fascinating time and I’d love to do it over again because I was a 21-year-old guy who was reporting to the people of this amazing town the news of the day. I wish I could go back all these years later with now a little bit of life experience and do it all over.

SCHLEY: We all would. So you had a progression of jobs in radio news and then you worked for UPI which was then a formidable competitor to the Associated Press as a newswire distributor.

STODDARD: Well, we thought so. Absolutely. I later moved on to Springfield, Massachusetts, did radio news there and I’d begun to -- the term of art is become a stringer for UPI, the old United Press, owned and operated in those days by Scripps. And I mentioned Walter Cronkite in passing. I was so proud to nail a job with UPI, Cronkite’s old employer, as well because when I was finished with my radio shift every Saturday morning I would sit down and I would write news headlines for the UPI wire from Springfield, Massachusetts, send them into Boston, and they would be used in the New England feed for the day. So I managed to kind of bootstrap up from that job into a fulltime gig at UPI in Boston in the shadow of the beautiful State House in downtown Boston. So we picked up and moved there in 1979 and I was fortunate to be a general assignment reporter and editor for UPI. I worked the day shift for a while, I worked the godawful overnight shift for a while. In that era, as you’ll recall, there was still am and pm newspapers so you were writing for newspapers that hit first thing in the morning and others that came out at midafternoon. So there was plenty of work to go around. But I had the opportunity to kind of work around the bases in terms of coverage. I covered the penal system for a while, I covered the courts, I had one glorious night covering a Red Sox game when they played the Detroit Tigers and I got to literally see guys like Yastrzemski and Jim Rice and Fisk and all those great Boston players back during that era. And then finally they apparently liked the way so well that I answered the phone that it was literally suggested that I might be good in sales and marketing. So in one of the colossally stupid decisions of all time management chose to move me into sales and marketing for UPI. I worked the six-state region. I promoted and sold our wire service to newspaper publishers and to broadcast owners throughout the region and just had the time of my life. I was not great at sales. Great at soft sell, not good at getting people to sign on the dotted line.

SCHLEY: Closing the deal.

STODDARD: Closing. Not great at closing. But I could not believe that someone was paying me to travel around the six New England states. So that was a huge education and a wonderful experience.

SCHLEY: You enjoyed it?

STODDARD: Loved every minute of it.

SCHLEY: The segue then into the public policy and government arena, you were for several years press secretary for the three-term senator from Kansas, Nancy Kassebaum.

STODDARD: Nancy Landon Kasselbaum, absolutely. Or today as she’s known, Nancy Landon Kassebaum Baker. So she’s come a long way. And yes, not to get too deep, but predating all of that, fun fact, I was a teenage Republican in suburban Philadelphia, Montgomery county, Pennsylvania. And that’s important to me because I met my wife, my lovely wife Barbra. My wife now at this moment of 41 years, and we were leaders of our Montgomery county teenage Republicans together and that’s how we met. We came from neighboring towns so we were childhood sweethearts. So I’ve been very active in politics over the years and always had kind of a secondary interest in it going forward. So as I was traveling New England in 1982, and mentioning newspaper publishers, I came upon a terrific young man who had come from Kansas. His name was Emerson Lynn. He had come from a newspaper family and he had moved to godforsaken Saint Albans, Vermont, 12 miles from the Canadian border, and he had purchased the small newspaper there from the great William Loeb who owned the Manchester Union Leader. Emerson, in addition to being from a newspaper family, had been the initial press secretary for Nancy Landon Kassebaum from Kansas. So he and I over many long nights of very cold meetings in midwinter actually negotiated a contract for him to leave AP, the Associated Press, and to come over as a UPI client. We got to know each other pretty well during that era. As luck would have it, at about that moment in time Senator Kassebaum needed a new press secretary. The previous one had been departing and Emerson introduced us and I was then able to travel back to Washington, DC, in a brief period of time as her press secretary, which was fabulous.

SCHLEY: Was it hard to not abandon your journalistic career because you remain to this day engaged in the craft of journalism, but was it a difficult segue, sort of felt like a departure from what you had been doing?

STODDARD: Yes. Well, yes and no. What became a little more difficult later in my career, and maybe you can sympathize with this, was going full blown into public relations and corporate communications for commercial profit driven companies. We can talk more about that. That was a challenge. However, going to work on Capitol Hill it was a little different. Yes, I represented a United States senator and I certainly had to represent her point of view and be on point and on message and try to portray her in the best light possible, although with Nancy it did not take much. She was the real McCoy -- daughter of Alf Landon who was the Republican nominee for president against FDR in 1936, a darling of the state of Kansas. Approval ratings that never fell below 75%, just the real McCoy, genuine article. So you didn’t have to do much to make her look good. But the important thing about that was, yes, it was in a way public relations, but it was government service as well, right? We told ourselves, and I firmly believed, that we were doing a service to the nation by representing these members of Congress and trying to convey their point of view to the Washington press corps. But yes, it was kind of my initial introduction to the whole milieu of public relations and corporate communications.

SCHLEY: I wanted to ask, we spoke earlier and you recounted a really interesting anecdote about what it used to take to get a sound bite from Senator Kasselbaum onto a radio station in Hayes, Kansas. Can you just kind of retell that?

STODDARD: Sure. We probably don’t have the 30 minutes that it took for me to tell you the story originally, but yes, it was and these are the kinds of stories that we like to regale our young friends with, in a time before the internet and before digital communications and even in that era largely before satellite communications had come in. So yes, it involved a handheld cassette recorder, and holding a microphone up to your United States Senator, and asking her to read a statement or to speak off the cuff. And then it involved running to an old landline telephone, and unscrewing the coupler at the bottom of the receiver, and taking the alligator clips that you had plugged into your cassette recorder, and plugging them into the alligator clips on the telephone handset. We then used a series of punch cards that we had, to dial radio stations in Kansas, largely rural Kansas, but Wichita and Topeka and other places as well., And one by one, we would call those stations, asking for the news director, asking them to roll a reel to reel tape recorder on their end to record the soundbite, and once they were ready, pressing the button and playing that 20 or 30 seconds of content from the senator. Once that process was completed, the news director would say, “Could you hold on for a minute? I need to check the tape and make sure we have it.” And you could hear it running backwards as they rewound it, they’d play it to make sure they had it and then they’d say, “OK, thank you very much, we’re good to go.” And then once you were done with, for instance, the radio station in Hays, you moved on to the radio stations in the other 25 or 30 markets in Kansas.

SCHLEY: Same process.

STODDARD: Yeah, so something that would take probably 10 minutes to post to the internet today honestly took almost a full day of activity to get that information.

SCHLEY: I ask because I think it’s such an interesting parable that sets the stage for this tremendous wave of innovation that you and your colleagues in cable have been part of. This was in, what, mid 1980s?

STODDARD: From 1982 to 1985, that’s right.

SCHLEY: And then comes along your cable career. How did you enter the business and what were the circumstances there?

STODDARD: Incredible good fortune is the best way I can think to describe it. I had a little bit of help. Nancy Landon Kasselbaum was a member of the Senate Commerce Committee which oversaw telecommunications law and policy. For those people who are watching who may have a long memory of history you will recall there was something called The Cable Act of 1984 that deregulated the cable industry and really turned loose the kind of investment that went all the way through and is fueling our broadband networks today. And as a member of the oversight committee in Congress Senator Kasselbaum was deeply involved in helping move that bill through the Senate. So I had some marginal knowledge of cable related issues. In 1985 when I decided it might be fun to go off and do something different I was lucky to come across a blind ad in the Washington Post actually for a reporter for a chain of trade publications called Cardiff Publishing which, as luck would have it, was based right here in beautiful and scenic Denver. And I applied for the job. I was fortunate to meet some incredible people, one named Judy Rudrud who was a publisher at Cardiff Publishing.

SCHLEY: I remember Judy.

STODDARD: The ad had been placed by Jill Dickey Marks who was the editor of what used to be called Cable Television Business magazine, CTB, and I interviewed with them. I interviewed with a great editor that you still know, Chuck Moozakis, who was a cable editor. I met one of my favorite people of all time, Tom Kerver, who was, may he rest in peace, the great business reporter for that chain of publications at that time. So I spent a couple of days in Denver doing interviews, got hired for the job as the Washington bureau chief. So I was able to remain in Washington. I got to cover the Federal Communications Commission and Congress. We had a brief and glorious time where we acquired a defense publication called Defense Electronics, so I actually covered the Pentagon for a year, which is a hell of an overstatement, I have to tell you, but it was fun just to walk the halls of the Pentagon. And that was a huge boon to me because, as you know as an experienced journalist, I did a deep dive on telecommunications issues and spent virtually every day learning as much as humanly possible as I could.

SCHLEY: A mutual friend and colleague of ours, Paul Maxwell, told me once, he said, “There was no better way to learn an industry than to serve as a trade reporter.” Do you buy into that?

STODDARD: Absolutely. Totally agree. It was then just a pre-internet era, still pre-electronic era, so my daily work, which I loved passionately, involved physically going every day to the Federal Communications Commission and going to the press office there. People at the press office in the mid ’80s were tremendous. You had to be credentialed by the FCC so they had our list of names, they knew who we were, and you’d walk into the office every day and there would be a stack of paper work, usually two to three inches thick, waiting for each of us. And those were the reports and the orders and the notices of inquiry and anything that had official status at the FCC that day. So you literally then physically took the stack of paper, I would walk back to my bureau office on M Street in downtown Washington, DC, and generally I would spend at least an hour or two literally reading almost word for word through a lot of this stuff.

SCHLEY: Poring through these.

STODDARD: Yeah. Of course that was the easy part, right? As you know, the hard part was then trying to decide what to make of any of it and then what to report to people in our field, but it was a great education.

SCHLEY: And today those documents are available in a snap. FCC publishes this.

STODDARD: Nobody has to go anywhere. You could sit here in Denver, seriously and 24 by seven cover the Federal Communications Commission. You can download all of the -- I don’t mean to diss the people who are actually doing it personally because that’s still important. That face-to-face contact with regulators is critical, but if you had to do it remotely you could download everything electronically, all FCC open meetings and news briefings are webcast live, and then these days you can exchange tweets with FCC commissioners, you can use social media and email to communicate with people that represent the FCC. So it’s a very different world than what it was 30 years ago.

SCHLEY: So somewhere in this phase of your life you met a cat called Steve Effros.


SCHLEY: Can you talk about Steve and his organization?

STODDARD: Beloved Steve Effros. Yes, absolutely. I will tell you and you’d probably agree with me, if you worked in the industry in the 1980s one could not avoid Steve Effros. He was the ubiquitous Steve Effros running a genuinely worthy little trade association that actually people thought was in Washington, DC, but actually resided outside of the city in the city of Fairfax, Virginia.

SCHLEY: That I did not know.

STODDARD: Yes, so it was about a 30-minute commute from downtown Fairfax, Virginia and Fairfax county into Washington, DC. The organization originally was the Community Antenna Television Association, CATA. Flash forwarding, in my time there we rebranded it. We began to call it the Cable Telecommunications Association. So we kept the acronym, CATA, changed the name in the early 1990s. But I met Steve when I was reporting for Cardiff Publishing. He was probably the favorite source of every journalist on the beat during that era and you know here in 2017 he actually still is. He hasn’t lost any of that. He was flagrant, he was outlandish, he spoke his mind, and probably most importantly, as opposed to NCTA which during that era represented the establishment of the cable industry, Steve represented small and independent cable operators. Now, we called them small and independent. Many of them were community-based operators in places like Oregon and Kansas and Missouri, but it went right up to companies that included Continental Cablevision, for instance, which was really more of a midsized or large company. And I got to know Steve really well during that period of five years. Now, the segue was that in late 1989 I was working on a story and I was just chatting with Steve on the phone and he said offhandedly, “By the way, Rob, I’ve decided that we need to have a fulltime communications executive at CATA.” He was not inviting me literally, purposefully, not inviting me to interview for the job. He was simply trying to find people that he might recruit and talk to. He said, “Do you know, have you come across anyone, are there any out of work journalists that might be interested?” And I went home that night and I thought about it, and I don’t know how you feel about this, but the temptation when you’re a trade writer is that, yes, you feel like you’re part of the industry but you are truly a half step removed, right?

SCHLEY: Absolutely.

STODDARD: If not a full step. And I think at least I personally dreamed that someday I too might take my place among colleagues who worked within the industry and in the companies that I was covering.

SCHLEY: Why so? What was intriguing?

STODDARD: Even then cable was exploding with opportunity, right? I started writing for Cardiff in 1985. I was among tens of thousands of baby boomers that essentially were part of an influx into an industry that most of us had never heard of before, right? But I was a consumer as well. I wanted my MTV, I wanted to watch C-SPAN, I was excited about Sports Center on ESPN. These are themes and this is content that still to this day heavily resonate with American consumers. They really hit you in the gut and it’s stuff that you love. Why would you not want to be associated with something like that? It was fun, it was information, entertainment, politics, the coverage of government, everything under the sun. So it was a huge magnet and it did pull me like a magnet into that kind of epicenter of excitement.

SCHLEY: What did you learn at CATA?

STODDARD: Oh, I learned a lot, an awful lot, at CATA. And I learned some of this on Capitol Hill, but even more so at CATA, I learned what it meant to be a spokesman for profit making companies. In some cases publicly reporting on profit making companies. I learned the benefits of that, I learned the strong disadvantages of it. So I learned, I guess, more than anything message discipline. I probably learned a lot about editing, almost as much as I had learned at the old UPI.

SCHLEY: Really?

STODDARD: Yes, because I was editing for Steve Effros. And Steve is stream of consciousness. So Steve would write a monthly newsletter, CATA Cable, in fact, and it typically, boy, I don’t know, probably ran five or 6,000 words.

SCHLEY: I remember it. It was great actually. It was not puffery.

STODDARD: I’ll take that as a compliment.

SCHLEY: It was good stuff.

STODDARD: It was, yes. And Steve himself is a great writer. He was one of the youngest ever employees of the New York Times before he came into the cable trade association business. He had worked at the FCC writing, helping establish copyright rules and regulations at the FCC. He was great at writing legal briefs. But he was a prolific writer so that meant you had to take a lot of this raw material and try to shoehorn it into --

SCHLEY: Exactly, I can imagine.

STODDARD: So a lot of sleepless nights making sure that I wasn’t changing Steve’s voice and maintaining his point of view. And then finally at that point, even though I had covered the industry for a long period of time, I was able to truly build some relationships with people who worked in the industry.

SCHLEY: Exactly, because I think at that -- for me as a journalist your sort of public profile in cable elevated, as it should have, as a representative of an influential trade association. And I say that because you then jettisoned into the industry at a deeper level working for some of the influential and prominent companies, really on the operating side.

STODDARD: Thank you, yes. Absolutely a highlight of my career, if not the highlight of my career.

SCHLEY: This was early 1990s?

STODDARD: The span really started in about ’95 and ran through 2002. So it was a -- so CATA was ’90 to ’95 and then from ’95 to ’02 I worked for a number of multiple system operators, MSOs. I still like to tell people that I really had the very same job for eight years, but it was for different companies because there was that wave of mergers and acquisitions going on. But I do want to pay homage really and a lot of deference to Effros personally for giving me that opportunity, and for teaching me everything he knew about the cable business. To a great and very dear friend, Jim Ewalt, who was executive VP. Jim had also been at the FCC. He was EVP at CATA and it was through Jim that I was introduced really to the public affairs community during that era. Amazing people like Lynn Yaeger at Warner Cable and then Time Warner and Dave Anderson at Cox Communications and Andy Holdgate and Tracy Hollingsworth at Jones Intercable and Peggy Keegan, a mutual friend, at Viacom during that era. Yes, absolutely. So to me it was a golden era. It was a really interesting time because as a discipline, as a profession, that is corporate and public communicators and public relations professionals, many of us felt as though we weren’t necessarily getting really fair shrift at many of the companies. It was unusual in that era for a corporate communications executive to sit in the C suite and to report directly to the chief executive. So there was a movement in the early ’90s among many of us, and most of it was through what used to be the Cable Television Public Affairs Association, CTPAA, or as my old friend Tory Clark of NCTA fame used to call it, “catpaw.” But a group that was fortunate to be chaired over the years by the likes of Alex Swan who’s now at ARRIS and Peggy Keegan and many other people including Jim Ewalt. So infiltrating that group, getting to know it really well, and kind of fighting for the discipline of public relations and making the case to particularly cable multiple system operators as well as programmers that this was a valuable and critical function that could help them stay out of jams and help them better tell their stories. That was just a wonderful initiative to be involved with.

SCHLEY: And I don’t think the lack of attention or investment in that side of the business reflected any ill will on the practice of public relations.

STODDARD: No, none whatsoever.

SCHLEY: It’s just this industry grew up in a different way.

STODDARD: It did. During those CATA years we -- so I had mentioned a few moments ago that NCTA assumed the role of good cop in the public policy space, right? Amazing executives like Jim Mooney, Decker Anstrom, had to speak with panache and aplomb on behalf of an industry and maintain respect among members of Congress and FCC commissioners. I think my friend Steve Effros probably never felt that he had to maintain that level of respect.

SCHLEY: He had some license, yes.

STODDARD: So we were able to adopt, by hook or by crook really, the bad cop part of that equation and we were able to say things on behalf of the operating side of the business that NCTA could never say. So it was really, it was just a great place to be. During that era though we did have one amazing joint project with NCTA which was a public affairs training program. Now here’s why I mention that. During a period of three or four years working with a great training vendor in suburban Washington that at the time employed a wonderful woman named Anne Cowan who as we speak is the chief communications officer now for CTAM, great friend, a great practitioner herself. But we trained during that period of time in the early to mid ’90s, about 6,000 cable executives in the skills of corporate communications and public relations. It was a project that was funded by NCTA but contracted out to CATA to actually arrange and organize the training. And we literally sent professional trainers to markets around the country for two-day training sessions. Now the reason I mention that in this context is we weren’t training PR executives, we weren’t training corporate communications professionals, we were training system managers, we were training people that had come up through the business literally climbing poles, hanging wires.

SCHLEY: That’s what I was alluding to earlier.

STODDARD: Digging ditches, right? And building the infrastructure of the industry, many of whom were rewarded for that investment by becoming general managers in their local systems. And for the industry at that point in time that was the obvious way to go, but many, many of those people simply did not have experience and training in communications and we provided that to a lot of them.

SCHLEY: What was happening in the industry that made that important at that time? And I just want to mention the succession of companies that you worked for included Continental Cablevision, Media One, AT&T broadband, I’m missing one in the mix?

STODDARD: Well, US West Media Group in a way preceded Media One.

SCHLEY: But in terms of cable’s public posture and profile, what brought on the need for that elevated attention to public persona?

STODDARD: Well, nothing good is the answer to that question unfortunately. And this was still, I would say, in the era before I went to work for MSOs and largely during the CATA years, but in 1984 the industry was deregulated and kind of set free. That resulted, as you know, in the most amazing infusion of capital into the creation of content. What that also resulted in was spiraling prices for cable consumers. By the late 1980s that had begun to snap back on us. Something else happened in the late 1980s. The people who communicated signals to cable head ends scrambled those signals and essentially created a mechanism to stop piracy and to stop people who were watching them for free.

SCHLEY: Yanking the signals out of the sky.

STODDARD: It was known as “the year when the skies went dark” was the terminology. Remember that?

SCHLEY: I remember.

STODDARD: And one of the people that was mobilized by that was a then senator from Tennessee, Al Gore, and a Congressman from Massachusetts named Ed Markey and there were a number of people who were concerned that the elimination of those signals was a disadvantage to rural America because many people had been putting up three-meter satellite dishes to take down these open signals and watch them on their TV sets. Well, we worked through that as an industry, but that was the first hint from the public policy community perhaps of some ill will. At the same time our prices continued to spiral and we did have an era, I will say it was a sad era, when investors began to buy cable properties, cable systems, with the sole and express purpose of flipping them just to make money. So it was not unusual in a small community for an absentee landlord to come in, to buy a cable system, to hold it for maybe 18 months, probably not make much in the way of investment or enhancement, and then sell it off at a huge profit. Some of that, I believe, helped contribute to what became the Cable Act of 1992. So when we were deregulated in ’84, within eight years we were heavily reregulated. Literally price reregulated by the United States Congress. And cable, we had gone from I want my MTV, we had gone from an era that you will recall where people chased trucks down the street in their neighborhood so that they could sign up and get wired for cable, within that eight-year period we had kind of become the bad guys, right? The guys in the black hats. And it was really a very tough time. So public image turned against us.

What frustrated many of us representing the industry then was, yes, we understood all of those dynamics and I think if any of us could do it over again you would try to avoid those mistakes. Yet we were still, in huge leaps, we were wiring America. We were bringing this immense funnel of information and entertainment, we were going from 25 to 35 channels and then up to 70 and the sky was the limit. We were beginning to build the foundation for the hybrid fiber/coax infrastructure that brought us broadband. And unfortunately during that era most of that was overlooked because people were focused on these other issues that I mentioned. And then perhaps the cable horror stories that we all recall of installers who were sloppy and tracking mud into living rooms and knocking holes through walls. So it was a tough time. So all we were saying as a community of corporate communications professionals was, “Let’s deal with this head on, let’s put some positive messaging behind our efforts, let’s mobilize what we have going on at the local and national level and tell people about it. Let’s try to do a better job telling our story.”

SCHLEY: And did you? I mean is your impression that you made a difference, that you made a positive impact industrywide?

STODDARD: Yes and no. At that moment in time, man, was it frustrating. It was like banging your head against a wall. We just couldn’t fight our way out of a paper bag. And I don’t mean to be at all disrespectful of all the people running those companies, really good quality people, many of them, hundreds of them, good friends of ours now, but there were a lot of things working against us. So I felt as though for several years we were really stuck in concrete. But what helped us probably more than anything else, at the end of the day it’s never just a public relations problem. It’s never just a -- much as many of us think it might be, it is never just PR, it’s never just a communications problem. In 1994, 1995, people like Dave Fellows from Continental Cablevision and Jim Chiddix from Time Warner and others were building the first ever broadband infrastructure and they gave us the ability in mid-1996 to introduce commercially high-speed internet access service. And for the first time in several decades we were no longer just a TV business anymore, we weren’t just entertainment, we were broadband. And that was a clean slate. Number one, people didn’t understand it, but once they saw it they knew they loved it, they knew they had to have it. And even in that era, it’s always hard to predict the future, but I think people, consumers, the American public, began to understand that the world was on the precipice of major change because of this new communications platform. So that is going to heaven if you’re a corporate communications executive.

SCHLEY: Finally you have substance and positive --

STODDARD: Write your own script, you could begin to put the messaging behind it and it was a very long slog to pull ourselves out of the hole, but we were aided and abetted by that broadband technology. Of course, not to stop your questions, but from there it was high speed internet access, it was high definition and advanced video, it was cable digital phone service. Amazing here in 2017 that we still serve 25 million households with landline telephone service as of today. So we were the first competitor to the old Bell companies and then of course that built the foundation for on-demand video, any time anywhere access, mobile platforms --

SCHLEY: Ever faster broadband speeds.

STODDARD: It truly was the foundation.

SCHLEY: You talked about that period of your career when all this is beginning to blossom as being exhilarating but sort of exhausting.

STODDARD: Totally.

SCHLEY: There was a lot going on.

STODDARD: Sure, there was a lot going on. And that’s when I -- absolutely the height of my career. So fortunate to have met Robert Sachs who -- so there are two parts of that story. The first round Robert was on the board of directors of CATA, he was the lead lawyer for Amos Hostetter and the people at Continental Cablevision. And Robert and I got to know each other during those board sessions and round about late 1994 Robert needed to make a change in the communications structure at Continental and invited me to move back to New England, my family back to New England, return to Boston, and to put together a very modest but very significant corporate communications unit for Continental Cablevision. Little did I know how the world was going to change in the next few years because by that period of time Continental, which really was, and I don’t think this is blowing smoke, but among those of us in the industry it was kind of everybody’s favorite company.

SCHLEY: It’s like this revered cable company.

STODDARD: Totally revered because of the character of Amos Hostetter and people like Tim Neher and Ron Cooper and Bill Schleyer and people that had built the company from the ground up since the mid-1960s, too many people to mention. It was not the largest of the cable companies, TCI was in those days, but it was genuinely well-respected for its customer care, for what today we would call customer experience, which was pretty good. It did employ a David Fellows, to this day one of the best engineers and technical minds in the cable business. So Dave and his team started building this broadband infrastructure. So at the time that I joined, Amos was doing cartwheels trying to find an infusion of cash and capital to keep this broadband build going and eventually -- I cannot tell his story, only he can tell that, but my understanding of it at the time was he was looking for new ways to fund that build. So literally within a year of the time I was at Continental we were looking at either doing an IPO to raise money -- we came to the cusp of that. We came within 24 hours of announcing an IPO.

SCHLEY: Oh, my gosh.

STODDARD: But instead went the other way and Amos cut a successful deal with US West which was a Bell company based here in Denver in fact and sold Continental lock, stock, and barrel to US West. And while that, in the range of the next few years, had some negative ramifications for the people that grew up through that cable company, it probably kept the dream alive because it was then the funding that US West brought to the table that continued that broadband buildout. So that was an amazing period of time.

SCHLEY: The move then to NCTA occurred after this succession of MSOs that you worked for?


SCHLEY: How did you get brought in to that organization?

STODDARD: Thank you for getting me back on track.

SCHLEY: Thank you.

STODDARD: That was the second half of the Robert Sachs story.

SCHLEY: That’s what I thought.

STODDARD: I was so pleased, many of us were, that in 1999 after Decker Anstrom had had his phenomenal run atop NCTA and with people like Leo Hindery of TCI and AT&T Broadband and Amos and others leading the NCTA board of directors, that Robert Sachs was recruited to come and run NCTA. Which at that point in time had stopped being called the National Cable Television Association --

SCHLEY: I wanted to ask about that.

STODDARD: -- and had rebranded itself as the National Cable and Telecommunications Association. Same acronym. So Robert found himself at the helm of a staff of about 130, 140 people, one of, I’d say with some humility, the most revered and well-respected trade associations in Washington, and felt as though he needed to make some changes at that point in time in his communications operation. He was looking for someone to take a great little communications unit and a somewhat larger public affairs team and to combine them and put them together and kind of take the best of all worlds. And he mercifully and thankfully thought of me and recruited me to return from Denver where at the time I was then -- it was US West Media Group, Media One, and then AT&T Broadband. After a great run with all those companies I returned to Washington to lead communications and public affairs for NCTA. And no mean feat, I will tell you, because my not distant, almost immediate, predecessor was a woman I mentioned earlier, the great Tory Clark, Victoria Clark, who had been the press secretary for George H. W. Bush during his campaign in ’92, had been a staffer for John McCain. Tory was a political animal in every good sense of the term and worked arm in arm with Decker during the period in the ’90s when we successfully rebuilt the image of the cable industry. And I always felt, to this day I feel, as though I’m still trying to fill Tory’s shoes because of the amazing job that she did.

SCHLEY: You’ve had a remarkably sort of consistent run. You’ve been in this position for 15 years and in that 15 years you have seen the continuation of this not only wave of consolidation but this remarkable progress of the cable industry to become this essential conduit for everything. Bits and video signals and I wanted to ask you some of the impressions you’ve gleaned during your tenure at NCTA about the industry and how it’s changed and how it will continue to change. And one of them, you just mentioned it, you guys recently rebranded NCTA as the Internet and TV Assortation. Is the word cable passé?

STODDARD: Yes and no. There’s huge -- that was hedging, wasn’t it?

SCHLEY: No, it’s a tough issue.

STODDARD: There’s huge debate over that. No, it is absolutely not passé, if for nothing else the fact that when you and I talk to our friends, when we go to cocktail parties, when we go to neighborhood gatherings, people will say, “I want to tell you about the new cable channel I’m watching.” Because cable shows are just amazing.

SCHLEY: We still talk about cable news, for instance.

STODDARD: We talk about cable news ad nauseum. Cable news is all over the park in terms of its impact on American society. So it’s almost the word that can’t be killed. Now, I will tell you ironically that working under some amazing CEOs after Robert Sachs, my dear friend Kyle McSlarrow, who now is employed helping manage customer experience for Comcast, and then six years so far of the incredible Michael Powell, a motivational, inspirational guy. We spent many, many years trying to come up with a successor word to cable. Now, the reason being two reasons. First and foremost, sadly, on the negative side, in some ways cable had become a pejorative as in, oh, those cable monopolists, or those lousy cable guys, right? And it’s a problem in modern marketing and modern branding that once you acquire these attributes it’s very hard to shake them. But there’s something that I believe is more salient than that and really far more important, and that is that as much as I admire and love and grew up as a cable guy, and love the word cable, as a two syllable word it no longer strictly defines what we do. It really, in my mind at least and in many others, it’s still that coaxial cable with an F connector at the end of it that screws into your wall and the other end into your television set and we certainly have transcended all of that now. So we have been all over the block at NCTA on this. In 2005 we did an exercise where we said do we still want to be called the cable association? So let’s think about alternatives. We hired some very high-priced talent to study this for us. We did coast to coast research, focus groups, everything under the sun, and the decision we made in that year was nah, it’s cable so let’s embrace it. Let’s try to breathe new life into it, let’s build some new attributes around it, and let’s use it to tell the story. So we then started living large more than ever as the cable association. In fact, our logo at NCTA became the red, blue, and green swirl with the word cable next to it. So that had a good run, but after 10 years we kind of found ourselves kind of back in the same territory. We’d only marginally succeeded at improving, I think, the image of the industry and we had a long ways to go. And at that moment in time with all of the new technologies that we’ve been discussing the simple word cable just didn’t cut it anymore. So then the alternative exercises, what is it that describes who we are and what we actually do? And that’s how we landed on internet and television.

SCHLEY: But you kept the acronym because it was brand equity.

STODDARD: We kept the acronym. I will tell you, like a lot of other companies, the acronym no longer means anything. It is not formally defined and our formal legal name is NCTA, the Internet and Television Association. We kept the acronym because we knew and we were told by members of our own board, we were told by constituents in public policy, we were told by a lot of friends over the years that they believed there was some equity in the acronym and that we could still take that to the bank, particularly in the public policy space. So what we did, I think, was, and I have to defer to the leadership of Michael Powell because really Michael drove this from day one on the job at NCTA, and finally after years of study we decided to put our heads down and move ahead. And we’re not only comfortable, we’re incredibly enthused by this brand today.

SCHLEY: I want to ask you, as one who would know, perhaps as the person who would know, what is your personal assessment of the image of the cable industry today and where is it going?

STODDARD: So I happen to be an eternal optimist for one thing. I sense so many dynamics at work, but the short answer to your question is I feel good about the image of the cable industry today and I’m honestly not just -- you know, one gets defensive all of a sudden -- I’m not blowing smoke. Because I know that consumers have a visceral and positive reaction to what we’re providing them. And there are some things that are starting to put us over the top and one thing that I would -- this is common knowledge but the Comcast X1 box is a great example. Revolutionized the way people receive entertainment, interact with entertainment, navigate entertainment and information, voice controlled remote, you can ask it any question under the sun and get answers, the ability to use it to instantly access content that you like. I’m so fortunate, so blessed at this moment to have a four-year-old granddaughter who loves -- and a two-year-old grandson, but then they love children’s programming. And you know, five years ago I would be hunting through, I’d be scrolling through the cable menu trying to find the programming that I’m looking for. Now I just pick up the remote, I speak the two or three magic words and boom, I’ve got a program.

SCHLEY: It’s a very different experience.

STODDARD: Totally different experience. And that in many ways is kind of in the vanguard of changing the image and the reputation of the cable industry. Now, having said that, at this moment, this snapshot in time, if people are watching this two, three, 10 years down the line it’ll feel like ancient history probably, but at this moment in time we are still dealing with issues around how to regulate the internet, whether the internet should be regulated. The term of art is network neutrality. We refer to it mostly as open internet. And we are now working incredibly hard to try to reposition ourselves to help consumers understand that we are in favor of an open internet. We like network neutrality. We simply don’t like the regulatory regimen that has been used in recent years to regulate the industry.

SCHLEY: It’s tough though. You have a lot of vocal people on the other side who don’t regard you as the friend of open internet.

STODDARD: They don’t and in fact, in true 2017 political tactical calculation, their approach is to demonize our industry and to once again return us to the early 1990s in terms of how they see us. And you know, I have to say, a lot of us have respect for this point of view. People who look at our industry as a gatekeeper. So it’s incumbent on us to help people understand that we are not the gatekeeper, we are the gate opener. We are opening these opportunities to them and by the way, who brought you the internet? Who gave you broadband? And which of us would be crazy enough to close the internet? That will simply never, ever happen. But we fully agree that it would be great if Congress acted and set some rules of the road that would be long term and solid going forward. So that’s all by way of saying that’s been a little bit of drag on our image, trying to work through that and overcome it, but I have great confidence that within the next few years we’ll make that happen.

SCHLEY: You described yourself as an eternal optimist moments ago, and others have described you -- I can’t get away without talking about this -- as the nicest guy in cable. In fact, there’s a song called “Rob Stoddard is the Nicest Guy in Cable.”


SCHLEY: Which is maybe the highest form of praise you can get from your industry colleagues. But talk about the song and why it came to be.

STODDARD: I haven’t memorized the song. I don’t know it. To the extent that it’s at all close to my heart it’s because it was written for an initiative many years ago called the Cable Follies that was staged by the phenomenal organization that many of us were active in called Cable Positive. And the Cable Follies was a fundraiser staged right here at The Cable Center in Denver every year written by, very much by a great gal named Erica Stull who’s had a long career in corporate communications and a number of other people. Some unfortunately have passed. Paul Braun from the old Time Warner. Amazing, amazing man. So I am forever in their debt, not for writing the song but for using it to raise money for AIDS research and AIDS intervention. It was critical during that era. So that was the song. The creation of the phrase -- so I do truly roll my eyes because my point of view has always been I work in business, I really don’t want to be the nicest guy. I’d like to be the most effective guy. I’d like to be successful. But you know, at the end of the day I’ve embraced it. It’s a terrific brand to have. I just briefly have to tell you the story. It originated in about 1995. There were a number of us off at an annual public affairs forum of the Cable Television Public Affairs Association and there was an awards ceremony, the Beacon Awards ceremony, that typically conveyed to 50 or 60 recipients these great Beacon Awards for success in public affairs and communications. And I was incredibly lucky one evening at that ceremony to be paired at the podium in about 1995 with the great Meredith Wagner who ran communications for Lifetime during the era when it was run by Carole Black and just some amazing people. Lifetime, still great brand today, but it was really breaking through during that era initially. And Meredith and I were paired together and Meredith had been president of CTPAA, I was the incoming president of CTPAA, and we were paired together at the podium. And you know how it is when you do these awards, you create a little banter. So Meredith looked over at me at her elbow and said, “Hello, Rob, nice to see you” and I looked over and I said, “Meredith, great to see you too and may I say you look fabulous tonight.” And she paused and she chuckled and she said, “Here I am at the podium with the nicest guy in cable.” Now, that probably wouldn’t have gone anywhere except for our mutual friend, Mark Osgood Smith, who was in the audience for Cablefax who made note of the comment and reported it in a story the next day. Thus began, sadly, regrettably, thus began the legend, exactly.

SCHLEY: I want to run two more questions by you and then offer just some open-ended commentary for you. But this is a hard question because you’re always going to exclude someone, but you’ve talked about some of the more influential figures in your career. Is there anyone missing that we haven’t mentioned or someone who’s been particularly meaningful in your professional life?

STODDARD: As you point out, way, way too many to mention. I have mentioned Steve Effros. It just goes back and back and back. Judy Rudrud helped me get into the industry. Steve Effros gave me a foothold in the industry and helped me learn corporate communications, taught me a lot of life lessons as well. Robert Sachs helped me establish myself in the business part of the industry with the MSOs. Now that was an introduction to Amos Hostetter and I don’t think anyone who has ever met Amos came away thinking that he hadn’t somehow influenced them or had an impact on them for his ethics, for his integrity, for the way he looked at the world, and the fact that he is a cable entrepreneur and essentially one of the founders of the modern-day industry. And just having the confidence of Amos can do more for you than anything else in the world.

SCHLEY: Really?

STODDARD: Yes, absolutely. And that was a huge factor. I worked for some amazing CEOs that had major influence on me, names that are now forgotten, in some circles names that are not very well thought of. Chuck Lillis who ran US West, US West Media Group, and who did the acquisition of Continental and during that sequence of events, which we won’t talk about now, but created some hard feelings, some very hard feelings among Amos and other executives over the years, yet rolled out the red carpet for me and gave me the opportunity to practice my craft in a new and enlarged company. And then to go on and to be embraced at AT&T Broadband which was phenomenal to have the chance to run public relations for that company. At MediaOne I had worked for a great female chief executive named Jan Peters who was my first great opportunity to work for a female telecommunications executive and to begin to become sensitive to and to understand many of the diversity issues in our business, for women, for people of color. And then at AT&T Broadband, again a name quickly forgotten, Dan Somers who was chief executive who had come from legacy AT&T, yet spending a year and a half working for Dan for me was like getting an MBA which I’ve never achieved, but the business education there was phenomenal. So Dan helped me understand the business and of course Mike Armstrong was running the parent company at that time, and say what you will about the foibles of Mike Armstrong, he clearly was a man with a vision that was ahead of its time. I think Mike Armstrong in 1998 foresaw what we’re living through today in 2017, but unfortunately due to the rigors of the market he was not able to achieve that vision.

SCHLEY: He understood what was coming in terms of this convergence of mediums and services?

STODDARD: Well, he was trying to create that convergence, yes, and create all these products and services that we enjoy today. And then there are other stalwarts of the industry I have to pay homage to. The great John Evans who has been kind of out of the business of running cable systems for many years, but partnered with Gus Hauser, a man who built the cable systems in Montgomery county, Maryland and Arlington, Virginia, who helped found C-SPAN along with Paul Maxwell and other -- and great cable executives during that era. John over the years gave his heart and his soul to the fight against AIDS, to the work in Cable Positive, and now is the longest, as we speak anyway, the longest tenured member of the NCTA board of directors.

SCHLEY: I didn’t know that.

STODDARD: And is still incredibly active in industry affairs even though he’s essentially out of the business of cable operators. But I learned humanity from John. I was introduced to many fine people in the mid-Atlantic by him and he’s had a major influence on my career as well.

SCHLEY: Someday you’re going to hang up the cleats. I don’t know when. Hopefully it’s not soon. What will your successor be consumed with or concerned with or what do you see -- just a couple of big picture issues in the future for cable.

STODDARD: So please don’t put me out to pasture right away.

SCHLEY: I’m not going there.

STODDARD: I’m having the time of my life, don’t want to turn back.

SCHLEY: OK, good, stick with it.

STODDARD: Absolutely. It’s a little hard to project five years down the line, but I think for the intermediate term my successor and others are really going to continue to struggle with how we define ourselves as an industry. It’s cliché to point out that we are undergoing another wave of consolidation, certainly on the distribution side, potentially more so in the future on the programming and content side as well. A lot of changes that are coming, a lot of changes in the works. By the types of services that we offer now and the portfolio of things that we’re doing for the American public it’s very hard to think of us as a well-defined industry right now. So I’ll say something that sounds heretical but it’s not intended to be. You know, the cable industry as we know it is ceasing to exist. The question will be, will there be a cohesive industry that we’ll think of as the cable industry in the future? And if not, what will it be? How will we describe it? Who will comprise it? And for how many more years can all of these companies work and collaborate together while they are competing against each other at the same time?

SCHLEY: Because this has been a hallmark heretofore, but in 2017 it’s impossible to know what those relationships will look like. Very different perhaps.

STODDARD: Yes, absolutely. Thus the frenemy principle, right?

SCHLEY: Motif. What is and what has been fun about your work at large?

STODDARD: So kind of left brain/right brain I guess to some extent. Intellectually, honestly, not false humility, I don’t think of myself as a real smart guy. I’ll spend a lot of time making sure I understand things so I try to make up for it that way, but in the intellectual sense it is the most gripping and compelling set of issues that I think anybody in the United States can deal with and particularly in a time of explosive growth. And it’s because we are transforming the way that people live. We are changing the way that they communicate. We had, you may recall, a few years back an advertising campaign for NCTA that proclaimed, “Cable -- More than TV, it’s how we connect.” And in truth that is still happening. What we are doing is getting harder to define, but it’s clearly how people connect. So the intellectual construct, trying to get your arms around that, trying to pull it down, trying to put words around it, trying to explain it to people, that’s just pure unadulterated joy.

SCHLEY: For a communicator it’s what you want to do.

STODDARD: For a communicator or for a policy wonk or for anybody interested in global and US business. You can just get buried in that stuff. It’s great. On more of the left-brain side I would say, I hope this is right, left brain/right brain, the relationships. Again, something of a cliché in the business but time and time again so it must be true, time and time again I talk to people who say, “There’s just nothing else like it.” There are very few, if any, American industries that operate through this web of relationships and particularly, honestly, through people like you and I and tens of thousands of others that have grown up and matured and come of age through the industry. And I love the fact that I can go into any major market in the United States and I have cable friends there. I don’t have to buy friends, I don’t have to look for them, I know where they are and most of them know where I am too. So it is a godsend to have those kinds of relationships, I think.

SCHLEY: We could go on, but it has been our privilege --

STODDARD: I’ve got all day.

SCHLEY: It’s been our privilege at The Cable Center to talk to you.

STODDARD: Thank you.

SCHLEY: And it’s high time we got you behind the camera to tell a bit of your story given that you are, you have to accept this with great humility, one of the seminal figures in terms of the public posture of the cable industry in its modern era. So thank you very much, Rob Stoddard of NCTA, and for The Cable Center I’m Stewart Schley.



Save to PDF

Martha Soehren

Martha Soehren

Interview Date: November 28, 2016
Interview Location: New York City, NY USA
Interviewer: Seth Arenstein
Collection: Cable Center Oral History Program

Arenstein: Hi, I'm Seth Arenstein here for the Oral History Project at the Cable Center. We’re here in New York City at the end of November, 2016, and I’m here with Martha Soehren, who's the chief talent development officer at Comcast. Martha, welcome.

Soehren: Thank you, Seth. Great to be here.

Arenstein: Great to have you. Since so much of your career now at least is about education, let's talk about when you started learning as a child. Where were you born? Who were your first teachers? Do you remember your first teacher?

Soehren: I do indeed. First of all, Seth, I was born and raised in North Carolina on a farm. And it was a farm where we raised tobacco and many other crops. It was a very special place to me. I was greatly influenced by both of my parents, but especially by my dad. And yes, I can remember my first-grade teacher. It was Miss Baumgardner. My second-grade teacher was Miss McDonald. Should I continue?

Arenstein: Please, yes. Go ahead.

Soehren: I can probably name all of them, but probably what's really important to the conversation is that I was greatly influenced by my teachers as well. Because early in childhood, I wanted to become a teacher. Actually, a really great story, Seth, is that I was about eleven or twelve years old, sitting on the steps of the farmhouse with my dad, and we were chatting and he said, “So what do you want to be when you grow up?” And I said, “Well, Dad, I want to be a teacher someday.” And my dad, in his positive, optimistic way, said, “You'll be a teacher someday. You can be anything you want to do.” And he was in a really great mood and so I thought, “OK, I'm going to throw another point at Dad.” I said, “Dad, I want to own this farm someday, too.” And he said, “Well, I can't give you the farm because you have siblings, but I would love for you to have the farm someday.”

So long story short, Dad died. Mom sold the farm. I did become a teacher. And time passed. About 10 or 12 years ago, I reached out to the three owners of the property, put the farm back together and I own it today. So I made both of those goals a reality.

Arenstein: So you're a farmer.

Soehren: Basically, you could call me that, although I don’t farm.

Arenstein: So what's on the farm today? What is it like?

Soehren: I care for the fields; I have someone who does that for me, and just ensure that it remains what it was growing up.

Arenstein: Tell me about where you grew up specifically. Was it a small town, was it a big town? How many people were in your class in first grade? Was it a one-room school perhaps?

Soehren: It was not a one-room school. That would take us way back, Seth. But there were probably two or three first-grade classes and maybe about 18-20 students in each. But as far as the little town I grew up in, it's Carthage, North Carolina. There was one stoplight in the little town. I think there are three today, so it hasn’t changed a whole lot. So it is a little small country town. I was raised Southern Baptist as well, which kind of goes along with that territory, right? Very religious, strict upbringing, but I think that and my parents and having been raised on a farm influenced me a lot about being the person I am today.

Arenstein: What was it about probably your first, second, and maybe third grade teachers that influenced you to tell your father you wanted to be a teacher?

Soehren: You know, I think probably, not knowing what the words “role model” meant back then, that I perceived them to be role models because they were generally good people. They dressed differently than the teachers dress today. You can go to a school today and you can see a teacher dressed in a sweat suit, right? But back then, it wasn’t. They were always very professionally dressed and presented themselves in a professional way. They also helped us to grow and to learn and to do things that we didn’t know how to do. So I loved that helpful nature about my teachers growing up.

Arenstein: Were your teachers citizens of the town you lived in? In other words, did you run into them at church, in the grocery store, in town somewhere?

Soehren: Just about anywhere.

Arenstein: Really?

Soehren: Just about anywhere. Because it was such a small town, right? And most lived in the community.

Arenstein: When you envisioned yourself being a teacher, did you envision teaching in a small town or teaching at a university, or what did you envision?

Soehren: So as I started growing into an adult, one of the things I realized quite early on was that I didn’t want to teach younger kids. That my preference was to teach adult learners or adults returning to the academic setting to further their careers. So that’s what I chose to do.

Arenstein: OK. So tell us, where did you go to college and what was your major?

Soehren: So my bachelor’s degree is a bachelor of technology—it's in occupational technology, which at the time was very much about management engineering or industrial engineering—things that cobble a lot of different titles or names, right? For my master’s degree—it's a master’s in business administration and then my doctorate is in educational leadership and policy studies—and I kept a bit of the business side with my doctoral work as well. I have a cognate in organizational behavior, which has helped me immensely in the learning and development world.

Arenstein: But it doesn’t sound to me like you had a strictly teaching route. Actually, to be honest with you, reading your career, I mean, I've done many of these interviews, and a lot of people have various routes to get to cable. Yours is very circuitous, but it's very interesting, too.

Soehren: Oh, indeed. So I didn’t earn the right to teach with my bachelor’s degree. I earned the right to teach with my master’s degree. And that’s when I sought out my first teaching job. I started the interview process probably about a week before I actually earned the degree because I was bound and determined I was going to get a teaching job. So the first place I reached out to was Lawrence Technological University; it was in Southfield, Michigan. I got an appointment with Dean Sheehy—he was the dean of the business school there. I was so excited. I got in there for my interview with the dean. It was supposed to be about an hour in length. It went on for about two hours. I'm sitting there, I was feeling really great and I thought I had this thing nailed. I'm really, really going to walk away from there with this job. So then when it came time to bring the interview to closure, the dean said, “You know, I'd really love to offer you this job, but I just can't do it.” And I said, “So, Dean Sheehy, why not?” And he said—you know, the typical response where you don’t have experience teaching in a college setting, right? So being bold and in the moment, which I encourage people to do with their careers—think out of the box, think what’s within the possible—so I said, “Tell you what, Dean Sheehy. I will teach a semester for free. Just let me try it, let me show you that I can do this. If at the end of the first semester, if the students don’t like me, and you don’t like me, I'll go away. Otherwise, I'll stay.” And I walked out of there with a job. And I actually got paid the first semester.

Arenstein: He lied to you.

Soehren: He lied to me. I taught as an adjunct professor for 13 years between there and William Tyndale College, all business courses, until I took the job I have today at Comcast in Philadelphia. And it's very demanding from a travel perspective so it's hard to have an adjunct role today. But I loved it. It was great. And again, helping adult learners follow their career dreams and earn their degrees.

Arenstein: What do you like about teaching?

Soehren: I think it goes back to helping others by enabling them with either knowledge or skill sets so that they can do things that are new, things that are different, things that support their career, their aspirations that help them to grow and provide for their families and enjoy their communities and enjoy their companies.

Arenstein: And the thrill never left because you kept doing it. I mean, you just love doing it.

Soehren: Absolutely love doing it. Still do it today for Comcast. Each and every day. From front line supervisors to leaders of all levels, individual contributors, it doesn’t matter. At Comcast we focus on growing and helping all of our employees.

Arenstein: So let's fill in some of the details. Where did you go to college, and where did you get your PhD?

Soehren: I started college at Sand Hills Community College in North Carolina, and then I moved around a bit.

Arenstein: How did you get to the Michigan area?

Soehren: To the Michigan area. I married an Army officer who was a career officer, right, and so I moved around a bit with him. Then I moved to El Paso, to Fort Bliss, Texas, and I continued working on my degree there. Then we moved to Fort McClellan, Alabama, and I finished my bachelor’s there at Jacksonville State, and I started my master’s there. Then we moved to Michigan. So I finished my master’s in Michigan at the University of Detroit Mercy, and then I earned my doctorate from Wayne State University, which is also in Detroit.

Arenstein: Now, you know, there was some military here, too, besides your husband, correct?

Soehren: Correct.

Arenstein: Tell us about that.

Soehren: Sure. I spent 25 years as a Department of Army civilian, and moved around with my husband quite a bit during those 25 years, and absolutely loved what I was doing. And I did spend quite a few years in learning and development, all working for the Army. Actually, my first job in learning and development was validating the programs of instruction for the Army’s service schools. Things like the DOD Polygraph Institute or the Chemical Decontamination Facility, or some of the language schools. But I would go in and ensure that the programs of instruction were sound, and that for each of the programs, they had the right number of instructors for whatever equipment they were using, or activities they were completing. So that was my introduction to learning and development in the business world. Then, during my time with the Army, I also taught a bit for the Army.

Arenstein: What was that like? What did you teach and how did you find the students in the military?

Soehren: In the military, for the programs of instruction I validated, those were for the soldiers, just ensuring that they got what they needed, that they had a safe learning environment that put them on the battlefield or the exercise field or whatever role they were performing, that they had what they needed to do first of all, a great job, and to be safe while doing it.

A lot of the time that I spent actually teaching with the Army was for the civilian workforce. There were often military personnel who would attend some of the programs, but they were in total quality management. We know it today as “Six Sigma.” So I spent most of my time in that field, teaching with the Army.

Arenstein: So I guess we have to ask how does that experience apply to today, doing what you do for Comcast?

Soehren: That’s a great question, Seth. Right after I left the Army—I'd been gone about six months and I was asked to participate in an executive survey on what is it that helps people to be successful when they leave the Army or the federal service to go into the corporate world? And by far, my immediate response was, I learned to plan, execute and evaluate on a dime during those 25 years. Because you just had to make it happen. And in Comcast and in so many businesses in the corporate world, everything moves at a really, really fast pace. So it helped me immensely coming into Comcast with that skill set. It helped me to adapt to the culture, to the business environment, and I would say, pretty much take off running.

Arenstein: I bet. Let’s go back a little bit to some of the work, though, you did with the Army. It’s a pretty serious subject that you're dealing with. We’re not just talking about does somebody know the difference between net profit and gross. You're dealing with things that could potentially save a life or result in death. How was that to teach? Did that ever play into your mind? Were you ever thinking, my goodness, I've got to make sure this is really good because this is a life and death matter. Did that ever come into your thought process?

Soehren: It was always at the forefront of my mindset because each and every day it was extremely obvious and apparent to me as well as those people around me, that the ultimate customer was the soldier in the field. And our goal was always to make sure that everything was top-notch for that soldier, whether it was some type of influence on making sure that a parachute opened, or a bullet fired, or a tank moved or the logistical equipment was where it needed to be. We were all in it for all of the right reasons, and we wanted everything to be top-notch. And provide a quality product, each and every time, or quality service, each and every time.

Arenstein: If I were to say—I'm sure I know the answer to this question, but I'll ask it—if I were to ask you, as a child in North Carolina, did you ever envision yourself doing what you're doing today? Obviously, the answer is no, because was cable even around then? I guess it was starting but it was not what we know it today. Comcast wasn’t around at that point. Did you think when you were teaching for the Army, etc., did you ever think you'd make the jump to the cable industry?

Soehren: That’s a really great question, Seth. First of all, growing up, I never thought I would work for the defense industry or particularly the Army. Much less, I don’t think it ever hit my mind that I would spend 25 years with that organization. But I'm grateful that I did that. A lot of my time with the Army was also spent on becoming an efficiency expert. So I spent a lot of years studying the way the work got done and it kind of feeds back into the total quality management or Six Sigma philosophy, right? Making sure you have the right amount of people doing the work that you do. But as I was getting to about year 22, 23 with my career with the Army, I knew I wanted to do something different. I really had an aspiration to try a learning leader role in corporate America. Because in the defense industry, you're not competing for a profit and revenue growth and cash flow and all of those things to the point you made earlier. But I really wanted to get into a business environment, and apply what I'd learned through my business degrees as well as my experience with the Army. So as I started framing that up, that’s when I started my PhD in educational leadership and policy studies because I thought it would be ideal to have that degree to help me land a job in corporate America.

A really interesting story: when I was getting ready to actually make the change, I applied for one job on monster.com. I imagined that people still use it today. It's still out there, but I applied for one job only after spending 25 years. And it was for the director of leadership development at Comcast in Southfield, Michigan. I applied for the job and I went on a couple of interviews for it. Remember, I'm just kind of evolving. What do I want to do, where do I want to go, where do I want to land to be this learning leader? So I went into my boss and I said to him, “You know, Mr. Chapin, I've applied for a job at Comcast.” He was the president of the tank automotive research center where I worked. And he said, “Oh, you don’t want to do that.” I said, “But why not?” He said, “You want to stay here; you have 25 years. You have a long career. This is a very secure, stable environment.” I thought, well, yeah, that’s all true, but I have career goals, I have aspirations and I'm going to stay in the driver’s seat of my career, right? I had a few more interviews; this was over an eight-month period, Seth. So I would keep my boss updated because respectfully, I thought that was the right thing to do. So I'm getting around formal offer time. I go back in and I said to Mr. Chapin, “You know, I'm going to get an offer for this job.” He said, “You know, you really, really want to stay here. Here’s what we’ll do for you.” And I said, “You know what? I really want to go after this job because it's aligning with what I want to do with my career.” So I got the job offer and I went in and said, “I signed the job offer today.” He said, “Look. I feel so adamant that this isn’t the right thing for you to do that I'm going to put you on sabbatical. You go to Comcast, you work for six months, if you don’t like it, come back and you'll have a job here.” There were no guarantees it would be the same job I left, but he could do that. The federal government gives sabbaticals from time to time.

I have to tell you it was the smartest decision I could possibly have made. I love working for Comcast, love the company, love my job, love the culture. It's a really, really healthy place to work. The transition was beautiful for me. I'll admit there were times—

Arenstein: Yes, let’s get to that because I remember there’s a story you want to tell.

Soehren: My first week there, I asked for an org chart. I said, “Could I just see one?” Because in the defense industry, org charts cover the walls. Big walls, right? And I was told, “We don’t have org charts.” And I thought, “OK.” I think, though, Seth at the time that was just an indicator of the cable industry not being as sophisticated as it is today. Over the sixteen years that I've been with Comcast, I've watched the level of sophistication grow immensely.

Arenstein: One question that I thought of while you were telling that story, Martha, one area I would assume you would have been interested in was the defense industry itself. The defense contracting industry. It would seem to me you were sort of tailor-made to go from working as a civilian in the Army to a defense contractor. Did that ever cross your mind?

Soehren: It did not. I wanted to do something different. I wanted to do something different. I wanted to be focused on learning and development. I wanted to get a role as a chief learning officer. That was my dream, that was my goal, that was why I went to school to get the PhD in educational leadership. That degree prepared me to lead a learning organization. So I went after it. I stayed in the driver’s seat. No one took me off course. And I made it happen. But I had great champions, I had great mentors—

Arenstein: Tell us about it.

Soehren: I had a lot of wonderful people to help me along the way. I had been at Comcast maybe just a few weeks when my boss started having conversations with me about what is it that you aspire to be here? And I said, “Dave, I want to be the chief learning officer at Comcast someday. Hopefully not too long from now.” And he said to me, “You know what? I’ll be your mentor. And I'll support you. Do a great job here, stay with me a few years and I'll help you get there.” And then the president of the division, same. He was a great champion for me. A good news, bad news story. The first time the position opened up after I started working with Comcast, I had been in the organization maybe about a year-and-a-half. And the position opened up, and so I just threw my name in the hat. But I do it through email, I don’t actually apply through the application process, but I sent an email note to the EDP of the HR at the time, and just expressed my interest. So I got an email note back that said, “Hey, great, I'll be in Southfield, Michigan, on next Wednesday. I'll be there at one o’clock. Let’s chat about this.” And I get pumped. I was so excited, I thought, I cannot believe she’s coming here to see me to chat about this role. So I was very optimistic.

She showed up at my desk to tell me that she wasn’t going to consider me, that she didn’t think I was qualified, that I had not had the level of experience that I needed to serve as the chief learning officer of Comcast, which at the time, was about 24,000 employees deep. And today we’re about 159,000 deep, which you well know. So about a year-and-a-half later, the job opened up again. I'll never forget it. I was in Bay City, Michigan, on a family vacation with my kids and my husband, and the phone rings. And it's the president of the Midwest division, Dave Scott, and Marie McMillan, who was the HR leader, and Dave goes, “Martha, I'm calling to see if you're interested.” As soon as he got that word out of his mouth, I said, “Yes! I'm all in!” Because I had just had a feeling it would have to be about that; I knew the job was open. So I got tapped on the shoulder the second time around. You know what they said? I think Nancy did me a big favor. I think that having not been given the job the first time, it caused me to buckle down and work harder and ensure that I spent more time learning the business so that when it did open up, I would really, really be prepared. And it worked out really, really well for me.

Arenstein: Now we've been talking a lot about you, a lot about your development, your path to Comcast. Let's talk a little bit more about Comcast now. Somewhere in the research I saw you talking about Ralph Roberts. I mean, I met him a couple of times. He was everything I thought he would be and more. But I know you had a perspective on him as a teacher and coming into the classrooms. Could you tell us about that?

Soehren: Absolutely. I don’t think I have talked to anyone who knew Ralph who didn’t absolutely love him, right? I loved Ralph and I loved him for many, many reasons. First of all, he's just a good person, a family man. He is, in my opinion, he is the pillar of the family-like culture that we have in Comcast today, just because he was caring and smart as all get-out. But one of the things I appreciated most was how he helped us and helped me teach Comcasters about the business, about their jobs, through lessons, through stories. He was probably our very, very best leader as teacher in the organization. And he was especially careful and deliberate about helping us teach our high potentials. He insisted that all the other leaders around him do the same, which goes back to role modeling, right? If we role model the right behaviors, then those who are observing us or following us will most likely exhibit those same qualities, those same attributes, those same behaviors.

Arenstein: So tell us a little bit about what you do today. Tell us, for those who don’t know what Comcast University is—it doesn’t have a football team, does it?

Soehren: No, but it could have.

Arenstein: I'm kidding. Tell us about Comcast University, tell us about learning at Comcast. Tell us about the high potentials.

Soehren: Sure, you bet. So Comcast University is the learning institute for Comcast. We have about 525 learning and development professionals across the cable business, and these are professionals who are either writing and developing training content or they are delivering training in a classroom, whether that classroom is a physical standup classroom or a virtual classroom. And recognizing that a lot of the training content that we build is delivered through a web-based format or some type of self-serving format for our learners across the organization. Every new hire that comes into a frontline role in Comcast gets touched deeply through what Comcast University offers because we teach them the knowledge, the skills, and everything that they need in order to present our products to our customers, or to service our products, or to sell, or to repair, or to solve a billing issue—whatever it takes. We give them the tools necessary to do those jobs. We also have 15 high-potential programs for leaders across all levels of the organization. One of our most successful, Seth, is the one we have is for hourly employees, which we instituted about 2½, 3 years ago. Our promotion rate for those hourly employees to supervision is between 60% and 70%. Our retention is between 95% and 98%, depending upon the geography in which the employees are housed. But we’re really, really excited about that, and the programs go all the way through the executive level. We pay really, really close attention in Comcast to the inclusion of people of color, of gender, and of people with mixed opinions or different opinions, whatever that might be. But we do a really, really great job ensuring that we have a very inclusive learning environment regardless of the type of program it is.

So in addition to the learning and development that happens within Comcast University, we also manage the talent management function, which is where we assess the talent, and we create the succession plans for the roles within the organization, especially with a focus on directors and above. Then what ties perfectly back to Comcast University to the learning and development function, we also are able to put people in the right development programs so that they can get to their next role, or follow their career aspirations, whatever it is they want to do.

Arenstein: So what about people who are—you talked about hourly workers. What about remote workers, how do you keep in touch with people who don’t have an office, who may be in a truck or just never around a computer, let's say, to do learning? How do you deal with those sorts of people?

Soehren: It’s a great question, Seth. All of our employees have some type of device, mobile device, so they can always get access to learning through our learning management system and other means, like through our intranet. Our product portal, where we house all of the content related to our products—they can access that through the intranet and through the learning management system on their mobile devices. So we have the content that people need, which goes to our vision for learning at Comcast. We call it “Vision 20/20.” That is, we want to deliver learning in a format that works for all of our employees anywhere, anytime, any device, right, that helps them do the job better, or to work on that next job they want.

Arenstein: We talked a little bit during our talk here about pace and how fast things move. I'm sure they move fast in the Army. They couldn’t have moved much faster than they do in cable television, and new products and new policies and new pricing. How did your instructors and how did your curriculum keep up with all that?

Soehren: That is a really great question, Seth. If we were to go back about, I would say, seven or eight years ago, I would say to you that it was really difficult to get at the right table, to ensure I was getting the latest updates on the business. Today, I don’t think there's a table that we miss, because we get pulled to the table early on. Because the business has grown to appreciate what it is that we do and how we connect learning to business impact. An example might be we’ll build a learning solution and we can tell you if those learners—30, 60, 90 days later or six months later—how their performance compared to maybe the average of the call center, or the average of the technical work force. So we’re very, very connected to the business. We tell great impact stories that our business leaders have grown to really appreciate and expect from us. So, we don’t get left out from the business tables in our organization, which is a really great place to be.

Arenstein: Well, of course, but that doesn’t happen by itself, obviously. Having the respect for education and learning; tell us about some of the leaders of Comcast who obviously have that respect for your function or you wouldn’t be at all those tables.

Soehren: Sure. I think it starts with Brian Roberts, who has really helped us build a learning organization. And Steve Burke. When he came to Comcast, he contributed immensely. He's the person who gets all of the credit for really starting Comcast University. Then we could look at David Cohen, who’s one of our absolute best leaders as teachers today, and helps us immensely. Or my boss, Bill Strahan, or Neil Smit, or Dave Watson. Which by the way, Dave Watson co-chairs the National Executive Learning Council with me. This is a learning council that we established in 2010 when we centralized learning at Comcast. Which, by the way, prior to 2010, there were 71 reporting relationships for learning at Comcast. It reported into finance, to legal, to operations, to HR. I mean, the list goes on—

Arenstein: This is why they didn’t have the org charts.

Soehren: That’s probably the case. But when we centralized, we developed this council and Dave Watson co-chairs it with me. And it has brought immense strategic focus to learning and development at Comcast. We go to the table with topics on the latest learning and development technologies and what we’re planning to do from a learning perspective to better enable a “perfect for me” type of learning for our workforce. We share impact stories there. We talk about talent development and how we’re moving from the lessons learned during talent reviews to really progress our people so that we accomplish not only the mission, but the vision of Comcast as an organization. So it's a very strategically led organization, and the EVPs of all product and business units, and the presidents of three geographical divisions sit on that learning council.

Arenstein: So, if you permit me, I want to tell you a story. Because you talked about hourly workers, you talked about training. I had a parent who was a Comcast customer who passed away. I was told to come into the Comcast office near my parents’ house and bring the modem, etc. etc. So I did and I remember the woman who served me, prior to serving me was berated by an irate customer. I mean, everybody in the office could hear it. I remember—she just sat there, she took it, she was very, very calm about it. And then it came to my turn to deal with this woman and I thought, “Oh, my God, she couldn’t be in a very good mood.” But the first thing she said to me was, she said, “Before we start with the business, let me say how sorry I am for your loss.” Which just knocked me over first off.

Soehren: It's great.

Arenstein: Then she took the modem back, she looked at the bill and she said, “Oh, your mother must have been in the hospital for some number of weeks.” I said, “Yes, she was in the hospital for about two weeks.” She said, “Well, we’re not going to bill her for her cable those two weeks. She wasn’t home.” So she took that off the bill, I mean, I was not expecting that and she didn’t have to do that. She did that, and then I gave her the modem back and again, before I left, she said, “Again, I'm really sorry about your mother passing away and everything.” It was a Friday afternoon, the office was crazy busy and it was several years ago and I still remember the whole thing. So I would say whoever taught her, whoever her parents were, did a very, very good job.

Soehren: And she was probably influenced by both, right? Her parents and her learning experience. And what she did for you, Seth, was the right thing to do. We want every customer to have that quality of customer service, and that’s why at Comcast, we’re making the customer experience our best product. And we’re doing it a step at a time, that she did exactly what she should have done. I'm proud of her.

Arenstein: Well, she did a great job and I have to tell you, I wrote about it for CableFax, and again, she didn’t know who I was, but it was very positive experience. It really goes to part of what you're doing, putting those people out there, your ambassadors, they're your voice. You did a great job there.

Tell me a little bit about coming into Comcast. You weren’t really a cable person, but your previous job, being a woman in the Army, being a woman in the defense sector, how did those lessons apply to learning the business and being part of the business of Comcast?

Soehren: Well, Seth, one of the things I really appreciate about Comcast—and it was really the same during my 25 years with the Army. I never once felt that I was treated differently when it comes to my career because I am a woman. I think I've done quite well and I think that it's come about by working really hard at doing the right things and learning the business and always remembering why we’re in business: to provide a great customer experience. So just being committed to that has helped me immensely. I think where we get in a little bit of trouble, whether it's at Comcast or the defense industry or any other company, is that women can often be more competitive with each other. I think that’s where a lot of the issues come about and where the breakdown happens, you know, women just trying to get ahead or to move ahead or move forward. But I personally have never once felt held back because I'm a woman.

Arenstein: Now I know you're active in both Women in Technology and Women in Cable. Tell me what you’ve done in those areas. You're a chair at WICT. Tell me about what you’ve done.

Soehren: So, Seth, I think it's really important that we serve within our industry, and there are ways of doing that outside of our company. For example, like Women in Cable and Telecommunications—it's a great organization. Fabulous organization that provides really, really great learning and development opportunities to women and men, to include great mentoring and career development and just gives a lot of options that maybe don’t always exist within our companies. So I’m proud to sit on the board with WICT. I'm proud to chair the board. I've done that for a couple of years now and I've been on the board of directors for about eight years, I believe, with that group. And it's because I believe in what they're doing. And Comcast does, too. We’re committed to being a part of that organization and ensuring that it's an option for our employees, not unlike all of the other companies in the cable business, right? Or the programmers. So I enjoy serving. And I learn a lot, too, being with the other women there. Networking is always great and being part of the network for other women is good for them and good for me as well.

Arenstein: When you were looking at the job at Comcast, did you know all these things existed in the cable industry, like WICT, like NAMIC, like Diversity Week? I mean, these to me—I've only been in cable; I've been in defense for a while, too, but mostly in cable. And I don’t know of another sector that does these things, spends a whole week dealing with diversity and women. Did you know these things coming in?

Soehren: I had no idea. But the first organization I was introduced to was WICT. And I became a member in Michigan and I started participating and I realized the great value that it brought. So then I went on to serve on the national board for all these years, which is really, really great. For the SCTE, or the Society of Cable and Telecommunications Engineers, I was introduced to that group fairly early on. One thing I knew for sure was that almost everyone there on the board talked way over my head because they were like the CTOs and people who really, really understand the technologies. But what I found was they needed someone who also knew learning and development really well because that’s a big part of their revenue. It's what they do to help companies within the industry from a learning and development perspective, like with DOCSIS 3.0 or Fiber Deep and all of these very technical topics. But I’ve really enjoyed serving on that board as well. I've learned a lot about cable by serving there.

Arenstein: What about Women in Technology? How do you get more women into technology?

Soehren: That’s tough. And some of that happens early in childhood and how children are influenced by their parents or the teachers who are role modeling, right? And the types of discussions that happen and how we really focus in on science and math in those courses that are so critical, starting with elementary school and going on up through high school. A lot of it has to do with how the counselors coach and help then, too, I’ll tie it back to, what is the aspiration of that young woman? What does he or she want to do? I do believe that SCTE and WICT and other organizations are working more with academia today to try to inspire more women to get into the field. The women who get there, though, generally do quite well, quite well. They pretty much have a ticket to move and all of their dreams and accomplished their goals as long as they do what's right for the business.

Arenstein: Career advice: I mean we can't sit here with somebody like you and not ask what do you tell a youngster who really wants to get into the cable industry. What do you say?

Soehren: How old would that youngster be, Seth?

Arenstein: Let’s say somebody who’s in high school. 15, 16, 17.

Soehren: So the way I work with even adults, all right, or the way I would work with a high school student or a college student is I would have probing questions that would require research. In other words, I want you to go research the types of products that these companies offer. I want you to see if you're intrigued by them. I want you to look at the success stories of these companies and see if you're intrigued by those stories. Look at some of the hardships they’ve dealt with. Are you willing to go through hardships with a company? What are you really willing to do? It's not unlike someone trying to decide, “I want to go back to school to get my master’s degree and I just don’t know what to do or what to study.” Do your research. Do your homework. Do some self-learning and then come back and see me. I'll tie it to how I mentor is well-said. Because I mentor a lot of men and women, and they vary across ages, they vary across roles, and titles and so forth. And very often, a mentee for the first time will show up at my table and say, “You know what? I just need you to help me decide what I want to do next.” And I immediately say, “You know what? I'm going to let you help yourself, right? And I'll help move the dialogue along. But you need to self-learn and figure out and explore and try a special project. Don’t be afraid of shadowing someone.” I'll never forget my first shadowing experience. When I first joined Comcast in Southfield, Michigan—I hadn’t been there long enough—you know what, I'd love to be a general manager. It's when we had the general manager roles—today, they are regional senior vice-president roles, right? So you have these regional leaders. And I thought, you know, I would really, really like to explore that. Because I have a pretty good business sense about me. And I thought, OK, I could shadow, and I chose to shadow Rusty Robertson in Indiana. My boss supported this and one of the areas I really wanted to learn about was the local franchise agreements because I had no knowledge of that. I am still learning so much because cable is so different from what I'm used to. And what I learned from that was I didn’t want to be a general manager, right? So the point is, when advising students, whether they’re in high school or they’re in college or they’re within the organization just wanting to move forward, I think it's important that you and I and others drive self-exploration because a lot of people would love for us to tell them your next job should be “X,” and here's what you need to do to get there.

Arenstein: Right, right, right.

Soehren: But it shouldn’t work that way. I think my career advice to every person I mentor or coach is, stay in the driver’s seat, know where you want to go. Because others can take you off your path. They can steer that car into a muddy hole on the side of the road or into a tree and just really throw you off balance. It sort of goes back to when I was debating on leaving the defense industry to join Comcast, right? I could have stayed there. I could have gotten that promotion, right? I could still be there and I would still have the most secure job in probably all the world along with a lot of other people who had those kinds of jobs. But I would not have had the pleasure and the opportunity and the exposure and the experience to join the cable industry and to be a part of Comcast. And remember, when I joined Comcast, we were very much a follower, right, from a technology perspective. Today, we’re the leader. We are like really leading the path when it comes to the products that we offer.

Arenstein: Why don’t we sketch that in a little bit? You mentioned that when you started at Comcast, there were about 25,000 employees and now it's about 159,000. Tell me what it was like at Comcast back then, what was the structure, who was in charge, what did the company look like back then?

Soehren: When I joined Comcast, Steve Burke was the president of cable, and we had six geographical divisions at the time. I worked in the Midwest division. It was led by Dave Scott, the president. He went on to do a lot of other great things, still is, with Comcast, right, but a phenomenal leader. So having that exposure right out of the gate, it doesn’t get much better than that. With 24,000 employees, I would say that the pace—it's always seemed fast—but I believe how we got things done within that pace were—I'm going to use the word “unsophisticated,” again. Like if you look at our billing system and where it was then compared to where it is now. Or if you look at just like the TV guide, and what it was then to where it is now. So we watched our processes and our people and our technologies progress in a really, really great forward-thinking, forward-doing kind of way. It's about scale, right, and how we build the work that we do so that we can really accomplish a lot of great things, but reach a lot more people, whether it's the workforce of 159,000, which of course includes NBC Universal. Or it includes our 29 million customers.

Arenstein: Now there was a point in the research, I know, you wanted to talk about Time Warner Cable, I believe.

Soehren: I loved the work that we did when we had hoped to acquire Time Warner Cable. The people at Time Warner Cable are, still—I know they're under the Charter umbrella now—really, really good people. I will say to you that if there is a cause in Comcast that needs to be rallied around, we just rally and we get her done. And we get things done right. And that’s what we did around that pending Time Warner Cable acquisition. Having talent management and learning and development, I got to know probably almost every executive working in Time Warner Cable. Some of the best lessons I learned out of that experience was, I would say there are probably two lessons. One is, when dealing with people who are—you know, they have a sense of insecurity about their future in their company, in their role, it is so important to recognize. You have to just treat people really, really carefully in your spoken word and your unspoken word. They all count and you can lead a conversation talking about talent and potential jobs in the future under a new company umbrella, and you can leave people damaged, or you can leave them feeling like they're really important and a part of something that could be bigger and better, right? So that was one of the lessons.

The other lesson I learned from that experience, other than Comcast can rally on a dime—and I'm going to go back to that because it is amazing. We worked endlessly, seven days a week, tons of hours every day, and a huge group of people made that happen. The other was, in getting to know the Time Warner Cable talent, and where we might have placed those people within our organization, we learned a lot about our own talent. And where we had some shortfalls or gaps. And so we quickly rallied and built high-potential programs to target some of those areas, and it paid off nicely for our company.

Arenstein: I know Brian Kenny at the Cable Center, the librarian, always likes us to end with some legacy questions and some forward-thinking questions. What does the cable industry look like, let’s say, five years from now, ten years from now? I mean, when you started at Comcast, it was a—for want of a better term—it was a cable company. You can't say that today, really. It's a communications company. If you ask the average person on the street, it's an Internet company now. What does it look like five years from now, do you think?

Soehren: Yes, I'll take two approaches to that question, Seth. One is what I hope for Comcast. And that is, a lot less regulation because we do spend a lot of time, even from a learning and development perspective, tackling the regulatory side of things, and I know what Brian and the executive team has to do and David and the group is far, far greater. So I would wish for us less regulation. What I think that we’ll see five years from now, from a product perspective, is a wireless home. And all of these—maybe not all of them, but I think most of the cable, the fiber optics will go away eventually, and it will be a self-managed product and service. We’re already today working really hard to help our customers self-serve through what we call “Digital First.” And creating the right apps so that people can manage their accounts or troubleshoot. Like I had an issue with my X1 box in one of my bedrooms before my guests got in for Thanksgiving. And I knew this particular guest, the TV had to be working. I pulled up my account app and I did some troubleshooting and guess what, the TV worked for them. But it was because I was able to manage that wirelessly, and I think that we’re going to see a really, really strong focus on making on that the way of the future around all of the products and services.

Arenstein: Let’s get in terms of today, where do you sit? Do you sit in the Comcast global headquarters in Philadelphia or are you still in Michigan, or where are you?

Soehren: I sit in Philadelphia and I have been there since accepting the role as chief learning officer. And I love living in Philly. I live in the city. I love the energy around the city. I love the Comcast Center and the energy it brings, and the new technology center that’s going up, I think it's a happening place. I think probably ten to fifteen years from now, that you’ll be sitting here interviewing folks and you’ll be asking, “How did you bring the Silicon Valley to the East Coast?” And we will have contributed immensely to that.

Arenstein: You told me or you intimated that you have quite a travel schedule. Where do you go? How many days a year are you on the road?

Soehren: I travel probably about 70 to 75% of my time. I have teams across the U.S. We’re in 39 states [and Washington, DC], and I travel to those teams. I travel to my business leaders. I travel for WICT and SCTE a lot. I also just came off the Association for Talent Development board, which is an L&D industry org, it's the premier org in L&D. And I still serve them. I'm the chair of the board’s selection committee right now. So those kinds of things require some of my time and my travel as well. I don’t mind the travel, though. Comcast is so good to us. So I have the monthly membership for WiFi—Gogo WiFi—on the planes. It's my best admin time in all the world. I can knock out some paperwork or emails when I'm flying. It works out beautifully. So being an efficiency expert, I really, really manage my time nicely.

Arenstein: OK, so you brought up efficiency. What about the Internet? What about Facebook? What about Twitter? What about email? It seems to me that I look up at the clock and I've done nothing but I've been working on email or Facebook or whatever for hours. What does an efficiency expert say about all this stuff?

Soehren: An efficiency expert would tell you to structure and organize your time. I believe that anything that gets scheduled pretty much gets done, right? So I know which hours of the day I'm probably going to do email if I need to do email. I don’t get distracted by my iPhone during the day. A lot of people are addicted to those things. When you're addicted to a device, it's going to pull you in and out, in and out, rather than having focused time to get that administrative work done. So I work really, really hard at that. I schedule family time. I schedule trips to visit my sister or my granddaughter—I have a nine-year old granddaughter and ever since the day she was born, I have spent a weekend with her every month. But I put it on my calendar—except for two months out of nine years. I had a month I couldn’t go and they had a month they couldn’t have me there because of things going on. But the whole point of sharing that story, if it's important to you, figure out how to get it done. There's no such thing in this life as work-life balance. And people who are chasing it, they're not going to get there. I just refer to it as work-life flexibility. You flex your schedule around what's important to you. And some of that silliness you spend your time on, just find a way not to put it on your calendar.

Arenstein: So Martha, as we come to the close here, I guess I have to ask a question a lot of other interviewers have asked of you, and I'm not sure what the answer is. I'm looking forward to hearing it. How does a girl on a farm gain all this confidence, gain all this surety, gain all this wisdom to where you are now? How does that happen? I know it doesn’t happen overnight. Who are some of the people that helped you get to where you are and was there ever a moment where you said, “Oh, wow. I can do this, I can do that, I can get to where I want to go.”

Soehren: A lot of it goes back seriously to the way I was raised. I worked hard and I always worked hard at doing a great job, and at the end of that great job, regardless of what it might have been, my growing up on the farm, there was almost always positive feedback when the job was done right. And there was corrective feedback when the job wasn’t done right. So I learned early on to be bold, to go for it, to always do your best, recognize that rewards are important, right? It’s important that we receive them. It's probably more important that we give them. So I don’t know that there’s ever been anything in my life where I framed a goal around it that I didn’t just make it happen. I would go back to be a returning adult learner to earn my bachelor’s degree. That was tough, right? It was really tough. My son at the time, he was about five years old, and it meant having to make sacrifices for him, making sacrifices for the family, and I learned a lot of lessons from that, that I never gave up. One of the coolest rewards that I got out of that experience of going back to school and compromising some things for my family to get that done was a letter that my son wrote me when he finished college. And he thanked me for being the role model for him and the example that I set. And he realized that it was hard to do what I did, right? And that we all did some giving and taking. But at the end of the day, it was about the long-term vision. Earning the degree wasn’t just about me, it was about my family, it was about the success of all of us. And you know what, Seth? Today, it's still about the success of all of us.

Arenstein: So we like to do some legacy questions. We like to do these summation type questions. This is an oral history. People will be watching it presumably many years from now. What do you think the cable industry’s legacy is going to be? And, it's kind of early to talk about your legacy, but let's talk about it.

Soehren: Seth, for the cable industry, I think the legacy will be that we really created a way for people to connect. Whether it's families connecting, students connecting, businesses connecting, but in profound ways. For me, I think it's pretty simple. I want my legacy to be that I made a positive impact on a lot of careers and therefore, a lot of lives.

Arenstein: Great. I’d like to ask one more question and that’s about product demonstration labs. This is an education question. I'm guessing that it's when you're—instead of having people or instructors talk about doing something, you actually sit in a classroom or maybe at home, and you have your fingers on the keyboards while an instructor’s saying, “Now you move this here and you do this...” Is that what they are and how did it come about?

Soehren: Pretty much so. So with the National Executive Learning Council, one of the big projects that came out of that, which was very strategic and visionary, was to build a product knowledge portal that houses lots and lots of learning objects. Most of them are video-based, two to three minutes at the most. Our employees can consume these small content objects between calls or when they’re out on, or waiting for a job to start or those kinds of things. It's easy to access and it's very visually appealing, each of the objects in there. But to complement that, we were also asked to help the business build product labs across the country. There are over a hundred of those labs today, and they’re hands-on lab experiences that employees can either go into a lab as an individual regardless of their job title, and they can experience our product. Or you might find a supervisor or a senior executive who might just want to take a group of folks in and say, “Hey, let's look at our product. Let’s work on this. Let’s troubleshoot something.” Maybe you have an issue that you're working in a market. You could pull people into that product lab for a hands-on demonstration. They're all built to a certain standard which was really important to the Learning Council as well. Because we want our employees, regardless of title or job function, to be product ambassadors. So the labs and the portal are helping us get there.

And Seth, I'm going to share with you my best lesson in resilience because it came about from the product portal. The first time that my team and I went into the Learning Council to show the first mockup of the portal, it got a resounding thumbs-down. I mean, it was like really, really tough and what was interesting, the person who owned product at the time, we had just showed it to him the week before and he thought it was really cool, but the council said, “No way. This isn’t good enough for what we need to give to our employees.” Which was really, really great. But there was a great lesson in resilience for me there. You accept the feedback, it's not right, you bounce back and you go make it happen. So that’s what we did.

Arenstein: Martha Soehren, this has been a pleasure. I'm learning while I'm sitting here so I guess this is a great experience.

Soehren: My pleasure.

Arenstein: Thank you so much for being here. Looking forward to talking to you again soon.

Soehren: Thanks, Seth. It was great. Thank you.


Save to PDF


Anne Sweeney

Anne Sweeney

Interview Date: October 20, 1999
Interview Location:
Collection: WICT Collection


Anne Sweeney Oral History
October 20, 1999
WICT Oral History Series
The Cable Center Hauser Oral and Video History Project


Interviewer: [00:00:05] What personal qualities led to your success?

Anne Sweeney: [00:00:09] I have a great love of the unknown and I like doing things that require me to be braver than I was before. And the cable industry has always been a series of wonderful challenges and problems that didn't have answers. And I think that suited me very well.

Interviewer: [00:00:34] What is it about you that sort of is challenged by the unknown world?

Anne Sweeney: [00:00:41] I'm challenged by the unknown world because I love to stretch. I hate to feel that I'm not growing and I hate to feel that I'm not challenged. I always need to feel that there's something more to learn.

Interviewer: [00:00:54] And in terms of this cable industry, that is the unknown. Give me some specifics about this world that you found challenging.

Anne Sweeney: [00:01:04] When I started working in television in 1978 as a page at ABC, there were three broadcast networks, and cable was a wire that ran into your home. There were no cable networks at that point that were widely known and used by consumers. Two years later, Nickelodeon was on the block. Nickelodeon existed as a cable network. Two years after that or three years after that, MTV was born and then VH1 and Nick at Nite. And we started to see an explosion of creativity and probably more importantly, real attention paid to the television viewer. And that's what excited me. The fact that we could super-serve consumers, that people in television actually cared about what specific ideas their consumers were interested in, not just shows and not just time slots.

Interviewer: [00:02:07] Many young people, and not only young people, and a lot of working women see you as a role model. What kind of advice would you give to both young people and young professionals who want to get into this business and possibly be at a level that you're at now?

Anne Sweeney: [00:02:26] I always advise people to begin by listening and to ask many, many questions. And when you start to work in this industry, pay special attention to your mistakes because they are your greatest moments. There's nothing better than a big, noisy mistake that people write about. Because it does force you to reexamine the way you do business, to reexamine a situation and to think through it in a way that would lead you to a different outcome. I think I'd also recommend that as a working mother, they seriously remember to take life one day at a time and cherish the days that when things come out well and just learn to live with the days that don't.

Interviewer: [00:03:16] You mentioned being a working mother and it's not on this list of questions, but personally, by having you here. How you balance that, having both, because I know both are so important to you?

Anne Sweeney: [00:03:29] Some days I balance things very well and other days, I'm not a good juggler. But I do have a very unique understanding with my husband of what our family is about and how we all work together. And we are all committed to making it work. And my family is my number one priority. And I believe that my success in my career is due to the fact that I made my family a priority.

Interviewer: [00:04:02] How has your management style evolved since you've entered this industry?

Anne Sweeney: [00:04:07] I've always believed that being a good manager is akin to being a good teacher. And as the years have gone on, I've looked at every business challenge, every change in technology as an opportunity for education. And as I've watched people on my team grow and develop, I've made sure that the classroom that we're in is full of possibility for them.



Save to PDF


E. Stratford Smith

E. Stratford Smith

Interview Date: November 29, 2000
Interview Location: Los Angeles, CA USA
Interviewer: Jim Keller
Collection: Oral and Video History Collection

Save to PDF

Peter Stern

Peter Stern

Interview Date: November 30, 2015
Interview Location: New York, NY
Interviewer: Seth Arenstein
Collection: Cable Center Oral History Program

Arenstein: Hi, I'm Seth Arenstein, I'm here for the Hauser Oral History Project from the Cable Center. It’s November 2015; we’re in New York City with Peter Stern, who is the EVP/Chief Product People and Strategy Officer of Time Warner Cable. Peter, welcome.

Stern: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here, Seth.

Arenstein: You know, the first time I saw you speak at the Cable Center in Denver many, many years ago, I remember thinking, “Gosh, there are sparks flying out of this guy’s brain!” That’s how smart I thought you were.

Stern: That’s very kind of you. Thank you.

Arenstein: But I was absolutely correct because look at where you’ve come and we’re going to talk about your background, we’re going to talk about your education, we’re going to talk about your career. Then we’re going to talk a little bit about the cable industry today and maybe tomorrow. As I said, I think you're one of the great thinkers in the industry so it's really a pleasure to be here.

Stern: Maybe we should just stop now, then.

Arenstein: OK. Peter, talk about where you were born, what did you do when you were a child. Did you watch a lot of television?

Stern: So I was born in Brooklyn, New York. I lived there for all of three days and moved to New Jersey. I grew up in Freehold, New Jersey, known for being the home of Bruce Springsteen. I left there when I was five or six years old and spent the rest of my childhood growing up in Fairfield County, Westport, Connecticut. I grew up playing music. Yes, I watched television. I think Thursday nights around the TV were a rite of passage for people growing up when I did largely in the 80s, although some in the 70s. We had the Muppet Show and then we had “Cheers” and “Seinfeld” and so that was an important part of our life. And of course appointment television was the only kind of television. We were early owners, lucky, of a VHS machine and so that was a bit of an exposure to television technology in the early days around 1982 or so. And I also was very early to start using a computer. I began programming on an Apple II or II Plus in BASIC and then in machine language and really grew to enjoy that type of technology, although it was not a connected technology at the time. Every computer was an island.

Arenstein: Where did you go to high school and college?

Stern: I went to Staples High School in Westport, Connecticut, and then I went to Harvard for my undergraduate education.

Arenstein: And you studied music at Harvard.

Stern: Music and English.

Arenstein: Who did you study with at Harvard?

Stern: You know, I studied with a range of professors. I'm not sure I took a single class or had a single professor for more than one class but the reason I pursued a double major was I was interested in many different things and I really almost could have had a triple major. I took a bunch of economics classes as well. But they didn’t allow that at the time. So I took a range of classes and really spent a lot of my time enjoying extracurricular activities. I was involved with a magazine called the Harvard International Review where I was responsible for running the business of the magazine, which was an opportunity to get involved in the media industry. I wrote a book for Let’s Go, Inc., called “The Unofficial Guide to Life at Harvard.” So I did a little bit of publishing when I was there. Those were early exposures to the media industry at the same time that I was pursuing this Music and English degree.

Arenstein: And in music were you studying theory, were you studying history or performance? What was your…

Stern: So Harvard didn’t have a performance major. In fact, if you were really a great performing musician, I don’t think you would ever major in music at Harvard. If you look at the greats who actually went there, like Yo-Yo Ma, I don’t think he ever considered being a music major. The music major was really for the musical dilettante. So I studied theory and history and I performed outside of classes, largely as a member of the Harvard Glee Club where I sang in that choir and also was their piano accompanist for four years and conducted their in-house a cappella group for a couple of years.

Arenstein: Because I noticed in your background in terms of the boards that you have served on and the organizations that you’ve been with longest—besides the Cable Center, which is great. There’s also a symphony orchestra; you’ve been on their board or you were on their board for about eight years.

Stern: Yes, when Time Warner Cable was headquartered in Stamford, Connecticut, I sat on the board of the Stamford Symphony. And it was a terrific orchestra then and it still is now, but going through a real challenging time as many orchestras have been through. You're aware of that, Seth, having served on those boards yourself. Symphony orchestras have had to engage with the community in ways that they never did before. So we worked really closely as a board with the Stamford Symphony to re-define even the role of the music director and come up with a strategy that could ensure its long-term viability. And I'm very proud of the fact that we were able to accomplish this for the Stamford Symphony. I didn’t stay on the board once Time Warner Cable re-located to New York City because it was simply—there wasn’t the same connection between my company and that orchestra, but I think we had a real impact during those years.

Arenstein: And I'm sure people at the Cable Center are saying, “Is he going to stop talking about music and get onto cable?” One more question about music. Do you think that musical training and musical education has helped you in your career?

Stern: I do. I think that all of the different types of experiences that I've had have actually played some role in building a foundation for what I've done in my career. Music: first of all, people often state—and I believe this is true—has a real connection to mathematics. But for me, the really exciting part of music and its tie to everything I do in my life is that when you really understand a piece of music well and you're performing it at a high level, you're telling a story. And you're able to see a story arc at the same time you're basically able to unpack that piece of music and understand all of the details. Being able to actually in business tell a story and also have command over the details is really at the core of doing strategy. Understanding that long-term arc of how the business is going to evolve, being able to communicate that in a way that other people find compelling, but being able to actually support it by having done the work, practiced, analyzed it. All of that basically comes together as a compelling strategy that actually can help you win and differentiate yourself in the market just as a performer can differentiate a piece of music that they're performing even though someone else was the initial composer.

Arenstein: Sure. And when you have a little bit of downtime—I mean, you have so much responsibility. Your title is so long and the people you oversee are huge.

Stern: We talked about that. The longer your title, the less important you are, so let's just be clear about that.

Arenstein: OK. I'm not sure that’s true here, but when you have a little bit of downtime, what kind of music, what composers do you listen to?

Stern: So for me a little bit of downtime for music is a chance to actually accompany one of my kids. I'm the pianist and I have a flutist and cellist and a violinist/singer. In terms of actually listening, it ranges from pretty heavy neo-romantic-type composers like Rachmaninoff or the romantics like Chopin to some jazz. So that’s pretty much the range for me. Nothing much past 1940, 1950.

Arenstein: OK. And you're here in New York City. Are you based in New York?

Stern: I work in New York City and I live in Connecticut.

Arenstein: So you have plenty of opportunity to hear great music here.

Stern: I do.

Arenstein: OK, so after undergraduate you were at Yale Law School. And then you move on to McKinsey and Company. What did you do there and how did that lead you to the cable industry?

Stern: So at McKinsey—my very first project. We don’t usually talk about our clients but it's twenty years and I worked for that company afterwards so I’ll take the liberty in this case of doing that. My very first project after having graduated from law school was working at Warner Music Group out in Los Angeles. I was living in Connecticut and working in Los Angeles, commuting every single week. We actually had a very successful project. It worked out well. I learned a tremendous amount. I came back just exhausted at the end of that experience. And the person who was responsible for staffing in our office said, “You know what? I owe you one. So for the next few months you don’t have to travel. You can work with local clients because we've never done that to somebody on their first project where you have to do the bi-coastal thing every week.” So I wound up staying with Time Warner to some extent doing work with them but also picking up a large technology client that I will not name that was nearby our office. And I would up basically doing mostly work with those two clients for the nearly four years that I was at McKinsey.

So my whole career basically started and has continued at the intersection of media and technology. I helped run the technology practice at McKinsey from a pretty junior stage at the firm, but my heart was with the media side of the business. And to this day I find that absolutely fascinating. The ability to actually match technology with customer needs with the consumption of media, which the average customer or consumer is actually doing for many, many hours a day, I think is a uniquely exciting place to be. So that really shaped what I became passionate about in the industry. So a lot of it is just the luck that I was assigned that client and had to travel so much at the beginning but it turned out to be a wonderful thing.

Arenstein: And you know you mentioned music or the music industry. I know I've read many things that you’ve written about the decline of the music industry and how technology has hurt the music industry. Can you talk a little bit about that and then transition over to what a lot of people say, “Well, cable is doing the same thing that the music industry did. It's content that’s all over the place; it's free in many cases.” Talk to us about that.

Stern: Music—it was uniquely shareable in that the amount of bits associated with the music, with a piece of music, are actually 1/100th the number of bits you would actually find in a video of equivalent duration. It's just the nature of not having images, let alone moving images going along with your sound. Then the nature of music is also such that people will actually get a piece of music and they will listen to that same piece of music in many cases over and over and over again. Television is very different. We do have a situation where people in many cases are buying more than they would like to actually consume, but people actually consume a very large number of networks when you look across an entire household. And if you look across a multi-month time horizon, people are actually consuming television much more than they are consuming music. It requires 100 times the number of bits and by the way growing as we get to things like HD, 4K, ultimately virtual reality, you start to see orders of magnitude increases in the bandwidth requirements. Whereas music has been pretty much stable since the advent of the CD. In fact, due to compression it's taken less and less. But I think more important than any of those, most television shows people watch once, maybe twice. And they watch very large numbers of them. So with music you have a favorite song, you listen to it over and over again, you can buy it once and you're done. Or share it once and you're done. Television, we have a continuous appetite for variety. For new experiences out of television and so it actually supports a business where you can produce far more content and monetize that content more frequently because people want to consume it once and then move on and buy another piece of content and so on and so forth.

Arenstein: And what about the music industry today that—are there lessons from the music industry’s experience that you took to cable?

Stern: The music industry tried to turn inward. Their focus was on combating piracy, so preventing customers from getting content the way they wanted it. But they eventually were forced through Apple and having to be on iTunes to embrace a new model of monetizing their content. But they really resisted it as long as they possibly could. The consequence of that, of not giving customers what they want when they wanted it, where they wanted it, was that customers stole it, devalued the industry and now they're basically trying to recover from that. Revenues have been in decline year after year after year. The television business is actually not experiencing that. What we’re doing, I think—some kicking and screaming, some very willingly—is to recognize that customers want to watch what they want, when they want, where they want, on the device that they want. And figure out ways to actually deliver that.

The industry continues to evolve so you need to look at it as a whole. You’ve got the traditional multichannel video industry, you’ve got players like Netflix that offer over-the-top subscription video on demand, and you’ve got a variety of transactional on demand models. When you add all those up, the TV business is still incredibly healthy and growing. And the reason for that is we’re meeting customers’ needs in ways that we can legally at a time when it's still difficult and prohibitively risky and time-consuming to actually steal video content. So we've got this window where, although Internet speeds have increased dramatically, they haven’t increased quite enough to make video the equivalent of what music was even ten or fifteen years ago. I think the TV industry is moving there; I hope fast enough.

Arenstein: Does this concern you? I know it concerns me. When I hear people, say college-age people whose parents have bought cable for them and have no experience paying a cable bill, are talking casually and saying things like, “Oh, well, yeah, I use my parents’ HBO code, etc., etc. I haven’t paid for cable…” Does that bother you? Does this sort of next generation, I don’t know if I would say “millennials” maybe…maybe on the outer edge of millennials coming in with not so much an attitude but just sort of a mindset that television is free. “I've never paid for it." Does that bother you?

Stern: OK, cable theft is no laughing matter. Let’s start with that.

Arenstein: Right, right. Agreed.

Stern: But the fact is that young people have actually still grown up consuming television in their parents’ households where they were paying lawfully. Then they go through this stage in college where I think everybody experiments. In some cases, the university actually provides cable television for students and they think that nobody’s paying but somebody is. Or they may be password sharing. But at least they're habituating to the product. And they’re seeing the value in a cable service. This, by the way, is just focusing on television for the moment. I'm not terribly bothered by it so long as they don’t leave let's say the college environment and move into a home and think they can still steal cable. I think at that point you're a grownup, whether you're renting, you're buying, it's time to actually start paying for the content you consume and I think if we can deliver content that’s relevant to people at that age in their low to mid-20s, then I think we have a bright future ahead of us on the television side. Underneath all of that, of course, is the Internet subscription that those customers are using throughout to get a great video experience. And to deliver a fantastic video experience, in general you're really not talking about cellular wireless. You're talking about a wired connection into whether it's a dorm or an apartment or into a home. So I think we as an industry have a very important role to play in delivering that. And then giving customers a video experience that’s relevant to them.

One of the things we've been experimenting with at Time Warner Cable recently has been reaching out to our 3+ million—and we’re starting by the way in New York City, so it's a subset of the 3 million—but our 3+ million broadband-only households, many of whom are not paying anyone for multichannel video, and offering them a $10 video package. That is a way of us saying to them, “Hey, you can get into this video business and experience at least what’s on broadcast television without having to pay a lot of money.” And show them the value that’s available in that service and our belief is that over time is that as their ability and willingness to pay increases and the value that they see from that service grows, and as they have perhaps a growing family with different needs perhaps for children’s programming, for movies, that they’ll subscribe to more and more. I think that’s a natural way for us to track with their growing maturity and ability to pay.

Arenstein: Sure. And for that $10, what do they get? Do they get just broadcast?

Stern: They get broadcast television and if they're in New York, they’ll get our NY1 station. They’ll get a series of other services that are available on that basic service tier that’s available on TV. But it does not include the cable networks that we think of: the ESPNs, the CNNs, and others like that, but we try to provide attractive upsell opportunities for those customers so they can get more over time and grow into a more full video experience.

Arenstein: So one of the reasons to get that package is to get better reception basically on broadcast.

Stern: Well, it may be the case that young people actually have a digital antenna and they could get pretty good reception if they do, but let's say you're living in an apartment in New York City. It's hard to put an antenna in and there's interference of a different sort depending on where you're located. But there's also a limit to the functionality that you're actually going to get with that digital antenna. So what we’re doing is delivering our service, for example, on a Roku streaming box right alongside a Netflix app. So you can choose Netflix for $9 or $10 a month but you could get all the broadcast stations which, when you look at the ratings of households that have both the broadcast stations have far more usage than Netflix does today. You can get both of those and over time, as we introduce, for example, cloud DVR functionality, then customers will have more and more control over that experience in ways that you can't when you just take a digital broadcast antenna and plug it into an input on the back of your television. So all of those are, I think, ways that we can bring technology to customers in a way that meets their needs and encourages them to see the value in what we deliver and ultimately pay for our video package.

Arenstein: What about Netflix? Is it additive? I heard you say, I guess it's three or four years ago, that Netflix would be additive, it would not spell the end of cable television. Is that still the case?

Stern: I think all new technologies tend, in the television business, tend to have some element of displacement of the technologies that came before them, but they are largely additive. I started earlier talking about the VHS and people thought the VHS would spell the end of television. And it did not. It simply increased the flexibility that people had around how they could record television or they could watch movies. So yes there was some substitution of traditional linear television but linear television grew dramatically long after the VHS era. And I think Netflix is in some ways much the same thing. It actually makes TV even more enjoyable for people who like TV a lot. But it is possible to take Netflix and combine it with Hulu and maybe combine it with an antenna and piece together a substitute for a traditional multichannel video package, but it's hard to do. And when you start to add up the cost of doing all those sorts of things, you don’t actually save very much money. So you're trading off some convenience and you're trading off some choice and some of the control you have over your video experience with the cable package which I think is designed to be really easy for people. And that’s appropriate for some people but not for all.

So yes, we’re seeing some of what we call “cord cutting,” but it's in the range of a percent or so a year. Of course household creation continues to take place since we've come out of the great recession a few years ago and so we’re actually seeing maybe a slight reduction in television households but not for us at Time Warner Cable. We in Q1 added video subscribers for the first time in a long, long while. In Q3 we nearly did it again. Fewer than 10,000 subscribers lost on a base of 11 or so million. And we’re hopeful for the year as a whole. [NB: Time Warner Cable added video subscribers for the full year 2015.] So I do think the video business has a whole lot of life left in it.

Arenstein: And people are watching more television than ever, it seems.

Stern: That’s true, especially if you count all the different ways they can consume it. If you just focus on live linear television where the customer basically is passively sitting on a couch and viewing whatever we happen to dish out to them at that moment, then you’ll see a business in decline. But if you add on top of that the consumption on the digital video recorder and the consumption on video on demand, and then the consumption of subscription video on demand services on top of that, what you see is actually still a growing industry consuming more of people’s time, which is remarkable because it was already consuming over eight hours for the average household and over five hours for the average individual in any given day. So it's still growing. Absolutely.

Arenstein: You were at Time Warner and you went to Time Warner Cable and what year was that and what happened? Tell us.

Stern: So my first exposure to Time Warner Cable was in 1998 or 1999 where I worked on a strategy for Time Warner Cable when I was at McKinsey. And my client at the time was Glenn Britt who was not yet the CEO of Time Warner Cable and at the time cable was just a video business, the broadband business was just at the very earliest stages. There was no video on demand, there was no digital video recorder, digital TV was consuming all the resources basically deploying set-top boxes. I joined Time Warner, Inc., in 2001 after the very famous—notorious—AOL-Time Warner merger and spent three years there and came to Time Warner Cable in 2004. At that time, I joined as a department of one, as Time Warner Cable’s first strategic planning person. You know, it was a much smaller company at that time. At that time still 90% or so of the revenues were derived from the cable TV business. There was a broadband business with a couple million subscribers. Internet speeds were somewhere between 3 and 5 megabits per second. We should come back to it and talk about the phone business. We were just actually experimenting with the phone business, doing a trial in 2003, doing a trial in Portland, Maine, of the phone business. We were in the business services space delivering broadband and television, but really just where, let's say, somebody who owned a restaurant or a bar would call us up and say, “I would like the same service I've got at home. Can you deliver that to me at my business?” And we would say, “Well, if we happen to be nearby, sure, why not.” By the way, it was a very healthy business and that was part of what attracted me to it. It was dynamic; you could see that it had at least ten years of healthy growth in front of it. It's hard to see past ten years. It turns out I think we’ve got another ten years now.

So it seemed like a really good place for me to get closer to the customer than sitting at Time Warner Corporate and really understand what consumers want. Because the cable business is really the retail arm of the media industry. The cable companies are the ones who actually touch customers. Everybody else is a wholesaler, right? You’ve got studios that wholesale to networks and networks that wholesale to cable companies. So that was part of what attracted me to it. Not to mention that it was near my house in Connecticut.

Arenstein: It was in Connecticut.

Stern: That plan didn’t work so well when we moved in 2009 back to New York City.

So I joined the company at the time—we had really good people, strong operators, people who had a lot of experience growing up in the cable business. But at Time Warner Cable we’re committed to evolving our technology to drive growth. There was a real product orientation at the company. And I found that incredibly exciting.

Arenstein: And who were some of those people?

Stern: Well, Glenn Britt was the CEO at the time and was an immensely exciting person to work for. But we also had terrific people. At that time John Billock was our vice-chairman, who had been president of HBO. We had—I’d interacted a couple years earlier with some great technologists who came from Time Warner Cable like Jim Chiddix, but at the time Mike LaJoie was our CTO and had amazingly exciting ideas. There were people like Louis Williamson, Mike Hayashi, people who really defined the hybrid-fiber coaxial cable network, were the first people to experiment with digital video recorders. People who invented video on demand. They were behind the creation of DOCSIS, the creation of packet cable which enabled phone service. A lot of those innovations really started with a group of technologists who came out of Time Warner Cable. So it was a very exciting place for me to be at that stage in my career.

Arenstein: I meant to ask you earlier, you said you're interested in so many things. Was it hard to take the first step into a career, being so interested in so many things? How did you decide to take even the step to McKinsey? I mean, McKinsey is a place where they do a lot of different things but then you said at some point, “Oh, I'm going to go in the direction of cable.” Was that hard for you to do?

Stern: I would view most of the decisions I had made until that point as essentially stalling tactics on making the important decisions. So even McKinsey was just a continuation of a generalist education—in that case, in business. Time Warner, I had a unique opportunity to take a pretty senior strategy role at the age of 29 in the largest media company in the world; admittedly one that was troubled, having gone through a merger that destroyed $100 billion of shareholder value, but still the largest media company in the world with significant problems and opportunities to solve. But it really was a decision to come to Time Warner Cable and narrow my scope. Little did I know that I wasn’t narrowing my scope at all. Because the cable business—I found that I'm in the TV business, the Internet business, the phone business, the advertising business. We’re a little bit in the wireless business. We do business-to-consumer and we do business-to-business. We’re in the middle of everything. So you can open the business section of the newspaper and unless you're reading about oil and gas or health care, pretty much every other article you're reading is relevant to what you do in the cable industry. So that’s immensely exciting: the ability to actually shape the way that our economy evolves, the way people consume content, the way people connect with others, the way people learn about their world and connect to others outside their homes. That’s incredibly fertile ground and to me does not represent a tradeoff in terms of scope at all.

Arenstein: OK. So tell me about your first years at Time Warner Cable. What were you doing and how did it evolve and now you were talking about all these different businesses you're in. You're also in charge of HR now. But that’s way down the road but you can open up any magazine and be interested in the articles. What were the first few years at Time Warner Cable like? What were some of the important things you did there?

Stern: Well, starting in about 2003 even though I was still working for Time Warner Inc., all my work was with Time Warner Cable. So 2003 and 2004 were immensely exciting
years for me where I got to know this business. The main projects I worked on at that time were the entry into the phone business and experimenting with IPTV. I’ll talk about both of those. The first one is the phone business. So in 2003 as I mentioned earlier, we at Time Warner Cable had been experimenting with phone up in Portland, Maine. And it looked like we could technologically deliver a phone service over a cable system using DOCSIS and PacketCable technologies. But we had a real question about whether this was a business we wanted to get into. There were a few reasons why we weren’t sure. One, we weren’t sure if we could actually support—the economics would make sense. We used to do a lot of modeling to figure what was the right amount to charge for a phone service and what would our cost structure look like for that business. And how would the telephone companies react to our entry into the business.

The other piece, just putting aside the phone business, was what would be the broader reaction of telephone companies if we entered their core business. Would they basically see themselves as having no choice but to go after our video business? So we pursued two paths. One was developing the detailed business plan for the phone business. The second was actually going through a role playing exercise and it was literally a role playing exercise where Glenn Britt, CEO Time Warner Cable, agreed to pretend for a few months—whenever we got together for this exercise—to be Ivan Seidenberg, the CEO of Verizon. Ivan Seidenberg I'm sure has no idea to this day that this is what happened.

Arenstein: So we’re breaking news here.

Stern: And my job was to be the management consultant to Ivan Seidenberg, helping him figure out what to do about the cable companies’ entry into the phone business. Let me just back up to the business model. What we saw was an opportunity in the phone business to really disrupt the way phone had been priced. It's hard to remember, even 11 years later, or 11 or 12 years later, but people couldn’t buy an unlimited phone service at the time or if they did, it was really expensive. You could buy unlimited local calling but long distance was a separate plan and you had to worry about where you were calling and for how long when you bought phone service. And we thought, well, that doesn’t make any sense. It's a regulatory, antique construct and one that we can basically disrupt if we come into this business and we have some time because the phone companies are likely to play this as incumbents and not chase us down on price for some time. So our model basically said let’s offer for one price unlimited calling throughout the United States and just eliminate those boundaries that had held people back at that time.

We thought we could actually charge enough and still have a cost structure that would make sense that phone would be a really good business for us to get into. The only players you were really up against were the incumbent telephone companies of which there was typically one in any given market, so we had a whole lot of share that we could gain in the phone business. So the business model looked like it made sense. But then we had this broader question of yes, but what happens. As we progressed through this role playing exercise, what became clear was that the management consultants and Ivan Seidenberg—fake Ivan—realized that it wasn’t just a question of what Time Warner Cable was going to do in the phone business. Cox Communications was offering a not-IP phone service. They were offering a copper-based phone service but it was clear they were bent on delivering more and more phone growth and Cablevision was also making noise about getting into the phone business. So we realized that Verizon was actually going to, we thought, make a decision sometime in the next couple of years to get into the full Triple Play in order to combat what the cable companies were doing. And we believed therefore we had a couple of years where we could deploy phone really fast, we would have a Triple Play and the telephone companies wouldn’t have it because it would take them longer to react than us. So we made this strategic decision. Instead of taking it slow, to go as fast as we possibly could and get into the phone business throughout our footprint. So we actually completed the deployment of phone across the entire Time Warner footprint in the year 2004, which was remarkably fast across many, many states. And it's proven to be a great business for us with somewhere over 6 million phone subscribers at this point—it's a couple billion dollars in revenue. And I think even more important than just its stand-alone economics, what it's done is allowed us to get the telephone company out of the house in many cases, have a complete customer relationship and one where they see a lot of value from us in different ways. So phone was really, I think, an important and gratifying project for me to engage with the cable company on.

But the next thing I did was actually even more fun and that was—we had this vision that was informed by others—I think you’ll probably be talking with Mike LaJoie soon. And his colleagues, I think, are really responsible for this vision. We wanted to be able to deliver to customers what we call the “4 Any’s:” “Any content, anytime, anywhere, on any device.” In order to get to any device, to get off a set-top box we were going to have to embrace IPTV. So in 2003, 2004, I think way ahead of any other cable company or telephone company, we decided to try to deliver our cable television lineup on a PC, on a computer. So we partnered with Real Networks at the time. You don’t hear very much about Real Networks anymore but at the time they were a real leader in media players, a lot of it coming out of the music business. We partnered with them to basically take our 80 channels of analog television and deliver those to a PC. We did that in San Diego.

That was really formative for us because we established not just the technology could be made to do it—because it worked, we delivered it to about 10,000 customers in San Diego—but we also established that cable as an industry could not be confined to just be delivering over a set-top box to a television set. That it was our destiny to be able to deliver any content to any device, anytime, anywhere. And so I think that even though it was a relatively small trial, the technology was not the most scalable technology, today we now have that scalable technology. It established the foundation for a lot of the things that we've done in the future. So that was also an immensely exciting project and made me know that I was in the right place by joining the cable business.

Arenstein: I mean, I can remember those days and thinking or telling people, I remember maybe even at a Thanksgiving—we just celebrated Thanksgiving—maybe at a Thanksgiving meal, “Oh, yes, the cable industry wants to be your phone company and wants to be your Internet provider.” And that was a radical thing that I was saying. People said, “Really?” So what you're describing here now seems, well, yes of course, but you're right, that was an exciting time, a different time and Time Warner Cable was mostly a lot due to Glenn Britt’s insight and foresight. It's funny because when Glenn was portrayed as a very conservative guy and everything and then you look at the things that he did and you realize, oh, no, no, no! He was ahead of the curve on so many technological things. He made so many—as it turns out—very good bets.

Stern: His belief was that the way you grew in this industry was having a new product and a new technology and matching that with customer needs to create entirely new businesses. And that worked absolutely beautifully for years. We grew through digital cable, we grew through the broadband business, we grew through the phone business, we grew through business services. That needs to be tempered with a real emphasis on operations and I think Time Warner Cable has found that balance in the last couple of years where we've been able to bring a lot of those technology innovations together with the operational focus and prowess so that you actually are growing the underlying subscriber base that enables you to then sell those incremental services. That’s really the balance you have to strike in this business. But he was a visionary in that regard and really said, “Every few years we are going to launch a major new business. We’re going to focus on the ones that are capable of generating multi-billions of dollars in revenue and we’ll keep investing in this infrastructure that we've got to enable us to be able to deliver all of these new services. And it will pay off handsomely if we do that.” That was his vision.

Arenstein: Peter, you said earlier that in cable you're really a retailer and you are the link to the customer. You run several departments at Time Warner Cable, you oversee so many things, how do you stay in contact with the cable customer? How do you do that? Do you touch them or is it mostly digital information that you're looking at, or do you actually sit down with people periodically and sit at their kitchen table and say, “What could we do better?” How do you do it?

Stern: We do a little bit of all those things. So one of the things when I began overseeing product at Time Warner Cable, what we did was really invest in customer research. And we spent a lot of time, whether it was ethnographic-type research where you were in the customer’s home, or it was qualitative research doing focus groups, bringing customers in, having them interact with each other, or quantitative research where we were conducting surveys. We did all of those sorts of things to try to understand what was on customers’ minds. And we’re still hungry for that type of research. So that’s very valuable.

But the other thing I think is wonderful about being in a cable company is that we have tens of thousands of people who touch customers every single day. So if you talk about our employees, our customer service agents who are on the phone, you talk about our technicians who are in customers’ homes, they're having first-hand interactions with many, many customers. So we can listen to them both directly—sometimes you do that through focus groups—or indirectly through our operations leaders who also find out what customers need. So all of those provide information to us that is invaluable.

The last piece, but certainly not least, is that because we are the interface with customers, we have a tremendous amount of data about what customers are doing. We do all of this in ways that protect customers’ privacy but we know in aggregate what people are watching, how long they're watching it. We know how much of the Internet they're using. We don’t know what sites they're going to but we know how much of the Internet they're using, we know what speeds they need, we know where they're calling on the phone again. We don’t track that except for billing purposes on an individual basis. But our ability to actually mine that type of data, to deliver better and more relevant products and ensure we’re delivering value to customers is I think one of the things that makes the cable industry so interesting. These days we talk about big data and our data is bigger than just about any industry I can possibly imagine because we've got eight hours a day of television consumption, we've got a growing number of hours a day of Internet consumption. We've got still over 600 minutes a month of phone calling taking place by our customers. And all of those are expressions of intent, of interest by our customers. And as you start to do things like look at set-top boxes there, you can see not just what customers like but you can see what they tune away from. So you can also see what they don’t like. All of those, I think, allow us to make decisions about what products and services to offer and how to evolve them that are informed by what customers want in ways that are hard to imagine for almost any other industry.

Arenstein: You touched on operations. And I know that Time Warner Cable has, I think quietly, in my opinion, too quietly, done a great job in the last couple of years to sort of revolutionize and kind of re-learn operations from the ground floor. I mean, I believe—correct me if I'm wrong—I believe you basically threw out your training manuals and started from page 1 and re-wrote them. So talk a little bit about that. I think I'm right about that.

Stern: There are a lot of things that we have changed in the last few years. In the period 2011, 2012, 2013, Time Warner Cable was actually making significant investments in operational performance improvements. Everything from re-inventing the way we managed inventory in our supply chain to investing in what we call “dynamic dispatch.” So the ability to actually re-route our technicians every fifteen minutes depending on customer demand or how long another technician was taking to get a job done. To introducing much better tools and training manuals for our customer service representatives to quickly resolve customer problems the first time. While all of that was happening, we were re-organizing our company so that we were basically one big region with common methods and procedures across the company, which made it really easy and fast for us to be able to make these types of changes. But it was a lot of change taking place at once without I think the focus on reliability and reducing unnecessary calls from customers that we have subsequently attained. But in the mid-2013 timeframe, we decided as a company that if we were going to actually turn things around, we needed to focus on reliability and service first. We created a program called TWC Maxx. It was an internal brand name. There is no external name for it. But it was basically focused around re-investing in our plant to increase reliability, replace outdated equipment, increase Internet speeds by as much as six-fold, and go all-digital on the video side. Finally, also deploying Wi-Fi outside the home so that customers could access our Internet service wherever they went. And all of those things, that bundle of things we started in New York City and LA in 2014, and what you’ve seen is a dramatic turnaround in the fortunes of those markets and our performance in those areas. All that coupled with changes in our priorities, in some people changes and some real cultural changes focused on, again, reliability and service that have resulted in enormous improvements in operations and in growth.

I think Time Warner Cable can now be very proud of doing some things that nobody else in the industry does. For example, we’re the only cable operator that has one-hour service windows. And we’re posting 98% on-time arrival rates. So 49 out of 50 times our people are actually arriving within those one-hour service windows. The rest of the industry is at two, four hour windows, somewhere in that range with on-time arrival rates that are lower than ours despite the longer windows. I think you could see a time in the future where appointments could become the norm if that’s what customers want.

We’re doing great in terms of answering the phones quickly. Customers are not having to wait on hold. We've even begun now to change our marketing. To take a little bit of a whimsical look at some of the issues we've had in the past as a cable company and the reputation we have for not being on time and keeping people on hold because we feel confident enough that we’re not that company anymore. So part of it is through taking accountability and ownership of what’s happened in the past but then really demonstrating a permanent commitment to be a different kind of a company. Customers are responding. We've in the period since the beginning of 2014 where I think we began deploying TWC Maxx, we've added over half a million customer relationships. That’s without acquisitions. So we've basically grown a midsize cable company on top of what was Time Warner Cable before. We've added in the last twelve months over a million phone subscribers. Around a million high-speed data subscribers. Those are the types of numbers we’re capable of delivering when we now have this focus on the combination of service and reliability and the products and services that are relevant for customers.

Arenstein: Peter, I'm sure you're too modest to say this, but I would assume you were very heavily involved in that kind of new thinking maybe. We could call it a re-invention of Time Warner Cable. How do you get people to respond to that internally? You're now head of Human Resources. How do you re-invent a company essentially?

Stern: Let’s go back though to your modest point. Actually I just need to be truthful here. So in early 2013 the decision was made that Rob Marcus would become our CEO. And Rob really set the direction that we would focus on: reliability and service. We made that decision as a management team collectively or at least we felt that way, but it was Rob’s call as the incoming CEO. That was what we were going to focus on. In early 2014, Time Warner Cable hired Dinni Jain, which a lot of people thought was a crazy move because we were the subject of a hostile takeover attempt at the time by Charter and within a month after that had arrived at a deal to merge with—although I think it would be more appropriate to say sell the company to—Comcast Corp. But we hired Dinni Jain in the middle of all of that and Dinni is a phenomenal operator who believes in service and reliability as the only stable foundation for success in the cable industry. So you have the combination of Rob already having set his vision and then going out and finding the very best person I think in the industry you can find to go execute on that vision in Dinni Jain. All of it comes down to leadership, right? If you have a management team that actually believes in something, and every decision they make is consistent with that vision, then you will see it realized for better or for worse. In this case it was for better. It was the right strategic decision for Time Warner Cable at the right time.

I was able to play an integral role in TWC Maxx and helping to define that, but the foundation for it absolutely came from Rob and the ability to execute it came from Dinni. And then subsequently to that, Dinni put John Keib in charge of residential operations as our COO of residential. And John has really helped us take flight.

So as an HR leader your job is to serve. It's to help realize the vision of the line of business executives who really are accountable day to day for the results. And I think we've been able to recruit good people; we've been able to train people effectively. But the credit really belongs with Rob and Dinni and John Keib.

Arenstein: Talk about some of your technical Emmys. Does Glenn Britt get an honorary Emmy for playing Ivan Seidenberg?

Stern: Unfortunately all of our Emmys are technical Emmys and have nothing to do with our abilities as actors and actresses. But Time Warner Cable I think has more technical Emmys than any cable company. And the reason for it stems from our commitment dating back at least to the 1990s to matching technology with customer needs. Some of the really cool ones are things like Start Over. Start Over is basically a feature that allows customers to start over a program from the beginning with the touch of a button on their remote control with no need to own a digital video recorder or decide to record that show in advance. And the reason that we happened upon that is we spent a lot of time actually in that situation talking to customers, understanding that they wanted to watch what they want, when they wanted. And also taking to cable networks and trying to understand why in that early stage around 2004-2005 they were putting content on the Web for free. And we realized that customers wanted to be able to catch up on shows that they missed. That was the principal reason that customers are watching stuff online because the experience had buffering, smaller screens, they’d rather watch it on TV but that was the only way they could catch up on shows they missed.

So we at Time Warner Cable had a set of technologies that nobody else in the industry had dating back to some inventions that we called Mystro TV that allowed us to basically record in real time, with a tool called Real Time Acquisition, television shows and store them in our headend in servers so that we could play them back on demand for customers who did not record them on a local hard drive in their home, a digital video recorder. The challenge we had with Mystro TV and the reason it never took off is that the vision was too grand, it was too big. Programmers were not ready to embrace a model where customers could actually watch whatever they wanted, looking back two weeks, because it undermined the ad model that required you to actually—you could only monetize “live” content at the time—Nielsen only counted live. And at least advertisers only counted live television as worth paying for. And it messed with scheduling. And scheduling still mattered then. It still matters today in a linear world. The ability to lead in and out of different shows was really how you drove viewership on a successful network. So if you allowed customers to watch what they wanted when they wanted, it messed up the whole schedule. So what we did was we basically used our Real Time Acquisition technology in a way that was advertiser and programmer and of course customer friendly so that we could deliver a service like Start Over.

What we did was we worked with Nielsen to have them to actually count Start Over’ed shows as live. The basic idea was close enough, right? And we limited the ability to start over the show to you could only start it over until the end of that show. So it was basically within the same window.

The second thing we did was we built it so that if you started over a show, at the end of that show the next show that was scheduled to come on, you would get a prompt that would basically say, “Would you like to start over the next show?” So we actually kept the schedule intact. Then the third thing we did was we disabled fast-forward. You couldn’t fast-forward through an ad on live TV and Start Over was nothing more than the ability to start over. It was just a time travel machine, but it didn’t allow minute-to-minute time travel, just travel back to the beginning of the show. So when we combined those three things, suddenly it worked for the programmers and we were able to get rights from dozens of television programmers for thousands of shows. We still have Start Over today. I think it hasn’t realized its full vision but it still may. And other operators have also picked up on the idea of Start Over. So that was one of the ones that got a technical Emmy.

We got a technical Emmy for video on demand. A lot of that work was done I think for things that were before my time and the credit goes to folks like Mike LaJoie and Fred Dressler who acquired those programming rights and many others I'm sure you’ll spend time with. Those early investments by Time Warner Cable in video on demand have now blossomed into a whole slew of offerings. I mean, HBO On-Demand, which has grown into HBO GO, which is really HBO NOW. Even the idea of a service like Netflix—all those I think would not have been possible were it not for those early investments in video on demand technology.

Those are a couple of the things we can be proud of at Time Warner Cable.

Arenstein: Peter, one of the things that you were involved in and still involved in at Time Warner Cable is TV Everywhere. A lot of people have a lot of different names for it, a lot of people don’t know what we’re talking about when we say TV Everywhere. Tell us a little bit about the history of it and what it's doing today.

Stern: Let’s define what TV Everywhere is first. So TV Everywhere is the ability for customers to be able to watch the television shows they paid for inside the home outside the home. That’s all it is. So it's the last piece in what we at Time Warner Cable called the 4 Any’s. The ability to watch any content, anytime, on any device, anywhere. And the reason that it came about was that we at Time Warner Cable—one of the things we were puzzling about in the timeframe around 2005 to 2007 or so was why were programmers, why were cable networks taking their content which customers were paying for, and putting it on the Internet for free? It just didn’t seem like a rational thing to do. And it had the potential to completely undermine their business. So we started talking to programmers about that and it turns out that programmers actually at the time had digital teams that were separate from their cable/satellite and ultimately telco teams. And the job of the digital teams was to try to make sure that they stayed relevant to people who were just on the Internet. And make sure they could follow the eyeballs, which was an entirely logical thing to do. But to give it away for free was not a logical thing to do. Unfortunately, they felt like their hands were tied because they had to be on the Internet and if they were going to be on the Internet, there was really not a good subscription model at that time. So their hope was, well, they could sell some advertising and hopefully it wouldn’t cannibalize their video business too much from people who dropped the cable subscription and just consumed that way. But this happened more and more.

So at one point I found myself standing in Denver actually outside a hotel on a sensitive phone conversation with a person from Viacom named Samantha Cooper. And we were bemoaning the fact that Viacom was actually doing this. At the time they were actually making things like “The Daily Show” free, “South Park” free, on the Internet. And it was undermining their subscriptions. We said, “What can we do about that?” And it occurred to us that the answer lay in the cable company, in us, opening up our billing system to the programmers. So the idea we came up with was, what if I or Time Warner Cable were to take the information about who was paying and share that with Viacom so they could ask when somebody on the Internet was interested in watching a piece of content, “Is this a paying customer?” If they were a paying customer, which was the case 90% of the time, they could deliver them the content. If they were not a paying customer that was an opportunity to give them perhaps a taste of some of the content but then encourage them to actually get into the multichannel video ecosystem and actually become a subscriber. And because they could reach 90% of households who were paying for TV at the time, they really weren’t giving very much up. In fact, what they were doing was they were reinforcing the value of the cable subscription while still reaching people on the devices that mattered to them. So that was basically the beginning of TV Everywhere.

We had a horrible name for it at the time—I think it was called something like “Entitlements,” because the customers were entitled to the content or not entitled to it. But once we had this idea—Time Warner Cable was still part of Time Warner—a group of us came back to the Time Warner management team who absolutely embraced this. And they deserve a lot of credit for seeing how important this could be in the evolution of their business.

A group of Time Warner people led by Ed Adler, who was the head of communications at Time Warner, realized that we needed a better name. So that was when they came up with TV Everywhere. Now you know what it is, how it came to be and why it's called TV Everywhere.

Arenstein: What about TV Everywhere today?

Stern: You know, we've made tremendous progress. We at Time Warner Cable have TV Everywhere rights now from dozens of networks. When you see applications from most television networks on devices like an Apple TV or on an Amazon Fire TV or on a Roku device, all of those applications are dependent on TV Everywhere to allow customers to be able to prove that they are actually a paying customer and they only have to pay once in order to be able to watch the content the way that they want it. So that technology has actually been used inside the home on those devices. It's also used on applications like TWC TV, which is our version of an application that’s resident on those devices to allow customers to watch what they want. And it's used outside the home where typically there's a smaller grant of rights for out of home viewing. But all of those services basically grew out of the foundation that was TV Everywhere and this notion that we as cable operators could open up that information about who's a paying subscriber and therefore deserving of being able to watch any way they want, versus people who are not paying subscribers and therefore should be exposed to some amount of content as a taste but then have a chance to get into the business and hopefully we as a cable operator can make them a good offer and…

Arenstein: I want to ask you a few more questions. One is, again looking at your background, one of the groups you’ve stayed active with throughout your career is the Cable Center. Why is it so important to keep the legacy and the history of cable available to the public? Why are you so fervently a supporter of the Cable Center?

Stern: I think when we look back at—this is taking a very grand view—but when we look back at human history, there have been a few revolutions that have actually changed the course of human history. Some that we really talk about often are things like the Industrial Revolution, right, which allowed us to use mechanical engineering and later electrical engineering to free people from many of the constraints of space in particular in which they lived, and give them more leisure. You can go back to things like the invention of tools and metals and so on and so forth. The Information Revolution is the one we’re living through right now. And I think in many ways it's the most important of all because our ability to connect all of humanity into one giant brain to solve some of the most pressing problems that we have today, whether that’s solving issues associated with the climate or bringing people out of poverty. Also, though, to enlighten and inform and educate people and entertain them, too, because this life is not just about work. This Information Revolution I think is at least one of the most important changes in the course of human history and the cable industry has played a foundational role in that Information Revolution. When we got involved, for example, in the Internet business, the only thing there was a dial-up business. Dial-up was 56 kilobits per second. You couldn’t deliver media over that type of infrastructure. And what we've been able to do is affordably deliver a tremendous amount of speed to customers’ households such that speed almost no longer matters anymore.

People are able to access all of the wealth of the world’s information on virtually any device, thanks to what we've done. We haven’t done that alone. There have been lots of Internet pioneers, companies like Google and Facebook and Amazon. But what they’ve done could not have been possible without the cable industry. And you’ve got telephone companies that were doing this alongside us and that’s good; competition has made us all better. You’ve got wireless companies giving people more flexibility outside the home. But most of the consumption is taking place inside the home. And most of that is being delivered by the cable industry

That’s something that is worth celebrating. It's worth preserving. It's an important part of our history and it doesn’t get told enough. So that’s an example, I think, of why this is so important.

Arenstein: I agree. And I remember when Glenn Britt retired, that’s one of the main points he made, was the cable industry has a great story to tell and we’re not telling it loudly or well enough. So that’s what the Cable Center…

Last question, Peter. What are we looking at here? We’re looking at this crazy world, this crazy Internet digital world, what is it look like ten years from now? What does the cable industry look like ten years from now?

Stern: The good news I think is that we have technology infrastructure that has an enormous amount of life left in it. And it will be even more relevant to people’s lives in ten years than it is today. Our broadband services will be available in gigabit per second-plus speeds. We will be doing that with a mix of hybrid fiber coaxial cable as well as fiber to the premises in some circumstances or in an increasing number of circumstances—we’re already doing it in some circumstances. We’ll still be in the video business but we’ll be delivering video as an application on top of that broadband experience, giving customers the ability to pick flexible packages, accessible on any device they like. We won't be, I think, at that point leasing traditional cable set-top boxes because every device will have enough intelligence embedded in it to be able to actually take an IP service from a cable company. That by the way will dramatically reduce the barriers to entry for customers to get into the video business or to become video customers and it will reduce the capital intensity of the cable business. You know, the phone business will become more of a communications vehicle cross-platform and it will still be relevant to some households but declining. A fraction of households will consume phone the way they consume it today. Our business services business will be tremendously important to us and to the economy. We will be delivering those same gigabit-type per second speeds to businesses who are not just consumers but they're also producers so the upstream needs they will have will be significant. That will largely be done with fiber to the home at that time. And I think we will have a wireless infrastructure built off the foundation of our widely deployed wired infrastructure that allows us to give customers the ability to consume massive quantities of video or virtual reality content or whatever content they want to consume in the places that are convenient for them without having to worry about consuming cellular bits. And of course we’ll be doing all of that while at the same time supplying invaluable cellular backhaul to the cellular companies that are in the business as well.

I think you're going to be looking at a business that is still vibrant, but has evolved significantly at that time. One that has a valued infrastructure but that we’ll have to continue to invest in in order to stay relevant.

Arenstein: OK, so we’ll come back here in ten years…

Stern: I look forward to it.

Arenstein: I'm sure you're going to be right. It was a pleasure, Peter.

Stern: Seth, likewise.


Save to PDF


Michael Smith

Michael Smith

Interview Date: November 30, 2015
Interview Location: New York, NY
Interviewer: Seth Arenstein
Collection: Cable Center Oral History Collection

Arenstein: Hi, I'm Seth Arenstein. I'm here for the Hauser Oral History Project of the Cable Center. It's November 2015. We’re here in New York City with Michael Smith, the general manager of the Cooking Channel. Welcome, Michael.

Smith: Hi, welcome. Nice to meet you.

Arenstein: Michael, let's talk about the early days for you. Your birth, your education, your career in television up to today and through today at the Cooking Channel. We have to begin, of course, by dispelling the notion that you eat 24 hours a day at your job. How much of your job is food? I mean, are you in an office that’s near the Channel’s kitchens or what’s the setup like?

Smith: It's really been interesting how the channel has evolved. When I tell you the story of how food and production and the rest of our business go together, it really speaks to how we've grown. When I joined the company in 1998, we were in a tiny office here on 46th Street and 6th Avenue in New York on the 29th floor, and the entire company was probably in maybe about 4,000-5,000 square feet of office space. And you're talking about the ad sales team, the programming team, the kitchens, the production team—all on one floor. There were crazy stories of how people would be on the phone closing sales deals and the production people would say, “Shh—can you keep it down a little bit? We’re about to start taping a segment.” Or you would be in your office working on a programming strategy plan and you could smell the food wafting through the floor. We've come a long way since then. Now we've got actually a separate production facility at Chelsea Market, the food market, we've got our ad sales here at 47th Street, we've got offices around the country. But, back in those days, it was pretty interesting.

Arenstein: And where are you situated today? Where are you sitting?

Smith: Our production end, what we call programming and production and marketing teams, are down at Chelsea Market, and that’s where the Food Network and Cooking Channel teams are. And then our ad sales and affiliate sales and business and legal teams are here in Midtown Manhattan.

Arenstein: But I would assume you get down to the programming area periodically and smell the food?

Smith: Actually I'm based in the programming office. We’re on the third floor, the kitchens are on the sixth floor along with our studio so one of the things that people tend to do is they know that if you go up to the sixth floor about 2:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon, they’ve been testing recipes all morning for the magazine and for the website. So they obviously have great access to all the food but the people on the second and third floor will just sort of slip out of meetings and say, “I'm just going to go up to the sixth floor for a little bit.” Just to see if there's any food left out. And then obviously when we shoot shows like “Chopped” and “Iron Chef” in our studios, a lot of that food is left over, too.

Arenstein: It just happens.

Smith: It just happens.

Arenstein: But, Michael, you're razor-thin. How do you do that? How do you pull that off?

Smith: You know, for me actually, the move to Chelsea Market was a great health advantage for me because I used to walk to work about five, ten minutes here in Midtown where I live. When we moved to Chelsea Market, it's difficult to get crosstown in Manhattan, so I started riding a bicycle. It's been about eleven years I've been doing it. My wife said to me, “You're not going to do that when it gets cold, when the winter comes.” I had sort of a personal bet with her and I've been doing it eleven years straight; I haven’t missed a day, rain or shine, but I think that has helped to cut off some of the eating.

Arenstein: OK, well, that’s good because they say, rightly or wrongly, never trust a thin chef, right? But anyway, it's good to see that you're in good shape and you're bicycling.

Tell me, where were you born and tell me about your early years. Where did you go to school? What was your family like?

Smith: I'm a child of immigrants. I was actually born in Red Deer, Alberta, Canada, which is near Edmonton, Alberta. My parents are both Jamaican. They left Jamaica—my mother left when she was 18 years old and went to London, England, to study nursing. My father left when he was about 22 and went to Toronto, Canada. Then my mother, after spending a few years in London, moved to Toronto and that’s where they met. Then they moved to western Canada, where I was born, and then they moved back to Jamaica when I was about two years old. I grew up in Jamaica and that really was the beginning of my interest in television. It wasn’t that I was a six-year-old saying, “I want to be Bob Iger,” but I really loved watching television. And in Jamaica at the time, there was only one television channel. So I remember during the summers, my mother would bring us to the United States just for a couple of weeks at a time to visit friends and I was so fascinated—I think I was maybe nine years old or so when I first came—and I was fascinated by the fact that there were five channels, six channels in some of these markets, and they had multiple shows you could choose from. I thought, this was amazing. Then we moved to America when I was about nine years old and from that time on, I loved watching television and I just became really obsessed with trying to find out more about everything that went into it. I remember I used to collect television guides, TV Guide magazines. I remember going to the grocery store with my mother and back then, it was 25¢ or 50¢, and I would save up, take my allowance and let my mom buy one issue every single week. And every week after my parents had been done with them and they wanted to throw them away, I said, “No, no, no. Let me keep them.” I used to keep them. I had a little box in my room and I stacked them up and I collected copies of TV Guides for years. And I remember I was just fascinated by the fall preview issue because it talked about all the new shows. I thought, who are the people who get to decide what shows go on? That must be the most amazing job. They’re the ones that decide what we watch and who are they, where are they? That would be something that would be great to do someday. And my mom was a nurse, my dad is a teacher so I didn’t have anybody in the family that had any connections to it. My only connection was I remember watching the Tonight Show and Johnny Carson would always say, “We’re here in beautiful downtown Burbank.” And I thought, well, that must be where they are. We were living actually in Upstate New York at the time and I thought, I've got to get to this downtown Burbank place someday. I remember in TV Guide at the beginning of the magazine they had the addresses of the networks, if you had comments or questions. So I remember that there was TV City on Fairfax Boulevard was where CBS was. And I knew that NBC was in Burbank. And I knew that ABC was at this place called Television City in Century Plaza. I had never been to California before but I knew that there was this fabled place where all these things took place. That started my obsession.

Arenstein: So you were obsessed as a young boy. After nine, you came to the United States. Where did you grow up?

Smith: We moved to Rochester, New York and spent a couple of years there. And then my parents actually got divorced and my mother moved to where she had some friends and family to help her—she was a single parent at the time. We moved to Berrien Springs, Michigan, which is in southwest Michigan just north of South Bend, Indiana. I went to middle school there and then I went to high school in Columbia, Maryland. My mother got a job with the federal government, with St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, the mental health hospital in northwest Washington, D.C. I went to high school in Columbia. When I was a high school student I continued my interest in media and we had something called the media center, which was the people, kind of the geeks who do the film strips for classes and the slide shows. I was sort of the teacher’s pet of the woman who ran the media center and I remember I got into making Super-8 films, Super-8 movie films. During senior year, I made a documentary film about the year in high school. There was a popular film made in 1984, I think, called “All-American High School,” so mine was sort of a very, very small low-budget version of that, but it was a chronicle of the year at the high school I went to. Then I worked at the school newspaper, I was a photographer, just did a lot of creative things around media when I was in high school. Then I got a scholarship to go to Stanford University and this is where an interesting fork in the road because I was a really good science student. I had won a National Merit Award and I was good in science and math and engineering. My parents, especially my mother, really wanted me to go into engineering. She was just a little nervous about it. “What’s this television thing you want to go into? Show business? Are you sure? Do something really solid.” So I majored in industrial engineering when I went to Stanford and started out as an engineer and kind of put the media thing on the back burner for the first couple of years, at least as a student.

Arenstein: What was your first job out of college?

Smith: When I was in school, about halfway through, I decided I couldn’t put the media away. I was involved in something the Campus Entertainment Board, which was a group that I started with a couple of other students. I worked at everything from the ticket master, ticket booth, selling tickets, to concerts on campus. I worked on planning parties and events. By the time I got to be a junior, I evolved my major into something called “Science, Technology and Society,” which was basically a hybrid of engineering and communications. So it was sort of how science and technology synthesize with society and how you communicate those things to society and how innovations are communicated and diffused into society. So it was a good way to kind of bring some communications classes into my engineering background. And I got an internship when I was a senior at channel 4 television, which is KRON-TV in San Francisco, and another light went on because I was finally in a local television station and I saw the roles. I saw the local sales manager, I saw the research manager, I saw the creative services director, I saw the news director. I really loved the idea of being a creative services director. I loved the idea of the people that promoted and sold and marketed the programming. As a science and communications person, I was a left brain/right brain kind of person and creative services, I think, is one of the unique roles in the industry where you do combine both. You're looking at the strategy of how to reach viewers but then you're also shooting and writing and making promos for your station.

My first job after I got out of school was at the Young & Rubicam Advertising in New York. I tried to get a job at NBC, CBS, ABC; I wrote to all the networks. I still have the rejection letters actually in a closet at home from ABC and from CBS. But I read “Broadcasting and Cable Magazine” pretty religiously, and I remember reading that Grant Tinker, who was the president of NBC at the time, had worked at J. Walter Thompson. And I also remember reading that some of the other senior executives in television had worked at ad agencies. If you couldn’t get into a network right away, an ad agency might be a great place to get some experience and perhaps segue because the ad agencies have a very tight relationship obviously with the TV networks.

That’s what happened to me. I worked at Young & Rubicam for two years in account management and two years after that, just through a fluke I met someone on an airplane—I was actually coming back from my college roommate’s wedding in Houston and it happened to be the weekend (this was late February, late January), the weekend of the NATPE convention, the National Television Programming Executives convention. Everyone on that flight had these little tote bags with the logos of TV networks, and they had magazines and I noticed the guy sitting next to me was reading a broadcasting magazine so I struck up a conversation with him. I found out he worked at CBS. He worked in CBS affiliate relations. He said there was an opening in his department, that one of his peers had left, and I called the HR department and a few weeks later, I got an offer to go to work at CBS. That was my entrée into network television.

Arenstein: I hope you're still friendly with that...because he really launched your career.

Smith: I tell young people all the time that there are three or four different ways that you can get jobs. One is through networking, through knowing people. Another one is through just blind cold calling. Another one is through answering ads. There is no one right or wrong way. In my career, I found jobs all three ways. This one I found just through bumping into somebody. My job at Disney Channel I got through answering an ad, and my job at Food Network I found just through cold calling. This one turned out well.

Arenstein: You also then got an MBA, correct, at Berkeley?

Smith: Actually when I was working at the TV station as a senior in college, I decided to go on and go straight through and get my MBA in marketing. And the reason I did that was because I really enjoyed—even today I'm a perpetual learner and just love school and I thought that if I got an MBA, I’d have a better shot at a getting management job in media versus starting out as a production assistant or as a news assistant at a local TV station. And it actually turned out that way. Having an MBA really helped me get the job at Young & Rubicam because back in those days they were really interested in MBAs as trainees to go into what they called the account management training programs. And also the networks too. NBC had a management training program—actually, this is a funny story. I applied for their management training program and I came to New York for the interview and stayed with a friend of mine who lives on Roosevelt Island. And anybody who's been to New York knows Roosevelt Island is a tiny island about two or three miles—not actually two or three miles but about 500 feet away from the East Side of Manhattan. But the only way to get there, and this was in the 80s, was by a ski tram that goes between the island. I didn’t realize how long that took and how difficult that was. So I had a 10:00 AM interview with NBC and I left at 9:00 thinking, oh, I’ll be fine. It took ten minutes to walk to the tram; the tram only comes every half hour so I'm on the 9:30 tram. The tram takes 20 minutes to get across. I am at 9:50 and trying to get in a cab on the East Side and get over to 30 Rock and I got there about 15 minutes late. And the person who was doing the interviews said, “Sorry. We've got half hour slots.” I missed my shot at getting a job at NBC. I won't mention names, but the person who told me, “That’s it,” actually still works in the business, and actually is a very senior person at HR, and one of our competitors. I always, when I see her, we get kind of a chuckle. She said, “Well, you know, guess it didn’t turn out so bad for you after all.”

Arenstein: Let’s go back to one bit, though. Your time at Young & Rubicam, do you feel, having been on that side of the business, helps you today?

Smith: Yes, I really believe to be a multifaceted or sort of well-rounded media executive, I think you have to understand all four pieces of what makes entertainment work, which I think there are two revenue side pieces, which are the ad revenue and the subscription revenue. It's traditionally how we've always made money. People pay us for the content or we get people to pay us for access to the people who the content reaches. And then the other two sides of the business are making the content and then marketing the content. I think if you in your career, say you're a general manager or a president of a network, you're really overseeing those four pieces of the business. And having exposure to that throughout your career, I think, is really useful.

So I was fortunate in that working at an ad agency, I got a lot of exposure to the advertising side and also learned a lot about marketing and brand marketing, which helps. As the years have gone on, I've gotten exposure to the programming side and actually working at CBS and at the Disney Channel, I worked on the distribution and the subscription revenue side of the business. It wasn’t planned but it's benefited me well.

Arenstein: OK, then as you said you got to CBS. What did you do at CBS and how long were you there?

Smith: I went to CBS mainly because it was a chance to actually work in television. I was working at an ad agency and this was like you get to work in that famed building, fabled building called “Black Rock.” I was affiliate relations manager, and what that meant and still means today—the networks have affiliated stations; they own some of their stations but the majority of them are not. They are owned by other media entities and so the affiliate relations person, their role is to maintain good relations between the local station and the network. So it's a great job in terms of learning a lot about just the TV broadcast business in general, the local broadcast business, because what they do is they separate the country into regions and they assign each of the affiliate relations managers a group of TV stations that are sort of your list of stations that your job is to make sure they're happy with CBS and they continue to be CBS affiliates and they don’t switch. In fact, when I was working there in the mid to late 80s, the Fox network was just launching. There was a lot of worry that the CBS stations might flip and become Fox affiliates. So it was really important that we maintained good relations with the stations and for a young kid fresh out of grad school, it was a great entrée to visit local television stations. I had the Rocky Mountain territory, which is Phoenix and Denver and even small markets like Glendive, Montana, and Casper, Wyoming. But you get on a plane and you go out let's say to an Albuquerque, New Mexico, television station and you meet with the general manager to tell him about what the network is doing, get his feedback on things. I took that as a great opportunity just to pick their brains. These are guys who have been in the business for 20, 30 years. A lot of them started these small television stations in the 50s and 60s. And it was just a great, like a mini-university of learning about the broadcast business.

Arenstein: And for somebody like you, who as you said obsessed at a young age, this is like a kid in a candy store.

Smith: It was amazing to see also the diversity in how stations are run. When you go to a small station, let's say in Chico, California, which has 15 employees. The person who is the sales manager in the morning puts on a tie and does the weather at lunch and then is back out doing sales calls in the afternoon. Then going to a station like Denver in the top 20 market where there are 300-400 employees—and yes, it was a great experience.

Arenstein: So then from there you did what?

Smith: What made me decide to leave CBS was I felt like I had learned a lot about how the business worked and just met some incredible people. But I felt like I was too much of an observer. As an affiliate relations person and especially in the mature network business, your job was really mainly to make sure nothing terrible happened, that you didn’t lose a station. You weren’t really driving growth and driving the business forward. I just felt like I wanted to be part of something where I can feel like I'm having an impact—like I didn’t just save a station from becoming a Fox affiliate, but actually created an opportunity for people to see some content. So I got a job at Disney Channel in what’s called affiliate sales and marketing. Disney Channel was only about four or five years old at the time and it was still trying to get more distribution throughout the country and also was trying to transition the network from a pay channel to a basic channel. So it was really a much more strategically aggressive role in the sense that you're going out and meeting with the Comcast’s and the Time Warner’s of the world and various affiliate programming executives and you're trying to figure out how we can get Disney Channel launched. And if we have Disney Channel launched, how we can get it transitioned into a basic service.

Arenstein: For our purposes here, it's the first time you mentioned “cable.” You moved from the broadcast side to the cable side. And in those days—tell me, was it a big transition to make? I mean, in your crazy, obsessed six year-old days, had you thought much about cable or was it mostly broadcast?

Smith: My dream when I was a little kid was to be a general manager of a local TV station. There was a TV show called “WKRP in Cincinnati;” people probably remember. My dream was to be that guy in the office who was running the local television station. And when I met these general managers when I was at CBS in affiliate relations, I thought—especially if you're in a medium-sized market, let's say you're the GM of a station in Sioux Falls, Iowa, you're like the mayor of the city. You're the big guy in town. You run the local television station. I thought, this is what I want to do. But the thing I started to recognize, especially near the end of my days there, was that there was a transition coming and it did seem that that business was maturing. There wasn’t a lot of growth. There was starting to be consolidation. Stations were starting to consolidate. Say two or three stations would be run by one person and they would let go a couple of others. It didn’t seem like a place for tremendous growth. Cable, there was growth. They were launching cable networks like crazy in the late 80s and 90s. Obviously when I went to Disney Channel, every year we were hiring new people, adding more subscribers, talking about launching new services. So when I got into cable, that’s why I've been in it for so long. I think it's something that we over-emphasize is that we create these silos or these sort of differences in platforms. Even today we’re saying, “There’s the over-the-top guys, SVOD guys.” I think we’re still in the same business we've been in since the 1920s which is we’re just in the business of making entertainment and news and information and distributing it to people, and getting paid for it. And the technology and the platforms, yes, that’s always changed but it's not really about that. I tell young people that all the time. If you're really good at writing, you're really good at making content, you'll be fine no matter what the transmission technology or whatever happens. But you should look at the areas where there seems to be growth, where their consumers seem to be moving. That’s a place, if you're a content creator and creative, then maybe move there. So cable was great in the 80s and 90s and today it looks like a lot of the new digitally-delivered services seem to be showing tremendous growth so maybe that’s a place that you look to go. But I didn’t look at it as, “I'm getting out of broadcast.”

Arenstein: So what did Disney Channel look like? How many employees were there when you started? It was still a pay service. There were no commercials.

Smith: Yes. Disney Channel in the early 90s was in about in six million homes. It was the fourth largest pay service at the time. The pay universe was very small. There was HBO and Showtime and then Cinemax. And the Movie Channel was even smaller at the time. And Starz was still a few more years off before it was going to launch. But I think Disney Channel—it was a part of the huge Walt Disney Company—we were in Burbank in the Disney complex so...

Arenstein: So you finally got to do that.

Smith: Yes, I did...

Arenstein: Was it beautiful?

Smith: It was actually. A couple of stops along the way—my first job was at Disney Channel’s regional sales office in New York. So I was responsible for selling Disney Channel into the cable MSOs that were in the Northeast region. Comcast was one of our big clients at the time, although at the time Comcast was only in about six million homes. They weren’t the Comcast they are now. There was a company called Cablevision which is still here in New York. That was one of my accounts as well. And then there was one called Continental Cable at the time, which later became acquired and I guess became part of Comcast. So I had those accounts here in the Northeast and we had about 30 people in the New York office here, but the majority of the company was back at the studio lot. So I still hadn’t gotten to Burbank. But after two years at Disney Channel, through a very, very fortuitous opportunity, I got moved to a job in Burbank, which was a story I still tell myself today. It's sort of amazing to me how I went from working as an affiliate sales and marketing manager in the New York office to becoming a creative services director at this new channel in Burbank. That was probably the biggest break I think of my career.

Arenstein: And how did that happen?

Smith: It really was a testament to—even if you're in a job that doesn’t necessarily use all of the skills or the interest and passions that you have, don’t let those go. There's ways to pursue those outside of work and outside of what you're doing. Don’t let your job define who you are. You define who you are. You are just doing a particular role or function. So I always saw myself as a very creative person ever since, as I was saying, in high school and college, in music and filmmaking. When I was a sales manager, we had a sales meeting usually in a resort city every year and at the conclusion of the sales meeting, we would have an awards banquet for the sales team. We would just have kind of a fun night. Then one of the other sales people and I had this idea, you know, why don’t we kick it up a notch and actually put on a little sort of “Glee”-like follies like an entertainment show, with some singing and dancing and some music? And at the sales meeting typically what happens is the sales force gets briefed by the people from the corporate office about the programming and marketing for the company. So people from the Burbank office came to talk about the Disney movies and the Disney programming so we would know what to sell. And they stayed over for our banquet.

I had written original music and produced a little mini-Broadway show literally about being a salesperson. And the theme of the show was—it was a spinoff on “It's a Wonderful Life.” The idea was, if you remember “It's a Wonderful Life,” James Stewart’s character was going to commit suicide because he just felt like what he did didn’t matter. And then he was shown how much it mattered. So my plot was there was a sales rep who couldn’t get Disney converted to a basic channel at Comcast and so was about to jump off a bridge, and our head of sales came down like Charlie the Angel (and actually his name was Charlie Nooney, who’s still in the industry) and he said to him, “Let me show you what the world would be like if there wasn’t a Disney Channel, and you’ll see how important you really are.” So there was a video that showed this apocalyptic dystopian world without the Disney Channel. There were original songs that we wrote about being a sales rep. We did a spoof of the song “On the Road Again” by Willie Nelson, about going to cable operators. It was a full 45-minute show. And a few weeks after that, I get a call from my boss saying that the people in Burbank, at the programming and creative part of the channel, wanted to talk to me about a job in creative services. I flew out there, had my suit and tie on like a good affiliate guy and the first thing they said to me was, “Take off the tie.” And I became the creative director for the Disney Channel.

Arenstein: I'm not sure which is a better story—that one or the airplane. I'm not sure.

Smith: So that began the next 14-15 years of my career really in creative services and marketing and creative advertising in cable for Disney Channel. And then I came to Food Network as a creative director and VP of creative.

But it was really an amazing opportunity because outside of work, when I was an affiliate salesperson, I still maintained a part-time business as a photographer, shooting head shots and model portfolios for people here in the city of New York. And I also wrote music for up-and-coming singers. So I was kind of wearing my business suit in the day then coming home at night and becoming a musician and becoming a photographer and just being a creative person. Finally, I had a job now, when I moved to Burbank, where I could, where I was doing creative and the creative services team for Disney Channel was about a half a mile away from the Disney studio on Alameda right in Burbank, right across from the NBC offices, and right next to Chadney’s, which is an old restaurant where the Tonight Show people always used to hang out. If you’re a Carson fan, you’ll remember he mentioned Chadney’s.

So here I am sitting in Burbank right next to Chadney’s, across the street from the Tonight Show. So it all came full circle.

Arenstein: That’s great. I don’t want to gloss over your musical and photographic talents. Do you play an instrument?

Smith: I had always been the kind of person that if there was something that I liked, I would just want to try to figure out how to do it myself. Which is ironic now working for Scripps because our networks are all about that, about the DIY Network and the Cooking Channel. And I love music and so I bought a guitar and I bought one of these—they call the “Ernie Ball Guitar Tab Book”—to learn how to play songs. And I taught myself to play. I bought a little Casio tone keyboard and taught myself to play the keyboards. I remember I said, “I’d love to make my own songs and record them.” There was a group of records you could buy called “Drumdrops.” This is getting a little technical, but basically it's an LP record with just drumbeats. What you do is you play the music through your stereo and you get a boom box and record the drumbeats while you play the bass guitar along with the drumbeats. Then you take that cassette and put it in another player and then play that and play guitar with it. You keep layering that back and forth and you can actually build songs. That’s what I taught myself to do until I finally got out of school and had enough money to actually buy a little multitrack recording device and got more sophisticated with it. I'm not an expert virtuoso with any instrument, but I can play guitar, I can play the bass, I can play the piano.

Arenstein: What about photography?

Smith: Photography was really about when I was on the school paper in high school. I bought my first camera, I think, I was 13-14 years old. I had a darkroom downstairs and I remember teaching myself first to develop film in the little tank and pouring the chemicals in, pouring them out, hanging it and then printing the photos. Back in those days you took the photo paper and put it in a developer and then in a stop bath and then in a rinse and then you hung them up to dry and everything. Then I continued to do that.

Arenstein: So there is no reason to ask you whether your musical and photographic talent and training helps you today. I'm sure it does.

Smith: You know, I think what it is is we’re in the entertainment business. We’re basically creators and curators of entertainment, and I think whether you're a photographer or a musician, a television producer, your job is to figure out how do I create something that is going to engage people and also how to understand how to package and how to put it together in a way that’s really going to make people engage. You think about that when you're a photographer. You're taking a photograph of an actor or model, you're thinking, how do I like this photo? How do I compose this photo that’s going to help this person get more work if it's a head shot? If it's writing a song for somebody, say an up-and-coming singer, what's the sound I'm going to use that’s going to hopefully get this person work that the public seems to like? You're always thinking in that same mode, you're just using different creative tools, whether it's writing music or taking a photo or it’s writing a TV script or it's putting together a cooking show demonstration—you're still using those skills. In fact, that’s one of the things I think that we've cracked with Food Network and Cooking Channel is that we figured out how to add that entertainment layer to food to really take it to the next level. If you look at the people who’ve been in leadership and creative at the Food Network, none of them come from the food industry. They all come from television, starting with Brooke Johnson, who created the Regis and Kathie Lee Show and ran programming at A&E. Bob Tuschman, who was on Good Morning America as a producer. Kathleen Finch, who worked at Food Network for a long time and then was a producer at CBS News. We’ve all came from entertainment backgrounds and we've said, “How do we take what's the best of making great entertainment and apply it to this topic area?”

Arenstein: Just before we leave the Disney Channel, what were some of the big shows while you were at Disney Channel? I would assume Lizzie McGuire was around?

Smith: I left right before the Second Renaissance, which is where you had the That’s So Ravens and the Lizzie McGuires. When I worked there, there were shows—actually going back to them—the Mickey Mouse Club is probably the most famous show that we did I think especially because of the people that came out of that show, people like Brittany Spears and Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake. Then we did a lot of original movies that were really successful. Actually one of the interesting things about the channel was that we transitioned the content away from a blend of kids and adult programming to really pure kids’ programming. When the channel was a pay service, the philosophy was that because the parents actually pay the bill and kids go to bed, one of our taglines was, “Disney Nighttime—Because Kids Go to Bed.” So we had a block of programming at night that was for adults. And the thinking was that as a pay service, you have to do things that are going to make the parent sign that check for nine dollars a month. When we decided to move it more to a basic service, we realized that it was really more about generating eyeballs and ratings against kids and not as important to get adults. So we started to do the program more for kids.
Arenstein: All right, so let's move on to Cooking and Food Network. There were a couple of intermediary stops but let's get you at the Food Network as marketing and creative. And we’re talking about what—1998?

Smith: Yes, 1998. This was when I talked about how you can find jobs through different ways, whether it's through networking, or through an ad or through just cold calling. This was actually a cold call situation. There was a book back in those days called “The Television Red Book.” It was a book that had a directory of every single television network, the executives, the location, and one afternoon I decided to sit down—actually it was a series of afternoons—and just write letters to every single head of marketing at a hundred different cable networks and television channels to try to get a more senior job in creative and marketing. Out of a hundred letters, I got four responses. If you're a marketer, not bad. One of the responses was from Food Network. They were looking for a vice-president of creative services for the channel. The channel at the time had been launched at the end of 1993, beginning of 1994, so it was going into its fifth year and they had been outsourcing actually most of their marketing and creative to agencies, and they wanted to really build up their in-house capabilities. So they wanted a creative services head.

That’s when I came and we had a tiny team. We had five people in the beginning. The irony was when I was working at Disney Channel, and Disney and ABC had merged in the mid-90s so I was also overseeing creative for kids’ programming on ABC, we had a larger budget just for the Saturday morning cartoons on ABC than the entire Food Network marketing budget. But even though it was a smaller place, the thing that was exciting about it is that it was really a brand. Kids’ programming at ABC was not as much a brand; it was really more of a part of general entertainment network, and at Food Network we really were trying to create something that was more than the sum of its parts, something that really resonated with people because of what they thought was on the channel, not necessarily what was on the channel. That was what we were really trying to create.

Arenstein: How many homes was Food Network in at that point?

Smith: When I came, there was about 25 million homes. One of the first ads we did when I got there was that we had gotten to 30 million, and then I think two years into it we did our first 40 million ad as well. But we were really small. Cooking Channel launched as a larger network than Food Network was when I came to Food Network, when I got there.

Arenstein: And who were some of the people both on camera and off camera at Food Network when you first got there and during your career? Who were some of the people who influenced you, some of the people you got to work with?

Smith: I think from the consumer part of it people would remember the most popular person on Food Network in 1998 was Emeril Lagasse, and “Emeril Live” was the most popular show. Then there were people like Mario Batali, had a show called “Molto Mario” that was really popular. Sara Moulton had a show called “Cooking Live,” which was really popular as well. So those were among the bigger stars. Bobby Flay was not one of the bigger stars at the time but did have a show, and it was starting to bubble up. Alton Brown had just launched “Good Eats,” and it was starting to bubble up. Those, obviously, two guys have gone on to become two of our biggest stars. But in terms of the people I worked with, one of the biggest influences on me at the time was Judy Girard. Judy was the president of the network from 2000-2005, and she was really instrumental in supporting the marketing and branding that we wanted to do. One of the things I argued to Judy was that we really needed to start to change the perception of the channel from being a utilitarian place to come and learn to cook, and really make it feel more like an entertainment place. I use the analogy that you wanted it to feel like going out to dinner on your birthday. It's that feeling of, yes, there's food, but it's a happy, exciting energetic experience. It's not like going to a cooking class. And I think the channel up until then had been seen more like sitting down in front of a chef and learning how to cook. We wanted it to be more like you're going to a party where there's a lot of food. That was the first step in transitioning the channel from being a utility channel to really being a mainstream entertainment channel.

Arenstein: Of course, “Emeril Live,” that was a cooking show, yes, but it was really also very entertaining. I mean, that’s what he did. He was an entertainer and he had a band...

Smith: Doc Gibbs.

Arenstein: Doc Gibbs. And his interplay with Doc Gibbs was to me some of the best part of the whole show.

Smith: We were fortunate in finding talent and I think this was, especially people like Judy and then later, Brooke, who came from local television backgrounds. They oversaw the programming for local stations so they were looking for anchors and weather people and they knew how to find talent. So they looked at it through the lens of this is like finding a great weather guy, this is like finding a great sports guy. This isn’t necessarily going to Johnson & Wales and finding the best chef. This is the best entertainer.

Arenstein: So let me ask you this. A guy who is so multitalented such as yourself, did you have any trepidation about going to Food Network? I mean, you did explain earlier that most of the executives came from entertainment. Still, did you have any pause, or did you know a lot about food, to Food Network first?

Smith: I was not a foodie myself. I didn’t cook a lot. And I did have some trepidation in the sense that the scale and the fledglingness of the channel was a little scary. I remember talking to my wife about it; she’d never heard of Food Network, and I told friends at Disney Channel about it, and most of them thought, when I said Food Network, they thought, are you talking about some sort of charity that provides food, a network of food banks? They didn’t understand. And there was one guy in the office who actually watched Food Network. He was sort of a foodie and he knew about it. Out of 30-40 people, he was the only guy that was like, “Oh, no, I watch it—it's amazing! It's great, it's great!” And was actually excited about it. So when I came to interview with them, I had no idea what the channel was about. All I knew was that it was a really interesting challenge, I thought, though, to try to take a passion niche area and apply entertainment strategy and technique to it and really take it to the next level. So that was the part of it that made it sound like an exciting job and challenge to me. This was in 1998 so I had a lot of friends at the time who were going to dotcoms. I actually had interviewed at a couple of dotcoms as well. So I think this entrepreneurial, take risk—it was a time, I think, that it didn’t seem so crazy. I had friends that went to work at Yahoo, it was just starting, so I thought, why not, give it a shot.

Arenstein: Would you consider yourself a foodie now?

Smith: I think when you're immersed in the world of chefs and food experts and great restauranteurs, you just can't help but develop a respect for it. And then just a taste. One of the things that people maybe that are not as sophisticated about food that makes them that way, I think is not that they couldn’t be that way, it's just a lack of knowledge and sort of the fear of it that it's too complicated, there's too many—what's a Bartlett pear vs. a Bosc pear. Just give me a pear. But I think as you start to learn more and it gets demystified, and that’s what our programming I think does so wonderfully for people, you realize it opens up a whole world. It's like, well, no, I do want a Bartlett pear because you know it has a little bit different flavor and I really like it that way. If you look at what's happened in American food today, I think from all walks of life, the sophistication has grown. You walk into a grocery store, and when I was a kid, you had Special K and there was one Special K. Now there are seventeen different versions. There's the yogurt honey-nut version. And consumers, regular middle American consumers, they want that honey-nut yogurt Special K. Or you walk into the soda aisle, at least when I was growing up, it was Coke, Pepsi, Sprite, maybe Dr. Pepper. Now there's 85 different beverages from bottled waters to...So I think that the American public has just become just much more—I call it the “fetishization” of food. That food has always been one of those things that’s a great source of pleasure and connection, but we've just taken it to a whole other level. I think we've been part of helping people understand that it's one of the least expensive and most accessible ways to bring joy to your life. Buying a house, buying a car, taking a vacation, much harder than—you can go to that cool little food truck and get that wonderful taco or stop off and get that wonderful Cronut and just for fifteen minutes have that little moment of magic in your life.

Arenstein: Let’s transition to the Cooking Channel. Why the Cooking Channel? I think we still have to ask the question, “What's the difference between the Cooking Channel and Food Network and has that answer evolved since the Cooking Channel started?” When did the Cooking Channel start, how did the idea come about? I think it had to do with maybe, as you said, the fetishization of food, and also that the broadcast networks were starting to go into food. Was that part of the calculus?

Smith: It came from the fact that the interest in the category had just really exploded in the mid-2000s. Food Network in 2002-2003 was the number 35th, maybe at one point the 40th-ranked network in all of television. By 2009, it was a top ten network. So we had seen tremendous growth and interest in what we were producing on our one 24-hour a day platform. Then we saw that the demand was more than what we could feed. Because then you started to see—

Arenstein: No pun intended.

Smith: A good analogy would be say you're a restauranteur and you’ve got lines around the block and then somebody else opens up another restaurant down the street, and a couple other restaurants down the street and we started to see that. We saw TLC and Bravo and ABC and NBC and other networks putting food shows on. And doing very well with them. So we knew that if we didn’t do this, somebody else—and we’d heard rumblings that maybe Discovery or Turner or other people were thinking about launching fulltime food channels. So we thought both an offensive move to take advantage of the growing market and then a defensive move to prevent competition in the space. So we said it’s time for a second channel. Now what the channel would be and how we would differentiate it, that was really a fun strategic part for us. We thought about the ESPN model. ESPN had done ESPN and ESPN2, and they had kind of the multiplex model where it's just many screens so if you don’t want to watch the Ohio State-Michigan game, you can watch the Stanford-Notre Dame game. So it's the same ESPN but just multiple portals for it. So we thought about that model. We thought about maybe we would call it Food Network 2. It's just that if you don’t want to see a hot dog show, you can see a pie show. But then we—and this is credit to our CEO, Ken Lowe, who really felt that if you're going to create any brand and have any long-term value, it really needs to be a distinctive brand. And I agree with him. I always use the analogy that if you look at the top 100 most valuable brands in the world, none of them are called “2.” There’s no Apple 2, there’s no Google 2. They are individual brands, so if we are in this to just take Food Network and just add a few more screens to it, let’s call it Food Network 2. But if we’re really about creating another brand that could become a huge asset for the Scripps Company, let's make it its own thing. And that’s why we decided to call it Cooking Channel and really figure out how we could make it stand on its own and figure out what the difference would be. And the difference has been that Food Network we've really taken to a place of entertainment and really high energy storytelling through competition series and reality series about food. Restaurant makeovers and food competitions. And one of the things that happened when we did that was that we left behind a lot of the more traditional cooking information programming. And cooking and sort of travel programming and visiting restaurants and seeing how foods are made. We saw there was still a lot of interest in that among Food Network fans and among younger millennials who were growing up. They are really interested in sort of the nuts and bolts of food and we saw that people wanted a little more unplugged version of Food Network. What Cooking Channel has been is a nice complement. So when you're watching “Chopped” on Food Network, you can switch over to Cooking Channel and you can see Tiffani Faison and some of her Hollywood friends making a traditional dish.

So I think that’s how we've differentiated the channels. And the other thing that’s nice about having a second channel is that it serves almost as an indie studio, like a development place. There have been shows that we've sort of nurtured on Cooking Channel and then we found talent and formats that we've moved to Food Network.

Arenstein: What you're very proud, I think I've read in the notes that you're very proud of the amount of original hours, original programming hours on...

Smith: Yes, we really are. One of the things the cable operators asked us to do, required us to do when they agreed to pay us a license fee for the service was that they wanted it to really be have original content. I think a lot of cable operators were concerned that “I don’t want to double-pay for a re-purposed channel.” Cooking Channel has a requirement that a majority of its programming be original programming and not be re-purposed or library programming. So that requires us to produce a lot of shows. And we do and we’re proud that they have been successful, so successful that—there was a network called Fine Living, which was the network that we re-branded, we’ve almost tripled the ratings of Fine Living from when we flipped it in May of 2010 to where we are now at the end of 2015. And just even from the time of launching, we’ve doubled the ratings from the end of 2010 to where we are now. So the original programming has been working. I think it's really struck a voice with younger viewers and also with very diverse viewers. We have talent like Rev Run from Run-DMC, Tia Mowry, Patti LaBelle, Aarón Sanchez, Ching-He Wong, who was nominated for an Emmy. We have a real nice variety of Asian and Latino and African-American talent which we think is really tapping into the Millennial audience, which tends to be a lot more diverse.

Arenstein: I mean I know that’s one topic that you're very, very proud of at Cooking Channel and also an area that you're very interested in in diversity. You know, rightly or wrongly, Food Network was sometimes said to be not terribly diverse on camera. I think to Scripps’ credit, it has changed that pretty well. I'm sure there’s more to go, but you talk a little bit about diversity and how important it is to you.

Smith: Yes, diversity, I think it's important for a couple of reasons. The traditional reason has been more the social responsibility reason, that it's the right thing to do, to provide opportunities both in front of and behind the camera for the wide fabric of people who make up our society. If you're a corporate citizen in America, you should be doing that. But I think that argument had always been the primary argument in media, going back to the days of making sure there was diversity in ownership in media and the FCC had rules and newsrooms had programs. But I think it never really clicked when people felt like it was one of those sort of “take your medicine” things. Somewhere along the last maybe five-ten years, it's become a real business priority because it's the way to make money. It's not altruistic. You just look at the reality of the United States. Like in California. 50% of the kids in elementary school are non-white. And right now 32% of all Americans are non-white and by the year 2050, more than 50% will be. So if you're in the business of making content and making money off of it, that’s your audience. And I think you see a show like “Empire” on Fox, it would be the hottest show on television with a predominantly diverse cast. That’s not a social experiment, that’s just what the audience wants. So I think that’s what we recognize. One of the things we’re proudest of at Scripps is when you think about twenty years ago who the big brands were in food and home, they were brands that were owned by Meredith, by Hearst, Better Homes and Gardens, Good Housekeeping. There was no such thing as Food Network or HGTV. Now twenty years later, who are the biggest brands in those spaces and they are Scripps brands. That doesn’t mean that twenty years from now the biggest brands are going to be somebody else’s brands unless we’re nimble and we’re responsive to the audience and we make the content that the 22 year-old today who’s going to be 42 and really been buying a house and really in a sweet spot in twenty years will be—so that’s another reason—to me it's the fabric of our business strategy.

Arenstein: Speaking about business strategy, one thing that a lot of people probably don’t know about you is that you answer your own phones. Why do you do that, Mike?

Smith: I have always had a philosophy of—and I learned this actually, it goes back to Gary Marsh, who I used to work with at Disney Channel years ago and he is now the president of Disney Channel, but he was head of programming back in those days. And I remember an experience that we were on the set of a TV show, it was about 7:30 in the morning, we were getting ready to shoot at Walt Disney World, and they were running a little bit behind schedule. The guys were setting the lights up and setting up all of the production stuff and Gary took off his jacket and started putting sandbags on the light stands. And I think, if this guy is the head of programming, the head of original programming, and I asked him later on and he was like, “You know what? We are here to make shows. It's not about your ego, it's not about who has a corner office or who has this, it's about getting it done.” So I've always been about what’s the most efficient way to make great content for our viewers. So for me, answering my own phone, I guess if I had so many phone calls that were bothersome phone calls, I guess I would want someone to answer my phone. But I realized, you know, most people who call me, have a reason to call me. I don’t get just a random, “Hi, this is Larry from Kansas.” It’s usually producers or people that need to talk to me. So why do I need someone to screen that? I'm always about the most efficient ways to get things done. I think a lot of people grew up in the business; they remember a time before email, before Microsoft Outlook, yes, you needed to have a phone screener because that was the only way to communicate. Nowadays you think about how often you get phone calls ever. Very rarely. People email you. So you answer your own phone. It's no big deal.

Another thing is I think that I've always been impressed by people who never perceived themselves as being different from the people that they're working with. That whatever your title says is not really important, you're just part of the process.

Arenstein: I agree. A couple of last questions, fun questions. I don’t want you to insult anybody or leave somebody out but if you had a couple of meals to eat, who would be cooking them for you and whom would you like to cook for?

Smith: Oh, when I cook—for me to cook, I make really good banana pancakes. So you have to pick your lane, pick those things that you do really well and so there are a few dishes that I like to make that I probably would be happy to make for everyone. But in terms of who I would want to cook for me, there's a wide variety of people. I like experimenting and trying and learning things through food so I love Aarón Sanchez is really great, Latin flavors. In terms of flavor things through food so I actually sort of like a sweet and spicy, so I love Bobby Flay’s food. Sort of the Tex-Mex, the influences that he puts in all of his foods. In terms of bold favors, Emeril Lagasse does a great job of kind of bouncing really bold bam kicking up flavors with sort of a French sophistication as well. There are so many wonderful people doing things with food.

I also love some of the food trucks. There’s a food truck here in Manhattan on 45th and 5th that has been there for like 16-17 years. The guy used to cook at the Russian Tea Room. He makes this really great lamb over rice. In fact, Bobby’s featured him on one of his shows. And he's still out there and anytime I'm in Midtown, I still go, I still check him out.

The great thing about food, I tell people is—and I say it's one of the challenges for Food Network and the Cooking Channel versus our other sister brands—HG and DIYs. When you buy a house, it's something you do once in a while and once maybe every ten, fifteen years, and it's a really big deal because if you get it wrong, it's a big deal. Which is why their programming is very compelling, House Hunters and those shows, because it's such an important thing. The challenge for us is that if you eat a meal, no matter how awful it is, you're going to have another one in four hours. So it's never that big of a deal.

Arenstein: For some of us, fewer hours than that.

Smith: As a content genre, it makes it tricky because how do you make that feel as important to people? Because there is a certain sort of, is it really all that important? But we do that through big personalities, interesting formats and just great production. But that is the fun part of it.

Arenstein: Michael, this has been a pleasure and it's almost time for lunch. Thank you so much. It’s great.

Smith: Thank you.

Arenstein: Is there anything that—?

Smith: I didn’t get to tell the story about—I think somebody had asked—oh, you asked me about a food anecdote.

Arenstein: Yes.

Smith: Or a food story, I guess, and I was thinking—

Arenstein: Emeril making midnight snacks for you.

Smith: One of the coolest food experiences, especially for someone who is not a foodie and not a trained chef, was that I was asked to judge the “Best Teen Chef” food competition, which is put on by the Art Institute. This was about six or seven years ago. And it meant going down to Houston and there were about 70 contestants from around the country, and I was on the panel with four other real chefs, real food experts. Our job was to taste 70 vegetable soups, bisques, sort of puréed, because the contestants all had to cook the same thing, and 70 chicken entrées. So we spent the entire day tasting each one of these and they gave me a chef jacket with my name on it and everything, and it was just such a kick to feel like, OK...I was kind of nudging the real chefs like, “What do you think of this one?” But after 70, there was a difference between a really good squash bisque and a not-so-good squash bisque.

Arenstein: What about Emeril cooking midnight snacks for you?

Smith: Every year we have the “Food Network South Beach Wine and Food Festival,” and we have it here in New York as well. But if you go to them, there are a lot of events that you buy tickets to and you get to see the chefs. But they have an after-party, what is called sort of the “chefs’ after-party,” which is in a secret location that they just sort of whisper around to other chefs and it's usually between one and four a.m. in the morning at the end of each night. And that is an amazing treat, because if you get to go to that party, usually they’ve rented out a few hotel suites or part of a restaurant and an all-star who’s who of chefs just drop in, and just start cooking for each other. Emeril walks in and, “I think I’ll throw together some sliders.” Chef Morimoto makes a little sushi for a few people and they make it for each other and they just hang out. But if you're as fortunate as we are, some of us at Food Network, to be in that room, there's nothing like walking into the kitchen and seeing a world-renowned chef saying, “I'm about to make a couple of burgers. What would you like?” It's a treat.

Arenstein: Michael, we’re talking about diversity, we’re talking about so many interesting and so many great life lessons that you had. Talk about what these oral histories have meant to you. I know you’ve watched a few of them and were influenced by them. And now here you are doing one yourself. You talked about the full circle with downtown beautiful Burbank or beautiful downtown Burbank and here we are doing an oral history with you.

Smith: I think that things like the oral histories are really important because for a lot of us, especially people of color who don’t see a lot of role models in the industry. For example, you look at the top 500 companies in America—only five of them have an African-American CEO. So for a lot of young people, when you think about how high you can aim in your career, it's a lot easier when you actually see somebody that looks like you that’s achieved the goals you want to achieve. And I had the privilege over the years of watching a lot of these oral histories and seeing ones with people like Doug Holloway, who was one of my idols in the industry. And just the fact of seeing that this person has been that successful, but also learning from what they talk about in their interviews, has been really, really valuable, and I hope that being here and being part of it provides information or at least provides information for other people that come after me.

Arenstein: I'm sure it will. Well, thank you again. It was fun, it was great.

Smith: All right. Thanks, Seth.


Save to PDF

Alex Swan

Alex Swan

Interview Date: Monday, September 22, 2014
Interview Location: Denver, Colorado USA
Interviewer: Stewart Schley
Collection: The Cable Center Oral History Program

Schley: Thanks for tuning into the Cable Center's Oral History series. Today is September 22, 2014. The opening stages of the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers conference is going on here in Denver, Colorado, and nearby here at the Cable Center studios, we're graced by the presence of Alex Swan, a friend I've known for a long time in cable—

Swan: Through the "MultiChannel News" and "Cable World" days.

Schley: That's right. The early journalism days. I think of you as the Renaissance Man of the cable industry because you've done a lot. You've transcended traditional barriers and...

Swan: I've been very lucky a lot of times to meet interesting, innovative people who had a need for a dependable and industrious number two.

Schley: To help out...

Swan: To help out, whether it was the Local Origination Channel up in Fredericton, New Brunswick in the early 70's, or the early days of CNN, through "Cablefax," "CT," and "IC" magazines, or lucky to have gotten into the technology end of it with ARRIS.

Schley: Let's walk down that memory lane a little bit. I was telling you off camera that I think one of the unheralded pieces of history of the cable industry is the local—we call it LO—local origination chapter. And in 1974, take us back to where you were and how you got into that world.

Swan: I had been influenced by Buckminster Fuller and Marshall McLuhan and I was most taken by the video end of it, so five of us, after we finished with our Vietnam obligations around 1973, founded a group called "Founders Annex Public Service Project," which consisted of five of us living on a hill in Northern Massachusetts, doing research, speaking at city council meetings to outline the benefits of a community channel and how it could be a mirror for the positive in their communities. I was on a vacation in 1974 in New Brunswick, Canada. We'd just finished the Cape Breton Trail and were on the way to Montreal, stopped at a campground and picked up a copy of the "Daily Gleaner" to see if there were any movies in town. There on the movie page was an ad which read, "Channel 10: looking for full or part-time help." That's all and a phone number. So I called the guy from a phone box, changed my shirt, walked in and said, "I've done video, I know how to shoot." My experience then was with the old Sony Portapak ½ inch camera and deck; everything was black and white. But he, Marty Payne, was impressed and offered me the job of Program Director for $6,800 a year Canadian.

Schley: Thus was spawned a thirty-year career in the cable industry.

Swan: Yes. I accepted, applied for landed immigrant status, which took about a month. Then I was up there as the new 'American'. Back then, you had to be able to do a job that no local Canadian could do. So I was installed as program director and eventually became my boss's delegate to city council, the CCTA, and to committees to get that $.25 a month increase in fees – on top of probably about $7.00 or $8.00 a month back then. The video package was mostly just retransmitting CTV, CBC, CBC-French...

Schley: These are over-the-air?

Swan: Over-the-air Canadian channels. CBC-French was a little more risqué and they got PBS, ABC and CBS, out of Orono, Maine, I believe. So there were three American channels, three Canadian channels, plus Channel 10, the local origination channel.

Schley: This is what you got for your eight Canadian dollars?

Swan: Right. No broadband. No phone. Just a bunch of Jerrold amps cascaded from Fredericton 30 miles down the St. John's River to the Oromocto Army Base. My boss had bought the franchise about 1972, moved down from Montreal and hired locals: an office manager, chief engineer and some kids to run around with a couple of black and white half-inch videotape Portapaks. I still have that famous Portapak "squint". We got a vertical bookshelf that we attached to a handtruck because back then you had to have the video deck on you and the camera, the directional mike, or if you were lucky enough to be in a studio situation, you could pin a lavalier on and put them into a four-channel mixer and then mix it. So we went around taping peoples' basement tap dance schools, peewee hockey, their peculiar hobbies. We wanted to be the mirror to this community so we took out ads in the paper asking for artists to come forward. We got involved with some Micmac Indian tribe members who took us fiddlehead gathering and salmon fishing and then back for a basket making demonstration. We inherited a lot of local would-be celebrities, people who were definitely not shy.
We had a guy called Tommy Thompson, who was probably the most biased play-by-play announcer I've ever seen. He'd say, "Oh, the kids from Minto messed it up again. They're just a bunch of savages and the boys from Fredericton, they took it on the chin, like little men, but they're coming back." And Al Rogers, the editor of the Oromocto paper, who was forever railing against the mayor in Fredericton. We got to know Eldon Green, who had an extended family of local musicians playing guitars, banjos and tub basses and stuff. We'd go out to their house once a month and he'd regale us with two or three hours of lubricated storytelling, songs and sketchs. We'd tape them and then we'd play it for them, give them first cut approval; sometimes we'd go back up and they'd say, "We didn't like that. Cut that piece out. I'll do it again for you right now." And then we'd play it. All in all, we did about twenty-five hours of original programming a week -- by virtue of being the only TV station in town—because Fredericton did not have its own broadcast outlet.

Schley: This is the capital of New Brunswick. It didn't have its own local television.

Swan: You had to get to Halifax or Montreal to get a local station.

Schley: This was real community television, basically.

Swan: Yes. We would also tape city council meetings. I'd be standing on a chair with the tripod all the way up, running hour tapes in the deck. As soon as the first one was up, one of us would grab it, drive eight miles up the road to the headend, rewind it, slap it on, and then get back with another tape to replace the other, before it ran out. We were always running out of our long tapes because they were expensive back then. So it was a matter of shoestring ingenuity. Our headend was on a hillside in a suburb called Silverwood, and it was snow-packed from October through March. In mid-March, everything would start to melt and all the water would just cascade through the basement, which is where our studio was in this little duplex. So we had Styrofoam walkways to get to chairs, we had lavalier mikes hanging off the grid overhead. The Jaycees used to come in and do a live Bingo show called "Jaycee Jingo." They'd sell coupons, you know, little play-boards at the local convenience stores, and then they'd give out cash prizes to the winners.

So we did established local community stuff and then we went out and tried to enterprise some of the more homegrown talent.

Schley: It wasn't exactly Hollywood but it was original and was there a business proposition behind doing local origination?

Swan: It was mandated in the franchise. It meant a lot to the CCTA that local franchise owners gave back to the community and in this case, by virtue of not having a local station, we were the only kind of outlet for local talent. When the Queen—Her Majesty the Queen -- came to Fredericton—we were there with passes, like twenty feet away from the monarch of Britain. Blood, Sweat and Tears came to town. We were the TV station: just a couple guys and a Portapak. We didn't even have color until 1976. We went with a Sony 8400 and then an 8650I believe. I remember my boss one Christmas bought me a color TV, my first — he said, "Take this check to Medjuck's and buy a color television so you can see what you're producing."

Schley: It may have been a franchise obligation but to me it's testimony to this very local place that the cable industry started to occupy.

Swan: And it was going on throughout the U.S. I was in the Maritimes, which was a fairly rustic place with a lot of logging industry. Fredericton was a very safe, mostly English-speaking area. We would do French language programming as well, to demonstrate to the CCTA that we were being a good corporate citizen and addressing the ethnographic elements of the community.

Schley: CCTA is sort of Canada's version of the FCC.

Swan: Yes. And we would get up there once a year, even if my boss wasn't asking for his $.25 a year increase. We would read three pages in English and then we would read two pages in French and then switch back to English and back again. It was interesting because it was a very bureaucratic city inasmuch as it was the capital of the Province. So there were a lot of proceedings that we were asked to tape and have as a public record. On the other side, we were also doing things like "The Gripe Show" -- which was just a call in show to tell us what's really getting on your case this week. That's where all the logging truck complaints, the council being on the take, the mayor being a man "outstanding in his field"—i.e., a farmer—having no business running a city, etc. happened. There were people who took advantage of "The Gripe Show" but it was an unfiltered "let 'em have it concept -- politics at its most unfiltered.

Schley: Were you on camera? Did we see Alex Swan a lot when...

Swan: By virtue of no one else being around, I did tend to moderate a lot of the shows. We had a Pentecostal church put on something called "Time for Truth," where we would go and tape them. Three ladies and the pastor would be playing on this...it was like a Monty Python sketch. The guy was at a pipe organ and these three women are singing "Bringing in the Sheaves" and so forth. And then we would take that up and intersperse it with a sermon from the reverend and that aired in two twenty-minute slots, Monday and Wednesday every week. Al Rogers, the very opinionated editor, would have his ten minutes twice a week. Jaycee Jingo. And then everything else was pretty much specials where we went out and shot a bunch of stuff and then edited it or added music in the studio.

As I mentioned, we did things with the city council, we also did a show with the RCMP, and programs with the local university. We even started a soap opera. Fredericton was known as the "Elm City." So we created this character called "Steven Blight" who was coming back to Elm City from upcountry. We called it "Blight in Elm City" and it actually coincided with a blight amongst the city's elm trees—it was a big topic du jour. It ran for maybe six months or so. Once you start a project where people expect to see something down the line, you commit yourself to all sorts of really tough deadlines.

Schley: You were probably writing the script lines...

Swan: Not only that, but it's frigid and frozen five to six months of the year and just really hard to get things done —I mean, we had an old station wagon. We'd schlep all the gear around and throw it together and put it up. Putting up a piece of whiteboard and all the things that are normal—this was a different kind of production era, so everything was done through chewing gum and string and stuff like that.

Schley: It had to be the greatest hands-on training you could get in doing video.

Swan: To make a production work on the fly and on the cheap; it was amazing.

Schley: You would parlay those skills, I guess, to another chapter of your career later.

Swan: Indeed, because you're referring to CNN in its early days when there was not so much a lack of technology, but a lack of content and an audience, at least to start.

Schley: What brought you to Atlanta then from New Brunswick?

Swan: I left Fredericton in 1979 and I went to work at the Synapse video center at Newhouse School of Broadcasting in Syracuse. And I hated it. It was 2-inch CMX time code editing, and we worked with guys like Nam June Paik, Les Levine and Fitzgerald &Sanborn, people who were cutting edge in terms of video art, most of it destined for PBS. But Syracuse is a tough city. It's frigid and it's got the wind coming off the lakes and it was just a hard city to live in. About nine months in, CNN came around and there was a little note posted in one of the community centers: "CNN looking for volunteers," A recruiter called Tom Knott came through and one week after I interviewed, I was heading south in my mom's Monte Carlo to a $3.35 an hour job for a guy called Ted Turner.

Schley: This was when?

Swan: About 5 months after CNN launched. So this is about November, 1980. I missed the start of CNN in June. I was going about ninety miles an hour through South Carolina and a trooper pulled me over and said, "Son, you're going to spend a little nighttime with us." I said, "But officer! I've got to get to CNN in Atlanta to go work for Ted Turner!" or something like that. He turned around and said, "Really." It was like the rains parted and the sun opened and all of a sudden he said, "You just ease up off that accelerator, have a nice day and say hi from me to Ted."

Schley: Did he really? He knew Ted, knew the reputation of Ted.

Swan: He was big in the Carolinas because he was up there with his dollar-a-holler pitch. You've got a dollar, you come on my air, put your commercial on.

Schley: So what did you do for CNN off the bat?

Swan: They had a position called video journalist or VJ. As a VJ, you were on camera, floor direction and Teleprompter—which consisted of taking a carbon page copy of the actual script, running it down a long treadmill under a vertically-installed camera which then got transmitted to an upside-down monitor that reflected into the screen of the camera that Mary Alice Williams or Don Miller was on at the time. You also did playback. Playback consisting of—these are old cassettes now. You're queuing up four cassettes in a machine to tease the first four stories of every newscast. Then you're starting the second machine, rewinding one, stopping two, starting three, rewinding so that you had your first four stories teased and then running as the anchor intro'd them. That was the nerve-racking part.

Schley: I was going to say it sounds like a high-pressure deal.

Swan: It was. And we had PAs, production assistants, who were kind of the supervisors, a little bit more experienced. They would be running in between playback where we were desperately trying to keep up following the script, and the pit where the director and producer and technical director and audio worked. And then there was commercial playback, which consisted of running the bamboo steamer and Ginsu knife commercials.

Schley: You had 24 hours; you had to fill it.

Swan: We had to fill it.

Schley: I always wondered—I remember when Ted Turner launched it, he said, "We're going to go on the air and we're never going to stop." It's going to be 24/7. I think we lose sight of how revolutionary that idea was in 1976 or whenever he actually launched the network.

Swan: He launched TBS in 1976. And then you had ESPN going up in 1977—I could be wrong on the year I believe—but CNN didn't officially launch until June, 1980.

Schley: So what was it like to work there? Was everyone very invested in the idea, the vision, if you will?

Swan: It was a mix. They had a few grizzled old UPI/AP type of assignment editors, Like Sam Zelman and Ted Cavanaugh, who was a guy who just lived news, local news out of New York and then he came down. Reese Schonfeld was the first president; again, a hard-boiled, seen-it-all newsman. These guys were the people who would instill the vision, the dream -- in two sets of people. First the kids: the children's crusade part of it, which was people like me coming in and just having to be part of 24-hour-TV. Then there were the mid-ranks. People who had worked in local television. Not the talent, but the producers, directors, technical directors, audio, video editors and so forth. Everybody kind of learned on the job at our end, at least at the lower end. We went into video editing and then we went on assignment and we were tasked with putting on hour specials for the weekend and so forth. It was a bit of a dormitory atmosphere. If a rainstorm came through Atlanta, the whole city would get crippled. Everybody stayed at the same motel, just down the street where you could walk to. You'd get out a bit and someone would take the bed and you'd go to work and so forth.. So there were a lot of warts and all but at the same time, ABC-Westinghouse started doing what they were doing in 1982 and we were in a big fight to survive then.

Schley: Remind me of the name of the short-lived news channel. "Satellite...?"

Swan: SNC. "Satellite News Channel", was announced in late 1981, out of Connecticut, I believe. And then on January 1, 1982 Ted Cavanaugh started "Headline News," which was an alternative to SNC and whatever we had at CNN was re-purposed into a more tabloid style presentation for Headline News. It had a big dish garden. Around 1982 I went into PR and we were hosting a lot of groups and individuals coming through, large Japanese business technical groups, people auditioning for talent roles who needed to be shown an hour's worth of the experience beforehand. I must have shown thousands of people through CNN over a two or three year period before we moved to CNN Center.

Schley: They were interested in the programming?

Swan: They were interested in the logistics. How do you lay out a studio? How does the flow of news go from where it's coming in, how does it get processed, how do you chop it up into components, when do you decide to go live, when can you afford a foreign bureau? It was about the same time that Ted banned the word "foreign" from CNN parlance. Everything was "international." It was a lot of fun and most all of us deeply vested in Ted's idea. It was an 'us against the world' mentality at the time. Sometimes it was hard to make payroll, sometimes corners were cut but at the same time, we were doing something else no one even thought would last a year.

Schley: You know, Alex, you saw a lot because you had a lot of roles at Turner Broadcasting at large, from video journalist to public relations and we can talk about that. That period of time—you just ticked off a few of the Superstation, CNN, Headline News—TNT was launched at some point. But that had to be one of the most creative periods of cable programming development.

Swan: Yes, but it was an uphill struggle all the time. Getting advertisers to sign on, launching in Europe: for the longest time, we were only in North America and only on cable. People would purloin bits and pieces every now and then, but it wasn't until the tragedy of the Challenger explosion in 1985 that it became a global phenomenon. I was in Europe at the time, working on the Goodwill Games, another legendary Turner project. We were working out of the London office and within fifteen to twenty minutes of the Challenger exploding live on CNN, nearly every national broadcaster in Europe had all of a sudden taken CNN's feed and was airing it live. Within months, CNN had licensed deals with most of them: ARD, TF-1, BBC, ITV, TVE, and so forth. It was that kind of point of inflection in terms of coming of age where they said, "Oh my God, this is happening, someone is doing it live, we absolutely need this resource to tap into when we need." And that was the start of Turner Program Sales, when people like Sid Pike and Rich Hylen used to go around the world to resorts and hotels, and they'd take Blue Mountain coffee beans in return for a CNN feed or they'd go to Asia somewhere and they'd do some deal and who knows what happened. But again, it was a seat of the pants ingenuity in terms of making the rules. We weren't breaking any rules because there were very few rules to break.

Schley: But the goal was to get the network out there.

Swan: Ubiquity of coverage. We needed to be viewed outside of North America. Because by 1984 CNN was starting to catch on; it was no longer the network of direct response commercials, with the butter soft like leather briefcase and "You can't do this with a knife!"

Schley: I remember.

Swan: The Challenger explosion. And then, in 1985 we launched in London at the Dorchester. I was in charge of producing a live feed back to the "Take Two" program, with Don and Chris.

Schley: Don Farmer and Chris Curle.

Swan: And we had Sir Robin someone at the Dorchester and we were running live and I was on a phone the size of a shoebox, which had a built-in three second delay, going "OK! Count three! Two, One...," cueing Sir Robin to speak so that...

Schley: The time sync.

Swan: Right, the time sync back to Atlanta. In 1987 we launched the studios downtown. We moved from the Techwood facility, which was an old country club, to CNN Center. Again, tasked with the launch and on a shoestring budget, we hired two local high school marching bands to come and kind of weave through each other at the bottom of CNN Center, while the guests and cameras rolled above on the balcony. We dropped 3,000 balloons from the fourteenth floor and had a ribbon maybe three foot wide strung across the entire length of CNN Center, that Burt Reinhardt, who was then CNN President, and Ted, cut to launch the new studios. This was at the same time that Atlanta was on its way to becoming an international city through the efforts of Andrew Young and later Maynard Jackson and other progressive Atlanta leaders. It really fit in into the "gateway to the world" aspirations that Atlanta had then. CNN was very much embraced by the local city government.

Schley: In those days, Alex, or in the early days there, was Ted a visible figure?

Swan: You always heard Ted before you saw him. You would hear his booming voice: "You go get 'em, Burt! Nice piece last night!" From time to time he would come through, and we had a lot of dignitaries visiting. François Mitterand, President Omar Bongo of Gabon, who brought his chiefs of army, air, navy, and about eight wives with him. There must have been a coup waiting to happen back in Gabon. Bill Clinton came through. There were a lot of people who came and Ted would come out and be present at those points but for the most part, Ted was busy making money and promoting CNN and TBS to the advertisers and, via syndication, to broadcast stations.

Schley: Could you sort of see in looking at the surrounding environment—how cable was starting to really gain steam as a medium in the United States and elsewhere. I think it was in 1987 when the household penetration rate finally got to 50%. Could you feel sort of the building of this, something bigger than all of you, happening?

Swan: In terms of the cable part of it?

Schley: In terms of your ability to now become a real force in television and to reach people in their homes.

Swan: Yes. I feel we kind of took cable for granted in the 80's. Being in the industry it was like, "Oh, you don't have cable? You don't get CNN then. So you probably don't know what we're all talking about."

Gerry Hogan, who ran ad sales, really put us on the map in terms of getting New York to buy into us. And it had to do with reaching that penetration point of maybe it was 45% of the country or 50%. It was equally about the firsts that CNN was able to knock off, the debates, the live coverage, especially the live coverage that really made CNN break through with Madison Avenue. Even after the proving years where we might have gone live too often or to somewhat sensationalist events or trials, we were still the network to go to when anything major happened. Depending on the time of day, there was really nowhere else. No one could afford to cut in to their airtime and if it was the middle of the day, there was all the daytime drama revenue to worry about losing.

Schley: That brought in a lot of revenue, advertising support.

Swan: Like they sang: he was cable before cable was cool. Plus Ted had some really experienced lieutenants who put meat on his ideas: Bob Wussler, Pooch Johnston, Henry Gillespie on the Turner program sales side, then Tom Johnson, I guess it was in the late Eighties after Burt Reinhardt retired. He came from the LA Times, so he brought a lot of credentials with him. Ted was very good at hiring the right person for the right job. A lot of people started their careers there. It was interesting because the cable part was so critical, the carriage from TCI and ATC and I'm forgetting what names they all went under—Continental, United Cable, etc. It had a lot to do with Ted 'being' cable and the cable MSO executives saying: 'This guy's one of us and we're going to help him out'. When Malone and Stuart Blair and others bought into our purchase of MGM to launch TNT—which was 1987-1988 ....

Schley: And that deal ultimately imperiled the Turner empire... for a little while.

Swan: It did and it was called a 'bailout'. But at the same time you look at TNT now, 25, 28 years later, it's a moneymaking powerhouse. It's not perhaps the best cable ever offered, but it was a real strong...

Schley: Breakthrough channel.

Swan: especially in drama. We made original programs with a lot of actors and actresses who had pet projects, and promoted the heck out of them in all the shows. But basically MGM was the backbone of TNT. I recall we got a three-year deal with TCI and others from which we got progressively increasing per subscriber per month revenues. That was the only way new cable networks could survive back then, via monthly subscriber fees. Nowadays you look at everything that ABC/ESPN is bringing to the package, it's probably several $ a month. But just to think that back in those days it was maybe a nickel or a dime a month, and that was how you subsidized everything because cable advertising fees, what there were, were nowhere near broadcast rates.

Schley: You had mentioned the Goodwill Games and some people never knew what the Goodwill Games were—talk about your role and what that was all about.

Swan: Jimmy Carter boycotted the 1980 Olympics that were in Russia, and the Russians in turn boycotted the 1984 Olympics in LA. Around the time, Ted decided to launch the "Goodwill Games." He put Bob Wussler in charge, who had been the president of CBS and CBS Sports. Bob put together a crew of producers, directors, stat guys, on-air talent. I remember some of the early meetings. We'd throw every name up on the wall that might draw an audience: Jean-Claude van Damme, Muhammed Ali, Edwin Moses, Carl & Carol Lewis – the last three of whom ended up working with the Games. We were trying to create an event that would take the place of the US, USSR and other countries – the Olympics match-up that was missing from those two boycotted Olympics. So they would be staggered between Olympics, for 1986, 1990, 1994 and on. The inaugural Games also took place three months after the Chernobyl meltdown in the Ukraine. A lot of us were sent over to Moscow to live in the Cosmos Hotel for a number of months through the January and February of 1986 where they turned the escalators off at night and everything was fluorescently lit. You'd go into the restaurant and be given an eight-page menu from which only three items were available. It was at one of the colder points in the relationship between the US and Russia.

We would say, Peace Through Sport and it was a really sincere, loss-leader project that brought out the best in people. And it occurred. In the Moscow stadiums, you didn't see a lot of crowd shots because there weren't a lot of crowds and I remember before the opening ceremonies, they seeded the clouds over Moscow so it rained all morning and stayed dry for the evening's event. Gorbachev came. It was at the very start of Perestroika so relationships were just beginning to thaw.

We were all shadowed by KGB people in training. We called them "Kiddie GBs." They would sit at every level by the elevators in the Cosmos Hotel in Moscow and take notes.

Schley: Keep an eye on you.

Swan: Right, So-and-So returned inebriated in the company of other men. Loud noises from 317".

Schley: What was your job? What were you doing then?

Swan: Barry O'Donnell, Mike Oglesby and I did advance PR, talking up the Games to international Olympic sports editors at newspapers and TV. But there were obstacles. We'd go in every morning and sit opposite three of our counterparts from the Novosti Press and the Soviet Sport authority. And it would be a different set of people every morning. So you never knew if anything you'd done the day before ever counted. Their lead would start the meeting by taking off his watch, tapping it and saying: 'Vremya dyenghi' (Time is money). Then they would take us out and say, "OK, now where do you want credentialed people? Doping room?" Yes. "Announcer's booth?" No. On the field? Yes ...... So we'd negotiate all these kind of press credentials and then the next day we would do it again. So, to return serve a bit, we started a game with Novosti. The young couple they'd assigned to us would say, "What celebrities have you achieved in making come to Goodwill Games?" And we'd say, "Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth just phoned in their RSVPs, so they'll be along next week, oh and Johnny Weismuller.." It was a game but also an amazing time.

Its next iteration was in Seattle in1990, very much a cable affair. We hosted a lot of cable's executive ranks leading up to the games. We visited Indian encampments, toured the waters off Victoria Island, saw one of the earliest Cirque du Soleil iterations and the Moody Blues played at the opening ceremonies. Of course, The Goodwill Games remain more memorable for the stories that came out of it than the actual coverage or any sports records. It was a noble endeavor.

Schley: I love your behind-the-scenes descriptions but the idea itself was classic Ted Turner, right? It was grandiose, it was ambitious, it was over the top.

Swan: It played well on a stage larger than television sporting event. It was about politics and bringing people together. I remember we had a conference in Rome in late 1985, we flew in the European principal of every single Olympic sport—Greco-Roman wrestling, track and field, tennis, field hockey what have you. Everybody assembled at this highly protected hotel in Rome for the big summit, which resulted in a series of accords and memos that were signed. We hosted a party with rented out royalty, 'Hello I'm the Principessa di Lavallo-Fiorentino. In what sport are you active?' So that was the base from which athletes and athletic associations committed to participate. That gave it sports legitimacy in terms of each country contributing someone who was actually on the A-team. The key was to come up with a caliber of people who would give it a 'like-Olympics' authenticity.

Schley: I hear you recount these experiences at Turner and it seems like partly because it was such an entrepreneurial company and partly because you accomplished so much there. That company in a short amount of time, it had to be a career highlight like an enervating part of your professional life.

Swan: No one ever told us "no." If someone said, "Here's your marching orders," we were empowered to make it happen. That was a lot of fun and very empowering to young people at the time. A lot of people made their careers or started their careers at CNN and in various adjuncts of CNN. I remember TBS Superstation was churning out money in the meantime, supporting all of CNN. On a Saturday morning, we'd be down in the CNN studios and from upstairs, you'd hear these big old thumps on the floor. Ric Flair tossing his arch-nemesis onto the ropes of the wrestling show, which was right above the CNN studios.

Schley: I didn't know that.

Swan: Someone reading the news and all of a sudden, flinching, because somebody just did a head plant twenty feet above them on the mat.

Schley: You can't make this stuff up. That's amazing.

Swan: There would be lines every Saturday morning of wrestling groupies all through the parking lot in their red pickup trucks, waiting for So-and-So to come out, and then at the same time, you'd see the CNN anchors walking around them, wishing they had that kind of following.

Schley: What followed CNN and Turner Broadcasting for you, career-wise?

Swan: Still within Turner, I went into the Turner Cable Network sales end of it for the last four years. I was there, from 1990-1994.

Schley: And that group did what?

Swan: They sold the networks to operators. It was network sales: TCNS. Then it became TNS. It grew to incorporate the SMATV and the MMDS systems, and the first DTH satellite platforms, Primestar, DISH, DirecTV

Schley: I think DirecTV maybe preceded Dish network. I'm not sure.

Swan: So that was a big deal to expand the scope of the cable audience. Sometimes it helped to have Larry King speak at an event for an Operator or sending Captain Planet to a local mall on behalf of the local cable system—you've never lived until you put on a Captain Planet latex suit -- after an hour it's hard not to pass out.

Schley: Was it hard to sell these networks to distributors or was there great hunger and appetite?

Swan: There was always grumbling about an extra $.02 if you were going to add Cartoon Network or an extra $.05 if you were going to add something else. But by and large, everybody loved Ted for who he was and what he had done for the industry, so there was a lot of buy-in and personal friendship and relationships being played out.

Schley: I remember a Western Show—you remember the Western Cable Show in Anaheim—and Ted was signing books. The "Lead, Follow or...

Swan: "Get Out of the Way," right.

Schley: It must have been an hour, hour and a half long line to get that book signed because...

Swan: You remember that NCTA show in Vegas? I forget what year, mid-eighties, and he was on billboards standing in front of the dishes with a guitar in his hands. The 'He was cable when cable wasn't cool' song got made then and we played it at the booth.

Schley: Yes. I do.

Swan: Then there was the first Gulf War, when the legend of the Baghdad Boys were born. They were holed up in the Al Rashid Hotel in the middle of a lot of bombing and they reported live via a satellite phone from their room and balcony as rockets and bombs went off all around them. It made international stars of John Holliman, Bernie Shaw, and Peter Arnett, although Shaw and Arnett had already made their names. We would take them to cable shows where they would regale with amazing anecdotes. You really couldn't have dreamed up a better promotional vehicle.

Schley: It was one of those seminal moments in television, American television. So you went on to do some journalism work?

Swan: I left Turner in 1994 and got hired by Paul Levine at Phillips Business Information, to run "International Cable" magazine, and for a while was editorial director of Communications Technolgy (CT) magazine. Then I got a really nice gig writing the international column for "Cablefax Daily" for about six years—something I really loved doing. It was an early tattle sheet of launches, programming, and personnel moves and then I started incorporating a section called "What They're Watching." Every week I would write about life and media content in, Lima, Capetown, or Phuket: what people are watching, and what they're eating and drinking while they're watching, and who the latest TV personality on the scene was and what media scandals were going on. And then the next week I'd do the same for Malta or Buenos Aires.

Schley: You were sort of chronicling this international expansion of cable.

Swan: Yes. Cable was huge in Argentina, Mexico, Chile. In Brazil, it kept threatening to be huge, but it was slow growing. Throughout Europe you had Liberty and UPC buying up franchises. And then there were pockets throughout the Asia Pacific, Japan, Korea and China were the three developed cable markets. At the same time there was a lot of interest in international expansion. So there was a lot to be written about operational issues about which U.S. cable was only theoretically aware. In Taiwan, you're pulling cable through sewers with rats the size of dogs. In China, it was trying to make a business out of $1.00 a household ARPU. But there were a lot of American expats who went over and did it. I tried to chronicle their adventures.

Schley: It all really started with a classified ad from what you told me. You're one of the few people I know who's sort of made this transition or worked on the technology side of the business, too. Content, technology—it's not a common progression...

Swan: It's been an amazing industry to follow and be part of. And it all just started with liking the way a camera felt on my shoulder and taping bar mitzvahs and dance recitals...I'm not a technology guy, but it has been really interesting to see how the complexity of producing video has become so vastly diminished. How you can stream video over the Internet with a fraction of what you used to have in terms of color correction, time code assistance, etc. Audio has always been a bugaboo for a lot of the video. But now with the devices and gadgets available, everybody is a journalist on the streets today. Everything plays. That ubiquity and ease of access is something I never thought would have happened.

Schley: I think you have more video power in an iPhone today than you had with your Portapak and your setup in New Brunswick...

Swan: Those things were heavy. I mean, there was a twenty-pound deck you had over one shoulder and the camera on the other shoulder, and then you had this mike wrapped around your neck if you were trying to do color commentary. You're on top of a station wagon standing with a tripod doing a youth soccer game, providing color commentary, zooming in and out, and then pulling someone over to say, "Gimme a little color." It's come a long way. Everything has grown smaller and more lightweight; I'm not sure the price has come down that much. But in terms of getting quality video on air, everybody is a producer or potential producer today. That's the thing that's astounded me most. That, and the ubiquity of broadband.

So from video content now to broadband, who knows what's next? There's the Internet of Things...Leslie Ellis always asks how many IP connected devices do you have in your home of her audiences...

Schley: The number goes up every year...It's been interesting to listen to you as you have kind of recounted some of the adventures you've had. A lot of names of people have come up. Has the human relationship side of the business been one of the rewards of working in this industry for you, or what would you point to...?

Swan: You asked me to think about some of the things that cable has done for me in my life. It's supported me for thirty-five-odd years for sure. It's let me be part of a lot of really interesting initiatives. If I'd gone into academia or acting, who knows what would have happened? Nothing though, has sustained itself in my opinion like the cable industry. From truly humble beginnings to the most ubiquitous entertainment and information medium in modern American life. It's been amazing. I think what's really powered cable throughout these decades are the mavericks, the people who wouldn't take no for an answer, who found a better way of doing it, especially from the technology side, who invented technologies that got around some of the transmission problems, that got around distribution problems. To be that kind of a person you've got to be able to break some eggs and rules. You have to be hard-charging, aggressive and visionary. We all know the names of some of these guys: Malone, Kent, Van Valkenburg, Ted, Bewkes, Miron, Myhren, Blair, and many others. You've probably interviewed a lot of them here in the Mavericks Series. Cable people always seemed to be a little rough around the edges, but a lot smarter on the inside. I've heard some of the early cable people talk about trying to get bankers to understand this. It was a difficult sell at the start. Some of the early stories when Ted was trying to convince advertisers in New York to buy CNN or, when his counsel at the time, Bob Ross I believe -- found the FCC loophole that allowed WTBS to become a distant signal and go nationwide up on the satellite.

Cable was full of really, really smart people who took an obstacle as a challenge as opposed to a roadblock. They found ways to do something and then they did it. By the time people realized what they'd done, it was too late to say no.

Schley: That's a great point.

Swan: Things got done because of sheer will and personality and then just the whole thing of cable being kind of a homegrown concept which grew in to cable news, cable sports. You go to the cable channels, really, to get the really exclusive programming. These days cable isn't shut out of rights bidding, and we tend to win. We take over franchises that need rejuvenation, like the NBA. The company where I now work, ARRIS, just got into the NASCAR business. It's like ESPN owning pro basketball or TNT owning the MLB playoffs. Bob Wussler always used to justify the price of live sports: "It's unpredictable. That's the key to live sports -- anything can happen on any given day." The price tag may have precluded cable from being in that before but it did whatever it took to raise the money and get a seat at the table. And then pretty soon, you were the incumbent and you owned that sport and you owned that audience and you had the loyalty that was built into all these mass consumer entertainment vehicles. And then you coupled that with innovations, the interactive part of sports coverage where you could go inside the cockpit of a car, you could find stats. Then the social media where you can chat with all the other people you know about what's going on on the screen. "Appointment television" is now in the rearview mirror. The viewing experience is multifaceted. You're watching perhaps on your laptop, you're on your phone texting to someone and it's running on the screen as well. But you're also selecting an angle on the screen. It's a bonanza for people with ADHD or who need a lot of new entertainment.

So where will it go? You have the OTT phenomenon and how cable is responding to that. It's a lot different in other parts of the world than it is in North America. But cable has been really resilient. Every time something came up, whether it was a legislative concern, new competition from telcos, or the satellite platforms, or just overbuilding, cable has always found a way to reinvent itself to stay relevant and cutting-edge. So I wouldn't be at all surprised if cable isn't as strong and as influential a media player in five or ten years as it has been over the past twenty. If you look at the flow of cable penetration, it's gotten up into that, what would you say 80% penetration?

Schley: For wired cable at its height, close to 80.

Swan: It's probably falling off a bit now. But the new generations, they may cut the cord but they're still reliant on cable programming via other devices in their home. It's still the cable operator who provides the managed service: the quality of experiences becomes crucial when you can get it from a lot of different sources. So I have no doubt that cable will still be a dominant medium when I'm gone.

Schley: Watch it happen...

Swan: Yes. It's been really enjoyable and as I say, the one thing I'd say is I got lucky early on and I was smart enough to stay with the horse I rode in on. There have been opportunities to leave and take other positions, but there's something about cable that has always been like living in a circle of friends. And even if they weren't friends, they were people I really respected for how smart and resourceful they were and how they were willing to put their entire personal fortune on the line to realize the dream.

Schley: I think the cable industry's been a positive force in your life, but you've also been good for the cable industry.

Swan: Who knows? But I've made a lot of friends and I've kept them over the years. And whether it was because I was a glad-handing Turner PR guy who took people to a lot of parties or a guy whose columns people enjoyed reading, or just someone who believed that PR stood for personal relations – with customers, journalists and colleagues. I remember some of the wonderful times we had with "Cable World" and "Multi," including the memorable "Deer Park." ski outing we had with our dear friend, Bill McGorry. These are just wonderful moments that we'll have all our lives.

Schley: Well, thank you for that and what you've done and, like I said, sharing some of your thoughts today. I'm with Alex Swan for the Cable Center's Oral History Series. I'm Stewart Schley and thanks for watching.


Save to PDF

Robert Schmidt

Robert Schmidt

Interview Date: April 28, 2014
Interview Location: LA Convention Center, Los Angeles, CA USA
Interviewer: Stewart Schley
Collection: Cable Center Collection

Schley:: I'm Stewart Schley for the Cable Center's oral history series. It is April 28, 2014, if I have my date correct (pretty sure I do.). We're in Los Angeles on the eve of the 2014 Cable Show. To my right is a gentleman who played a seminal role in the development of the cable industry and continues to do so in the broader telecommunications industry, Bob Schmidt. Welcome!

Schmidt: Thank you very much.

Schley:: I can't believe we haven't yet interviewed you because, as I said, you had a major role to play in some of the formative years of this industry. So we'll talk a little bit about that, what that was like and what some of your endeavors are today.

Schmidt: I look forward to it. Thank you.

Schley:: I looked this up. I cheated...I looked this up before you came in the room, but in 1975, the number one hit song was Captain and Tennille, "Love Will Keep Us Together." So it wasn't a great music year. It was a big year for you and I want to just kind of walk back down memory lane, Bob, and you had been invited, I don't know how, maybe you can tell the story...to become president of what was then called the National Cable Television Association. What brought you there?

Schmidt: I think you've got to step back a little bit to kind of figure out how the process brought me to the forefront. I was very fortunate. I came to Washington in 1961 to work for President Kennedy and was in law school at night at Georgetown Law School. After fits and starts I walked away from that but then concluded later on...because I went to work for ITT in 1965. I was with ITT almost ten years. And it was a great period for me because ITT was one of the new conglomerates. We owned everything from Sheraton Hotels to Avis to Wonder Bread. It was this mixture of whatevers, you know. In 1970, I had the good fortune to get to know Coach Vince Lombardi. He was out of retirement and was now coaching the Washington Redskins. He coached one year and the following year unfortunately he contracted colon cancer and never finished the second season. He was in his hospital room at Georgetown watching the team practice on Georgetown's campus.

One of my closest friends, and still is, is one of the great Packers who's in the Hall of Fame named Willie Wood. Willie Wood lived in DC in the off-season and another good friend of mine was Sonny Jurgensen. So I got a chance to sit down with Coach Lombardi and I said once he passed away, we cannot let his memory fade. So we started the Vince Lombardi Foundation in 1971. So now I'm running that and so on and Jay Ricks, who was a lawyer in DC and was a friend of mine, he comes to me at some point in early 1975 and he says, "Bob, would you be interested in taking a position?" I had left the company and was out practicing law with a handful of athletes that I represented and so forth. I said, "What is it?" He said, "It's the cable television industry association." I said, "Jay, with all due respect, I think you got the wrong guy on two counts. I don't like trade associations and secondly, I can't spell cable television." So he said, "Just meet with us." He invited Hostetter, got me aside for lunch and gave me the pitch and everything.
So I started thinking about it and I said, Washington in those days was really a very different place than it is today. Whether you were a Democrat or a Republican wasn't the issue. It was your relationships. And one of my close friends, who was like an uncle to me...he wasn't really a mentor but more of an uncle...was Dean Burch. And Dean Burch was the chairman of the FCC. Here was Burch, a Goldwater Republican, and me, a Kennedy Democrat. But we were very close friends. We spent a lot of time together. So I went to see Dean. And I said, "Dean, I've been approached by this group to head up their association." He said, "What's the name of it?" I said, "I think it's called National Cable..." He didn't even let me finish the sentence. He said, "I will break both your legs before I let you take the job." And he went on for about ten minutes with a lot of deleted expletives. And I said to him at one point, "Dean, how do you really feel about it?" Now I understood at least halfway their problem.

Schley:: What was his objection?

Schmidt: He just thought there was a lot of misrepresentations, a lot of double talk. And again, you've got to understand at that point in time, the broadcasters owned the FCC. That's rude thing to say, but they did. And it was evidenced as I found out later about all the various barriers that were up in front of the cable industry in terms of any kind of distribution prospects. So that was my first shot over the bow. Then I think it was the press conference when I agreed to do this. We were at the Sheraton Carlton, which was my old stomping grounds with ITT. I had my bride with me and I think at that point I had three kids and I'm having this "welcome to the cable industry." In the middle of the press conference, I'm getting bombarded by a bunch of very negative..."What are you going to do about copyright, Mr. Schmidt?" I was like, "Excuse me. I'll study it." "When are you going to give us an answer?" I remember my wife said to me, she said, "Are you sure you want to do this?" I said, "Well, I think I'm pregnant now, I think I'm in the ballgame." So that was my baptism.

Schley:: What swayed you? Why take the job?

Schmidt: I have to back up another half step. So I'm going through the search committee interview and one of the members of the search committee, who's still alive, I think, Monty Rifkin, at one point ?abrased me. It's all right...I'm a guy who loves competition and good probing questions. He said to me, "What's your net worth?" And I looked around and said, "What's that got to do with the price of tea?" I said, "If you need to know my net worth to qualify for this job, I'm in the wrong place. And I don't know if that helped me or hurt me but I just thought it was one of those kind of questions that was off-the-wall. At that point one of the guys on the search committee came to me—who later became one of my best friends, Doug Dittrick—and he said, "Just stay cool. Just don't jump off the reservation at this point."

Schley:: But you know you had all these mercurial guys.

Schmidt: Oh, yeah, I mean it was really—someone ought to make a reality show about it. There were more characters per square foot than any people I'd ever been around. But anyway, needless to say I agreed to do it.

Schley:: And first day, first week, first month on the job: what are you grappling with? This is 1975.

Schmidt: It's 1975. I inherited a staff, most of whom were just good people. And you've got to understand as a former football player quarterback, I've always been a team person. And I'm always taking the attitude, "I'm not here to micromanage people. I'm here to try to see them develop their own talents and bring their best game." I think I was there the first week and there were three lawyers on the staff. They can identify themselves at the appropriate time. They walked into my office and closed the door. And they said, "Bob, we need to talk to you about a serious problem." I said, "What is it?" He said, "Well, your predecessor David Foster promised us this and promised us that." I said, "Really? Let me ask you a question. Do we have a union here?" They said, "What do you mean?" And I said, "Well, the three of you are in here to see me. I suggest you walk out of here as quickly as you can. If you want to talk to me about something, you come and see me individually." OK. That was my first sort of baptism.

Then I had an individual on the staff who was kind of the principal lobbyist for Capitol Hill. And I knew about him before I got there, and it was not a very favorable kind of impression. I remember he started to tell me, "This is the way we're going to do this, this is the way we're going to do that." And I said, "Slow down. Just give me your best recommendations and so forth." It turned out he was a close compatriot of a Senator from Indiana who was on the Senate committee and I'm sort of saying, "How do I deal with this issue without shooting myself in both feet?"

So the way Washington has always worked for me was again relationships. The chairman of the full Commerce committee in the Senate was a good friend of mine, Fritz Hollings from South Carolina. So I went to see Fritz and I said, "What's the likelihood of this Senator being chairman of the Communications subcommittee?" In his classic Southern accent he said, "Bob, over my dead body." Now that's all I needed to know. So I went back to the fellow and I basically gave him his walking papers. Within an hour I get a call from this Senator, yelling at me on the phone. "You better call this guy and apologize to him. You better..." And he went on. And I said, "You know what? Senator, with all due respect, if ever I had a situation like this, I'd want somebody like you in my corner, but unfortunately it's not going to happen. Thank you." And that was the end of that.

Schley:: Well, I mean you walked into this situation where the industry was really young, right? As you said, the broadcasters having enormous influence, the telephone companies I think had enormous influence—

Schmidt: Right.

Schley:: Where did you start? What were some of the key issues? And how did you begin to—

Schmidt: Well, first of all this copyright thing was like the bugaboo of bugaboos. We had a very divided constituency. We had the small operators who watched the Supreme Court say we didn't have any obligation for copyright and they said, "That's it. That's all we needed to hear." There was no copyright obligation on the part of this industry.

Schley:: And Bob, this involves importing broadcast signals?

Schmidt: Correct.

Schley:: Distributing them to your customers. Do you have to pay royalty or not?

Schmidt: Right. But then there was the other side of this coin that was the Viacoms and the people who saw this as the window of opportunity who were saying, "Let's get this behind us." And then, when you started to analyze the issue and you saw that the FCC had these very cobbled goofy rules about you couldn't show this program on the third ?octave of the fourth week of November. I mean, it was just bizarre. So I started to understand the issues and then I started to understand who were going to be my adversaries. Well, obviously the NAB and they had a great guy running it named Vince Wasilewski. And then we had the Motion Picture Association with Jack Valenti. So those were the key players in terms of what I call the business side of the equation.

Schley:: Would they have just assumed you'd go away, that the cable industry wasn't even around?

Schmidt: They were going to do their best to make sure it never happened. If it had any future it was going to be in rural America as an antenna service providing access to broadcast signals in the major markets distributed out in the rural part of the U.S. And I remember HBO had just come forward at that point and I remember Dick Munro and Jerry Levin came to see me and they said, "Bob, you've got to get out on the stump and promote this." And I said, "All right, give me the script of what you want me to say."

I remember literally different forums and different state associations. I'm down in Mississippi and I'm up there giving this pitch about this HBO thing, you guys are going to get movies and blah-blah-blah and I'm going on. At some point some guy stands up and in a Southern accent says, "Bob, in all fairness, that dog won't hunt down here." And I said, "Wow. That's a dead statement, isn't it?" A year later I'm back there with the same people and they're popping their suspenders saying, "Doggonest thing I ever seen. This is the greatest thing since sliced bread, you know?" So it was all about innovation and taking people past the barriers that they all thought were completely going to impair their future.

Schley:: I mean, it's interesting because you spent some time here in this city as a quarterback for the Trojans and you carried this team ethic with you. But those were hard battles to fight. When I read your history over the four-year tenure that you spent at NCTA, you really brought this industry into a level of respect on the Hill that it didn't have.

Schmidt: You know, I appreciate you saying that, Stewart. And I've always felt this way. I grew up in what was then a rural community called Bakersfield, California. And when you grow up in Bakersfield, you learn some things very early about a work ethic and you learn things about getting along with different people. I don't know if you know Steinbeck's book "The Grapes of Wrath;" it was largely about Bakersfield and Salinas. And you had this issue of diversity where we had the folks that had come from that area who were nicknamed Okies, then we had Blacks, then we had Latinos. I went to a public high school with 5,500 students. We had race riots. And we created an organization called the Interracial Council. I was on it and I've always understood that controversy is an opportunity to take something to another level. And I've always been fighting bullies all my life and I thought the broadcasters were bullies and I thought the Commission was bullying us so I loved it.

And I think early on, I think it was that first year, I get a call from Ted Turner. He's somebody I didn't know from a load of rocks. He says, "Would you go to the FCC with me?" And he starts telling me, "I want to create this thing called a superstation." Now he got my attention. I said, "Let's do this." So he comes to town. I'm pretty sure this was either the first time he was ever at the FCC or maybe he had some interaction through his lawyer. So there was a very well-known restaurant in D.C. called Duke Ziebert's. Through my tenure with ITT, I had a lot of good relationships there. So I always had a table available for me there. Turner and I are in there and some people recognize him because he was Captain Courageous at that point, the sailor. They didn't know him in the other part of his life. So we're having this briefing and I'm kind of giving him what I think we should talk about. I said, "Here would be a classic example of a broadcaster and a cable guy working together." I said, "So we've got to emphasize that."

Anyway, Dean Burch had moved on and another friend of mine, who had worked for Tip O'Neill, who was one of my mentors, was the chairman, Charlie Ferris. So we arranged to have appointments. We were going in there; it was not a good day. It was not a good day. It's hard to script Ted Turner. So we came out of there. I love Ted because Ted is "what you see is what you get." But unfortunately one of the things that I found out that day very early was there wasn't very much of a filter. So we finished our meetings afterwards and he said to me, "Bobby, how'd I do?" And I don't answer him. We start walking away from the FCC. He said, "What's wrong?" I said, "Ted. We had a script; you threw it away. If we're going to work together, I don't have any leverage in this town. I've got to cajole people, I've got to use the relationships I have with them. If we can't do this, I can't go with you." From then on, we became buddies. I love the man. And he's very coachable. But it was that kind of situation.

Schley:: I think you did solve copyright. Was that the establishment of the copyright royalty tribunal?

Schmidt: Yes, yes.

Schley:: That was the mechanism that made everybody not quite happy but sort of happy, I guess.

Schmidt: It was an incredible first step. I give credit to a lot of folks. I decided I had to make alliances. So I reached out to Valenti from the Motion Picture Association. I'd known Jack when I was an advance man—I worked for President Johnson as well. Jack's passed now, but Jack taught me so many things about life in politics. And he also gave me a whole new vocabulary. The man could create words. We'd be testifying in the Congress and he'd come up with this new word and I'd have to stop and write it down because it was a good one. And so I said, "We've got to develop an alliance with them because if HBO is going to have product, we want them saying, 'It's OK.'" And that's really how sort of the foundation was created. And the other good news was I had had this long term relationship through my prior experience with ITT with Lionel van Deerlin and Fritz Hollings, the Senator and Congressman who were in charge of our future. It was just—you know, timing is everything. I think the window was going to be open.

The question was whether we could do something that was credible. Interestingly enough, I think it was the second month I was on the job, we get an invitation to go to the White House. Now I didn't get the invitation. The invitation was given to individuals. I don't know how they identified them. So I have them gathered in the conference room in our offices and I thought I was in the middle of a free-for-all. There was a group there from Pennsylvania who said, "We'll never pay copyright, we've got to do this, we've got to do this." Then we had another group that included Bud Hostetter and some of what I call more of the futurists of this industry saying, "We've got to do this, we've got to do that." Finally, at one point in the conversation—and I really was, I was learning the vocabulary at this point—I stopped the conversation. I said, "Have any of you ever been to the White House?" Nobody. I said, "I have." And I said, "I'll tell you what our goal is today. Our goal is to come off as credible people so we can be invited back." And I said, "Now here's the deal." And I identified two or three people. "You're going to speak, and the rest of you are going to shut up. If you choose the opportunity to take advantage of this opportunity and abuse it, I will invite you out of the room immediately." And I said, "You understand?" We walked across the park and went to the White House. And it was an excellent meeting. People started to understand there was a credible thing called cable television. And it could provide an alternative platform. But it was like everything else. You had to put yourself forward in a positive light. It was a great thing.

Now the postscript to that was very interesting. There were a handful of trade magazines in those days. The trade magazine I get the following week has a letter on the cover of it from Russell Karp to me, chewing me a new backside. Saying, why wasn't I invited? Blah-blah-blah. Never sent me the letter. Again, being shy and retiring, I picked up the phone and I called Russell Karp. I didn't know him from a load of rocks. And I said, "Mr. Karp, my name is Bob Schmidt. I never got your letter but I read it on the front page of the cover of this magazine." I said, "I'll be in your office in the next three hours." I jumped on a shuttle, I went up to his office in Manhattan. And I didn't know who Russell Karp was again. Here's a guy who's my size, 6'5", very strong personality. He's sitting in his office and he has his counsel with him, Barry Simon. And I share with him, I said, "Lookit, I'm new to this job. If I had anything to do with it, you would have been at the meeting, you should have been at the meeting, but that wasn't my decision." And I said, "I just want you to understand, I don't do business this way. If you continue to come across this way with me, I don't need this job. You can have it." And I said, "Furthermore, I'm a very physical person. I'll come across the table and give you another taste of some experience." And I stood up and they thought I was going to do it right there and Russell said, "Barry! Barry!" I said, "No, I've learned to be a gentleman and I'll continue to be a gentleman but I expect the same from you." And I left.

So the next board meeting—and Russell was a very strong personality—so the next board meeting, the whole issue is about copyright. What are we going to do about copyright, how are we going to deal with it and so on. And Russell didn't have a lot of friends on the board but at the end of the meeting, I said, "Lookit. Here's what I think our plan should be. Russell Karp and I will go walk the Hill and try this out." And several guys were like, "Schmidt's crazy. Why would he bring Russell to that exercise?" I reacted. I said, "I think Russell has this issue down better than anybody that I've heard articulate it. And we're going to play it out and just see what it can do."

So again, my goal was to win. Whether Russell Karp liked me or not was not the issue, you know? So we did, we walked the halls and it started to get some traction. I remember there was one occasion—we were going to see Senator McClellan. Senator McClellan was the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, one of the most powerful people in the Senate. And I stopped Russell in the hall. This was after about ten meetings. I said, "Russell. I'm going to do the talking this time." He didn't like to hear that. He said, "Bob, I know more..." I said, "It's not about what you know. I'm going to be very candid with you. Senator McClellan does not have a high regard for people of the Jewish faith. I'm going to talk, OK?" And he listened. He was coachable.

Schley:: Karp, I want to say, in my mind was associated with TelePrompTer?

Schmidt: Yes, he was the CEO of TelePrompTer.

Schley:: He was one of these roguish guys you had to get to behave. There were a lot of them.

Schmidt: It was like herding cats. There were a lot of people, a lot of different personalities, and it was a challenge.

Schley:: But Bob you did—Congress, there was a legislative act that created the CRT [Copyright Royalty Tribunal], is that correct?

Schmidt: Correct.

Schley:: It took an act of Congress and that really helped this industry attain some, I think, some respect, some economic predictability and then you were on the map now. You were part of the media business.

Schmidt: It was a great day but again there were issues right behind it. We had this pole attachment issue. And I remember I said, we've got to do some things here to dramatize this. So I got a chunk of cable that someone had cut off the pole when they tried to disconnect us. And I laid it on the table as we were testifying in the House. We got that issue—it was like slam-bam-thank-you-ma'am, you know?

Schley:: For those who don't know, what was going on? What was the issue?

Schmidt: Well, here: because we had to string our cables on existing poles. So they were either power company poles or telephone company poles. Well, the predominant poles were telephone company. And they'd hold us hostage. They'd say, well, this month you're going to pay $6.00 a connection. It was ridiculous. It was all again trying to keep us out of the business. Thank God that the Congress saw that and we were able to get that done.

Schley:: So would you say during your four-year tenure, copyright, pole attachment, those were kind of the two big picture advancements that you helped to—

Schmidt: I think that's a fair statement.

Schley:: At the end of your tenure, you sort of went out with a bang because you were at a convention in Las Vegas—

Schmidt: Correct.

Schley:: —and I believe the President of the United States is participating.

Schmidt: I was able to arrange a videoconference with President Carter.

Schley:: Just wax poetic a minute because that's a pretty big moment for an industry that started out not being able to get a meeting...

Schmidt: Let's drop back a little bit before that. I'll answer your question but I remember I'm up in the House meeting with chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Peter Rodino. And Peter Rodino liked me as a person. In my checkered past I played quarterback for Notre Dame as well as subsequently playing for USC. He was a big Notre Dame fan. So that was always my card. I'm sitting in his office and we're talking about our issues. About twenty minutes into the conversation, his secretary walks in and hands him a note and he stands up and he says, "Bob, unfortunately it's time to go." And I said, "OK." So I walked out and thought, did someone die? What happened here? And the secretary says, "No, the president of CBS is here." And I said, "Now I know I'm chopped liver."

In this timeframe, Brian Lamb comes to me with this idea of C-SPAN. And I said, "Brian, that is one of the most incredible ideas I've ever heard. I've got a couple of agendas that relate to that." And I told him the story about the meeting with Peter Rodino. And I said, "Brian, I don't want to second guess what you're doing, but I just want to make sure that the cameras have lights and it's cranking." Brian is an incredible human being first of all. I don't like to take credit for many things because it's not my personality.

But he said, "This is what we want to do." And I said, "What's the problem?"
"I need capital."
I said, "What do you mean you need capital?"
He showed me the business plan and so on. I said, "What's the number?"
He said, "I need a quarter of a million dollars."
And I said, "OK. You got it."
He said, "Where are you going to get it?"
I said, "That's now my problem."

And this is after we'd passed the legislation on copyright and the pole attachment. I made five calls to five of the bigger companies and I said, "I need $50,000 wired into the Association account and I'll tell you later what we're going to do with it."

Schley:: And they wired the money?

Schmidt: They wired the money. I handed him a check like three days later. And he says to me, "Bob, your next assignment..." Right? He immediately hands me the ball again. He said, "You've got to go see the Speaker." Again, he was on my Lombardi Foundation board—

Schley:: This is Tip O'Neill.

Schmidt: Tip O'Neill. And I said, "We'll go there." He went with me in one of the meetings, but one of the first meetings I had with Tip, I said, "Mr. Speaker. There's an opportunity here for you to have an unfiltered relationship with your constituents." And he said, "Bob. Stop all the BS. Tell me what it is." And I said, "We want to put the cameras in the House chamber, no commercials, just run them from start to finish. You get the chance to talk to the public, your constituents, your citizens, not as a thirty second spot on the nightly news." He said, "That's very intriguing." So that's how we did it.

Schley:: Brian, I think, was a trade journalist. He wrote for one of the cable publications. But that idea immediately resonated with you.

Schmidt: Life is about leverage. We had little or no leverage, OK? We didn't even have a cable system within 100 miles. John Evans played a very important role. He had the first real cable system nearby where I could bring members of Congress or members of the staff of the FCC and say, "Here's what it looks like. This is the deal." Because, again, it's hard sometimes to talk the talk. You need to show people the pictures and show them what the real product is.

Schley:: And he had Arlington, Virginia?

Schmidt: He had Arlington, Virginia. Exactly. But these were times—it was like the Wild West. And it wasn't easy. I remember we'd try to get organized to come to Capitol Hill and I'd tell the guys on the hustings: here's the deal. I want you to go to Congressman Jones, who's your Congressman. You go to his office. You sit in his office until he sees you or his chief of staff sees you. You don't move, you don't take no for an answer. And it worked.

And I remember I used to tease Valenti. Valenti used to give me a hard time. And I'd say, "You know, Jack, I could count better than you." And he said, "No, you could never count better than me." I said, "Well, I'll give you an example. You brought Charlton Heston and Elizabeth Taylor and Kirk Douglas for photo-ops in the Capitol. I brought 5,000 guerilla warriors from out in the boonies."

Schley:: And with C-SPAN, you brought a whole population of viewers.

Schmidt: Again, it's funny. On the board, I remember these discussions because the first issue about C-SPAN is coverage. Carriage. And with all due respect to John Malone, John was on the board and I always said John was the smartest guy on the board, always was a step ahead of what was going on. I remember one of the great lines out of his mouth to me was: "Bob. I'd rather watch haircuts than watch these people." And I said, "John, that might be a very classic example. But as long as they're holding our future in their hands, I need you to support this and give carriage." He was very good. Once he understood this was about the future, it became very clear that that was very important. And I still say, one of the most important things that I had a small part to do with in the industry was helping create C-SPAN.

Schley:: Talk about that appearance by President Carter.

Schmidt: It was very interesting. We still weren't 200% as I'd say, but we had enough what I call presence that I convinced the people at the White House. I said, "Lookit, this would be a great opportunity for the President not to have to go physically someplace and we're going to use our technology. We're going to put you on a satellite, put you into Las Vegas." I think we had like 25,000 people there; it was a very substantial group of attendees in those days. I said, "It's going to be a short interview, but it's very important I think for you and this administration to support new developments in technologies." And they bought it, they loved the idea.

I remember Doug Dittrick and I went out and bought new suits and we were having a good laugh about it. We saw the pictures later and he said, "Schmidt, do you ever think you could fit back in that suit?" I said, "I don't know, Doug." But it was a good day.
That was about the time I decided I was going to move on. And I remember—not that it was a big deal to anybody—I remember several board members said, "No. You can't leave us." And I said, "No, no. I'm leaving. I'm going to leave you in better hands. I'm going to leave you with somebody who I think is more articulate than I am. He's obviously better-looking than I am. I think he has a great presence and he's been part of it. Tom Wheeler." Thank God they listened to me.

Schley:: You had brought him aboard, groomed him, if you will...

Schmidt: Tom Wheeler is an unusual person and one of my close friends. Tom, again, demonstrated he had more potential than anybody could ever imagine. And he developed it. Again, I'm thankful I had a small part in that. The other person that I brought on the staff—when I first showed up there, I looked around and I said, "We have no minorities here." And I said, "I've got to find someone of color to be here." Through some contacts, someone sends me Bob Johnson. After vetting him properly and everything, I hired him.

As Bob was coming up with this idea later on...he came to me with the idea of Black Entertainment Television. And I said, "Bob. I think it's a great idea. Someone's going to do it." There was another Johnson family that owned Ebony magazine. I said, "Maybe the other Johnsons are going to do it." He said, "I don't want that to happen." And I said, "What can I do to help you?" He said, "I still need some income." And I said, "Well, lookit, I can't have you on the payroll and have you do this. I'm going to give you a consultancy. But it's not going to be a free ride. This is not a fake deal. You're going to have to give me some time and energy and produce." That's how we did it.

Schley:: When you think back...we'll close that chapter in a second because so much happened...but when you think back on it, how would you characterize that period in the cable industry's evolution and its presence in the nation's capital?

Schmidt: Not to oversimplify it, but I think the industry grew up fast during that period. I think the doubters who were what I call the less visionary part of the industry started to buy into the vision. And I think one of the critical elements was the fact that we started to create other programming. I remember Rasmussen, who started ESPN, came to me with the idea and again I said, "It's a great idea." And about eight months later the guy who was running it, Chet Simmons, came to me and said, "Bob, I need your help." I said, "What's the problem, Chet?" He said, "This entertainment and sports programming network, it's a mouthful. We've got to get rid of that. Help me to get rid of it." I said, "I think that horse is out of the barn and running. It's really 'ESPN,' it's not this long..." He said, "I've never been involved with anything that had four digits. It was always ABC, CBS, NBC." I said, "Well, that's good. We're separating ourselves." I think that was the beauty. There were people who had creative ideas and now started to recognize there's another platform. There's another place to demonstrate your talents and to show your product and so forth. And it was exciting. It was just an incredible time of just new ideas and so forth.

Schley:: You went on then...well, tell us about what you did and how maybe your experience and exposure to cable inspired you to try some new ideas.

Schmidt: Again, Stewart, in fairness, I grew up as I told you in Bakersfield, California. I had my first job when I was ten years old. I sold newspapers on the corner. My dad said, "If you want a bicycle, you've got to go earn it.' I figured out I could sell more newspapers in the bars instead of on the corner so I'd go in the bars and I'd sidle up to you as a prospective client and I'd say, "You look like a strong guy, Stewart. I bet you can't rip up these three newspapers." And you'd rip them up and I'd say, "You owe me 40 cents or whatever the mark was."

I had my own trucking business when I was eighteen, hauling produce out of the fields into the packing sheds. So I was always an entrepreneurial kind of person. And finally in 1979, at the convention, I said, "I really need to go do something to try to get involved." Like everything else, it was new. I think I was probably the first person who came along—no disrespect to the people who were before me—who was thinking progressively past this moment. I went to work and did some work for Continental with Hostetter and helped get some franchises for people because this was really the hot time for franchising. That was kind of an interim sort of step. Then I said, "I've got to go do this. There really isn't much opportunity in the U.S." I started going outside the U.S. Because I'd been involved in politics, I had relationships outside of the U.S. I want to say 1971-72 we created an organization called the American Council of Young Political Leaders. It was very bipartisan. It was Pat Buchanan, Hodding Carter, everybody that you can imagine. Now they're all either senators, governors, you know. As a result I had relationships in these other countries.

So I went to the Soviet Union in 1981 and people said, "What are you doing?" I said, "I'm going to try and do some things." It was almost like a James Bond movie. I had a briefcase with an umbrella which was basically a modem in a briefcase and I could connect it to the satellite and connect it to the back of a television so I'm in the mayor of Moscow's office showing him this. And he says to me—I'd learned to speak some Russian—he said, "Bob. Nyet. KGB won't allow." And I said, "Well—" His name was Luzhkov, he was the mayor there until five years ago. I said, "Mayor Luzhkov, that's your problem. You get that sorted out and I'll be back." Lo and behold he came back to me about six months later. So I went into the Soviet Union. I made 65 trips to the place before I sold this business. I thought it was God's punishment for me at one point. But I sold the business to John Kluge; he was Metromedia.

Then I started another business in Ireland. I started another business in the Philippines, but it was wireless because cable was too costly an undertaking to really expect anybody to want to finance that. So it was primarily wireless video, subscription television. What I would try to do was—I never wanted to be looking like or acting like a telephone company because now you had to deal with all the regulatory process. I used to say, "I'm in the video business," and they would say, "Let's try this." So they would give me some spectrum. To this day, I have some of the most sought-after spectrum in Argentina. This band—it's called the 700 band, which is kind of the sweet spot—I have the largest bloc of spectrum in Buenos Aires. About four years ago they woke up and said, "Who's the gringo that has our spectrum?" So we're still there and I'm still working at it but it's now we're trying to make a triple play out of it. I continue to do that.

Then I went on Brian's board, on C-SPAN's board, after I left the association. I looked at what his business model was and he had to pay a big bucket of money to AT&T to get to RCA's bird uplink in New Jersey. And I said, "Brian, if I build an uplink here, would you sign on as a customer?" Brian was very wonderful, very open. He said, "Bob, I'll sign on with you. I'll even show a piece of property we have out near the Beltway." And I started a thing which later became the first teleport. Basically it was a gateway around AT&T, which was the monopoly at that point. So I built that business, and if you look at the cable industry, it all relates back.

Schley:: Exactly.

Schmidt: Then I got involved in what was called the Wireless Cable Association. I used to jokingly call it the "Oxymoron Association."

Schley:: Wireless cable.

Schmidt: Wireless cable. And again, that caused some heartburn for some of my cable buddies. At least—they didn't understand and I tried to explain it this way, I said, "Lookit, there's going to be a process here whereby you are going to be the monopoly. And you're going to be defending yourself from various attacks about no one has access to this business because you have the gateway."

Schley:: It's a reversal of how things were when you started.

Schmidt: Exactly. Some of the people got it, a lot of people didn't. But it was all right. I understood. I did that and built businesses throughout the U.S., sold most of those businesses. But I continued to be involved from the standpoint that whether we like it or not, all this plays back into the same scenario. It's all about distribution of content and if you stop and ask yourself, most people don't care whether you got it on two Dixie Cups and a string. They want something affordable that's something that they want, and reliable. How they get it is not the critical point.

Schley:: Sort of fast forward maybe to today and what's coming tomorrow. You still see a role for an interplay between wireless and maybe wired distribution?

Schmidt: Absolutely. You see, when you cut to the chase, you've got to ask yourself, where is all this headed? Consolidation is already upon us. And then you ask, who are going to be the platform? The telephone company is always going to be in play at some point, whether it's with FIOS or some other methodology. But the telephone company's also building an inventory of spectrum for wireless. And whether we appreciate it or not, people get their information today from a lot of different sources and they continue to get more of it off of a handheld wireless device. Well, I don't think the cable business is the cable business. I think it's the telecomm business now. They've even changed the name. It was National Cable Television, OK? So my point is, I think the cable industry ought to be cultivating rural America opportunities. And if you're going to be in rural America, you've got to be wireless.

Schley:: Can't afford to stretch long lengths of fiber.

Schmidt: Absolutely, absolutely. The economics don't play. Secondly, I don't want to see the satellite people hold that hostage. I want to work with all the people to keep an open platform, but the cable guys need to have that opportunity because at some point, the telephone company will move into that area because they have a wireless distribution system. And if they have the ability to do it—it's all timing. I've always said that one of the beauties of HBO was they put themselves in the middle of the game. And if you remember, there was even an attempt later on by a group who tried to hire me to work for them where the movie industry was going to create their own HBO.

Schley:: I remember.

Schmidt: And it didn't happen, thank God. You know, I moved into a lot of things when I set up this company which was called CTM, Communications Technology Management. I ended up as the consultant for nineteen of the Major League baseball teams, many of the NHL teams and many of the NBA teams, and I wrote their business plans. George Steinbrenner was my client for a year. If I ever write a book, I'll give him a chapter. I got him $100 million of rights money out of Cablevision. But the most important thing I got him was a buyout clause. He could buy himself out for $10 million. Within three years he bought himself out of the contract and resold the rights to Madison Square Garden for $400 million. So again, the whole business is driven by content, but it's efficiencies of distribution and that's what we should never forget about. And I think the cable business today is not the cable business; it's really in the video, voice and data business. And one of the things that they're still continuing to recognize and hopefully will take advantage of is mobility. There's only a few ways to do that and Wi-Fi is clearly that—what is all this stuff in rural America? It's Wi-Fi. So to me it's like follow the trail, you know.

Schley:: You've been doing that, I guess, since you started in this crazy business.

Schmidt: I've always been a little bit ahead of the curve, but there's risks there. My bride of 48 years continues to ask me, "When are you going to stop?" And I say to her jokingly, "When you put me in the box." Because that's my personality. I love to be involved. In addition to the things I'm doing in telecomm, I'm the executive director of the Pro Football Retired Players' Association. I represent 20,000 of the NFL retired players. There again, I think, that's a group that's been kind of taken advantage of over time, but we're now working on this issue of traumatic brain injury. So I've taken the soldiers—I'm very involved with the military now—where we're taking the needs of the soldiers and the NFL players side-by-side. They have the same symptoms, OK? Because we need to do more for the soldiers. I'm embarrassed how little we do for our military. If I can do something to make that happen better by marrying the interests of the players with their cachet and celebrity with the soldiers, I would be smiling in my grave, OK?

Schley:: I get and appreciate—you handed me your resume at the outset—and I get an appreciation for why it's three pages and not one. You've done more, I think, in your lifetime than most of us could ever aspire to accomplish.

Schmidt: Stewart, I've been very blessed. My dad was an immigrant from Germany. Not a well-educated man, but a great man. He died unfortunately when I was sixteen. I've always understood work, I've always understood that if you're going to do something you've got to do it with integrity. I tell people I set legal education back several decades at Georgetown. And one of the most important things I learned in law school was when you're a fiduciary, and you take responsibility for other people, you have a higher responsibility to them than to yourself. I believe in that very strongly. And I also understood one of the most selfish acts in the world is to help people. It's in the Torah, it's in the Bible, it's in all the great books. But it's sometimes something a lot of people don't get. I've always said, you can do more and you can make a difference as a person. You don't have to say, "This is a bigger thing." No. You've got to put yourself in play and hopefully make a contribution that brings something better for the next generation.

Schley:: You've not only helped a lot of people, you helped an entire industry at a time when it was needed.

Schmidt: It was my privilege. Some of my closest friends today are still the guys I met in the cable business. We get together periodically, we have a group they call the "cable hackers." We were just together recently. It was Jack Crosby, Bob Hughes, Doug Dittrick, Jay O'Neal, Jay Ricks. These are my friends. John Saeman. These are the people that I started with. And again, the business has changed. There are a lot more people who say, "Who the hell is Bob Schmidt?" Never had a clue. That's all right, too. Because it's going forward. I'm interested in the next generation. I want to see this industry have the reputation for doing good and making money.

Schley:: It's good to see you back at the 2014 Cable Show and it's been great, Bob, to talk to you. Thanks for sharing your time and your words for the Cable Center's oral history series. I'm Stewart Schley.

Save to PDF

Evan Shapiro

Evan Shapiro

Interview Date: April 28, 2014
Interview Location: Los Angeles, CA
Interviewer: Stewart Schley
Collection: Cable Center Oral History Collection

Schley:  It’s Stewart Schley for the Cable Center. I’m privileged to be hosting the second in two oral history interviews participated in by Evan Shapiro (participating being a very intended pun). Evan is the president of Participant Media and of Pivot. He last graced the Cable Center stage in 2007, I think, when you did an oral history that sort of brought us up to speed with your career path and where you were then. It’s still obviously archived on the Cable Center repository. So I thought, Evan—first of all, thanks for being with us. I’m supposed to announce the date. It’s April 28, 2014. We are in Los Angeles on the eve of the 2014 Cable Show.

Shapiro:  It’s actually my birthday.

Schley:  Happy birthday! Excellent. We’re not going to ask ages or dates.

Shapiro:  I’m 23.

Schley:  But anyway, let’s pick it up because when we left you—when the Cable Center left you and you had either been named or about to be named president and GM of IFC and Sundance Channel. Nothing was changing in the world of television except everything. Hulu was about to launch and there was a lot of disruption going on. Why don’t you just take the mike if you will and tell us, kind of take us back to ’07, talk about the landscape and what you were doing and how things were evolving.

Shapiro:  About a year after, maybe a little less, after I last spoke to the Cable Center, I was working at a company which at the time was called Rainbow Media, which has evolved into a spunoff company called AMC Networks. We were about to purchase Sundance Channel from a bunch of partners—CBS, NBC. It was an interesting decision. We had the Independent Film Channel, we were buying what ostensibly was the other independent film channel. Both started within a year of each other, about thirteen years prior to that. The decision was to really try to do as much as we could to corner the market on an intelligent upscale smart television watcher who appreciated independent films, but also appreciated the artistry that went into the independent mind. The concept was to differentiate the brands. So by bringing them together, you could ensure that they weren’t competing for identical viewers. What we did was we turned IFC much more into a young men’s network. We re-branded it to something called “Always On, Slightly Off.” With Sundance, we really went towards a more adult 25-54 female viewer with some really good original non-fiction programming that was launching off the back of iconoclasts. Then we really moved the brands towards original programming very, very fast and with a lot of effort and investment. IFC in the ensuing couple of years launched a slew of original programming including a show with David Cross called “The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Tom Margaret” and in the case of Sundance Channel, we launched a mini-series called “Carlos,” which actually wound up beating HBO for a Golden Globe.

So both channels were sent on their way towards distinct brands. Television branding was something that I had really studied and worked in a number of years leading up to that point, but it was there that really understanding the key elements of differentiating a brand on a spectrum became incredibly clear for me. Because when you sit two brands next to each other that have similar aspects, creating a true differentiation between the two was a fulltime job. And making sure that they didn’t cross into each other’s streams too much. There are a number of different reasons for that. We were just talking about this. One is the cable operator demands it. They don’t want a bunch of channels that look exactly alike. Even if the ratings are high, if they all look alike, nothing brings distinction or intrinsic value onto itself. The second is really from the consumer’s standpoint, it’s important to know that destinations that they find out there for programming especially with the proliferation of all these new platforms like Hulu and Netflix and Amazon and iTunes, there’s something recognizable in the brand that relates to them as an audience member.

So it was actually right around that time that I also started teaching at NYU, a management class in television management and industry as part of Stern. That’s really where nothing makes you wake up stupid everyday like standing in front of 70 or 80 college students who are all paying $50,000 or $60,000 to hear what you have to say because they’ll take you down. So it was then that I really started re-training my brain using them as a petri dish on how the future of television was going to take shape.

Schley:  I think we’ll get to that because you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the youth of today and in fact programming an entire television brand for them. But go back to—there was this interesting coalescing of brands and there was some acquisition and merger activity in the cable digital programming pool. It’s almost like at that time, it feels to me like it was the second wave. We launched a lot of channels when digital opened up channel space and a lot of them were rushed to market, I think. So maybe the brand identity is more well-established. But do you think that’s a fair way to kind of describe the iteration or the maturing of the digital cable…

Shapiro:  I think that what wound up happening was a lot of channel groups decided that they were going to launch brands as flanker brands or as extensions in order to take up real estate on the dial and also frankly to generate revenues through subscription and other advertising. I think what’s been borne out is that you can’t really program a channel and create a brand as a hobby. You have to really staff up each brand to the capacity of creating something of real value, both for the operator and for the audience member. A lot of the stress that comes in our industry comes from what I think the cable operator sees as, well, these conglomerates are forcing smaller channels on me in order to get the bigger channels. And that’s really where a great amount of the consternation comes from and I think that both the operators have been incredibly vocal about that. But I also think that a number of the larger programming groups have begun to realize that and you’ve seen, for example, NBC-Universal, Comcast, slim down its offerings and kind of really bolster its smaller brands, which I think is really incredibly intelligent and I think will create longterm value for them.

Schley:  From a programming standpoint with what you were doing at IFC and Sundance, how did you guys make decisions about programs to pursue or to invest in both from a standpoint of brand integrity, but also you’ve got to have hits at some point. What was that process like at that time?

Shapiro:  In the last ten years I’ve spent the vast majority of my time trying to focus on the audience first. So we did there a tremendous amount of research: a segmentation study, surveys, ethnographies—which I'm a big believer in and because a quantitative study is great. It gives you pure numbers. But when you can go here directly from the consumer’s mouth in the environment where they’re enjoying your product, that is incredibly telling. So it started with research there. At Sundance we did a very similar effort and then most recently, in the endeavor I'm in now, we did almost two years worth of research before we announced our programming slate and really got into it in a big way. It was the crystal ball—who knows how the future will come out—but it was the decision maker for us was there was a white space out there and there is a consumer that’s not necessarily being served by the programming options that are available. To me, it all starts with research. It all starts with getting to know what audience needs to be served because to be honest with you, the last thing America needs is another kind of bland adults 25-54 general entertainment network. We have a lot of those and you can hear consumers complaining. There’s actually too much to watch at some certain point.

High quality content will always win out, I believe, but understanding who you’re serving and what motivates them first, that’s where it always starts with me.

Schley:  When I watch “Portlandia,” I always see you show up as the executive producer in the credit and I think we talked before and you really encouraged the development of the city of Portland as a character in that show, which obviously has resonated well.

Shapiro:  My one big note on that show was, you know, we got pitched the show by Carrie and Fred, and by the folks at Broadway Video. Brilliant group. They wanted to do a sketch comedy show and they were going to shoot it in New York and they had shot the test stuff in Portland and I said—my one big note on that show; I really didn’t give any other notes on that show in the entire run that I worked on it—was: “I don’t understand why we need another sketch comedy show in New York. Portland is the character of distinction here. Just make Portland the main character.”

Schley:  That is exactly what you were just talking about though, right? Stepping away from the tried and true and the bland maybe. That show’s interesting too because I think that some of their early work started out on the Internet.

Shapiro:  “Thunder Ant” was what was pitched to us. Fred and Carrie had done it basically a hobby in the summer when Fred had breaks. He and Carrie were friends. She’s a very funny person. They decided to shoot these interesting little web videos in Portland and really what rung true for me and Dan Pasternak and Debbie DeMontreux and Jen Caserta was the weirdness of Portland. There’s two bookstore ladies, some of the other characters there—the bike messenger—they were all very distinct to Portland per se but also to places like Portland, like Austin and Silver Lake and Williamsburg. And that’s really what we were trying to capture but Portland personified it in a way that very few other places can. And anyone who’s ever been to Portland understands how much that show is a reflection of the people who live there and the mentality of the people who live there.

Schley:  You talked about audience first and research. Did both of those precepts play a role in “Portlandia,” for instance?

Shapiro:  What we found was the audience that we were serving already. So we had a growing audience on IFC. As we re-branded we did a tremendous amount of research and what we found was that they loved comedy, that a big part of what turns audiences on around independent film also can be seen in the more subversive comedy out there. So at that time we went out and got a lot of great classic subversive comedy like “Mr. Show” and “Larry Sanders,” Ben Stiller’s show, and we wanted to try to fill in the schedule with original programming that met that same mentality. So we actually at that time launched two shows: “The Onion News Network” and “Portlandia.” And we actually thought that “The Onion News Network” was going to be the big hit. It had ten million visitors on the Onion page/website and we thought that that was going to be the monster hit. It actually was the lead-in for the hour and then “Portlandia” came after. So yes, we actually were trying to fill a spoken need. They named shows specifically; “Arrested Development” being one of them which actually was running on the network. “Mr. Show” was another and a bunch of others. We wanted to find shows that fit that hunger. What wound up happening was the audience spoke. The Onion did pretty well but “Portlandia” became this cult hit. It really struck a nerve. And I think part of it was the city of Portland and how unique that landscape is. Part of it, I think, was hipster culture and the genius way that that creative team pokes fun at hipster culture while also loving it. It’s very strange. And that’s something we discussed early on as well.

Schley:  It’s very respectful in a way.

Shapiro:  Yes, yes. And people in Portland love the show. But lastly, I really have to applaud the creative genius of the director and showrunner on the show. His name is Jon Krisel, a young man who had had a baby during the production of the pilot and he’s like the third Beatle. There’s Fred and there’s Carrie but Jon really gives that show its imprimatur and gives it its filter. From the opening credits and the music that’s chosen there—just the fact that there are these characters that are like a Gary Larsen cartoon, which is a reference that many people under 30 won’t get, but there is this universe. You can see the characters even when they’re not in the foreground. You can see them running around in the background. That meta and kind of layered approach to sketch comedy really—you have to go back to “Monty Python” and some of the classic sketch. But even then this was a brand new voice out there. He edited the first season, I think, entirely on his own in his basement. It was really a labor of love and the three of them together really jelled and created what is I think still one of the most unique voices on television.

Schley:  So Evan, as you’re developing breakthrough original content for television, all this stuff is going on in the background over Hulu’s launching and Google’s just paid $1.6 billion to buy this thing called YouTube, which we all sort of were puzzled at at the time, but did that worry you? What was your way of reckoning with this new environment?

Shapiro:  First of all there are plenty of people in the television business who are far more successful than I am at both programming and running channels, many of whom I worked with at AMC Networks. So to say that I have any kind of all-knowing answers to this stuff is folly. That said, I’m very much a person who enjoys chaos, I think that change is important. Change is how I’ve built my entire career, helping create change but also jumping on change when it comes. And I believe that the change in the industry—if embraced—will only make the industry stronger. We released a piece of research today that shows that 18-34 year-olds watch as much television as they ever have. They’re just doing it on many different devices that are at times not being measured correctly. And in fact the streaming of video, of television, is not eroding the traditional television business, it’s actually enhancing it. The number one way that people in their teens and twenties watch television is still live when it’s on TV. They do binge watch, they do time shift, but what’s happened is they’re using that to catch up and then really because of social media, they feel that they have to be at that show when it’s on because it’s blowing up on Twitter or Facebook or Instagram or GetGlue and I think we’re seeing a renaissance in live television viewing that I don’t know that anyone anticipated. I’m not saying I anticipated it but because I’ve been around this generation so much—I have two kids in this generation—I teach 70 kids a year at NYU in this generation. We do a tremendous amount of research on them. This generation does not want to—and no television viewers out there want to abandon television. But the value exchange has to be good and to me the opportunity was to create programming that created value around the pay TV ecosystem for this generation. And that’s really what I’m pursuing now in the new gig.

Schley:  It’s that communal aspect of television which I grew up with. I’m older than you but I remember watching “Roots” and everybody watched “Roots,” right? I mean, everybody watched it. But we’ve sort of lost that. It felt like television is becoming maybe a more isolating experience.

Shapiro:  What’s happened in 1972 the number one show on television was—do you know?

Schley:  No.

Shapiro:  “All in the Family.”

Schley:  Of course.

Shapiro:  67 million people every week watched “All in the Family.” Not the very special episode after the Super Bowl, but every single week Mom and Dad, Sis and Bro sat down on the couch at the same time and watched Meathead and Archie argue shit out. A lot got resolved because you’d see them argue it out and then the next day, the Meatheads and the Archies—I'm not saying that show helped them find common ground, but it certainly gave them a language. And really, mountains were moved in a great part because of shows like that. And “M*A*S*H,” because we shared them all together as a communal experience and realized things at the same time. “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” the abortion episode of “Maude,” a lot got solved because of TV. Frankly the coverage of the Vietnam War was the thing that probably ended that war.

Now two things have happened because of the fragmentation. This is because of time shift but it’s also because of the proliferation of programming brands on cable and on pay TV. Because of that, viewing has become fragmented. So 67 million people was the number one show. Now it’s rare when the number one show has 20 million. It’s rare when the top five or six shows combined have 60 million. The upside of that, the positive aspect of that is that as a storyteller, you can speak very specifically to an audience. Matt Weiner doesn’t have to create “Mad Men” for Mom and Dad and Sis and Bro. It’s for a very specific audience. “Portlandia” doesn’t need to service 60 million people at once. “Archer” doesn’t have to reach four quadrants in order to be successful. “Always Sunny in Philadelphia” is a very successful show that does two million people. Stephen Colbert is about to become the king of late night. He gets about a million, million-and-a-half people a night. So it’s really, as a storyteller and as a producer, there’s never been a better time because you don’t have to do huge numbers in order to be successful. You can make a very specific story for a very specific audience.

However: what’s also happened is this fragmentation has created these silos that you just mentioned. There is no meeting in the middle anymore. Fox viewers watch Fox, MSNBC viewers watch MSNBC, I’m not sure who’s watching CNN, and you have echo chambers being created. This cultural interloping that organically happened when there were only three television choices doesn’t really happen as much anymore and we don’t resolve things as a culture in the same organic way that we used to. That said, when you layer social media on top of it, what happens is there is a cultural interloping because of almost envy. I see that happening over there and jeez, they’re all talking about “Red Wedding” or they’re all talking about “Girls” or they’re all talking about “HitRecord,” which is a show we did. I might want to check that out. I’ll wait for it to get on a platform where it’s convenient for me to watch thirteen in a row so that I can decide. And you saw this happen—“Breaking Bad,” I think, is the best example. Here’s a show that was doing two million, three million people a week in its first few seasons. And then all of a sudden, in the last couple of years, it took on this huge momentum, mostly because everybody was telling everybody else over social media, you gotta watch this show, you gotta watch this show. The advent at the end of the series also helped create an urgency there, but if it wasn’t for things like Netflix, there’s whole audience members that wouldn’t have found that show. In the last episode, about eleven million people watch it, including my daughter, who sent me a picture of her and forty of her friends crammed into her dorm rec room to watch this show live when it was on TV. Now none of them were recorded in the Nielsen numbers and I’m sure there were dorms all across the country where the same thing was happening.

So technology is usually a solution. It’s rarely an issue unless you choose like the music industry did to make it one. So now the question is, how does this industry, how does pay TV—35 years ago, pay TV, cable, was the disruptive technology in television. We seeded that over the last 25 years. We’ve become the—

Schley:  Willfully or did it just happen? Was it a consequence of economics?

Shapiro:  Partly what happens in an industry is an entire industry can go blind in all the same way. So you can really ignore problems if the entire industry chooses to ignore them. The music industry is a brilliant example. The auto industry a couple of years ago was a brilliant example of that. I think that economics is one. The money is just too good from the pay TV environment. Secondarily, there is stasis and inertia. Why destroy one piece of your business in order to create a new one when this one is going so well? Lastly, it’s generational. I think you’re starting to see a bunch of leaders come into the industry who really believe in the future of pay TV. So much of what we talk about right now in this industry is about staving off decline. Preventing decline.

Schley:  It’s the whole cord-cutting terminology.

Shapiro:  What happened to growing a business? That’s what frustrates me when we get together as a group is, we stand up and cheer when pay TV doesn’t lose subscribers in a quarter. But there’s a million-and-a-half or more, far more than that, people graduating from college every single year. And if we’re not gaining them as subscribers, where are they going? There’s a great HBO ad out there right now that shows young people sitting on the couch of their parents’ house watching HBO and encouraging them to basically borrow their HBO logon from their parents and go watch it somewhere else. That’s great, but how about getting your own subscription? And how about the industry creates packages for that constituency that is of value to them, and that’s what the industry, I think, needs to start embracing is why does Netflix strike a chord so much with this consumer base? Sixty percent of people between the ages of 18-34 have a Netflix subscription or access to one. Not all of them pay for it.

We as an industry really need to create competitive products because cable TV and pay TV is a far better product than any of these OTT products. It’s much more satisfying, I can watch it when it’s in season, I can watch it with my friends, I know it’s always on, I can take it with me in many different places but we’re not necessarily adapting as a product, I think, as fast as we need to.

Schley:  It’s interesting because in reading the clips in prep for this interview and talking to you now, you still consider yourself a cable guy, right? I mean, it seems like you still have a lot of affinity.

Shapiro:  Yes, I think it’s the future of television.

Schley:  Still?

Shapiro:  Absolutely. I mean, there’s 105, 106 million pay TV subscribers in the United States. No one wants to cancel their television subscription. They feel they have to because they’re not getting the value out of it that’s necessary. Television is the most popular, the most liked, the most powerful media on the planet, including the Internet.

Schley:  And Evan, when you say television, Hulu counts in that…or Netflix…?

Shapiro:  If you’re watching TV in a square, to me you’re watching television no matter where it is. But Netflix and Hulu and Amazon Prime don’t exist without the pay TV ecosystem first. That’s where the backbone of television is coming from. Everything I’ve learned over the last ten years has proven to me that the incumbents in the television industry still hold all the cards. Whether we choose to play them or not is on us. And I really do think it’s the programmer that has to make the change, not the distributor. The distributor is providing a service to a customer base. The programmer has to get right with the fact that we may not have the same economy in this industry that we did twenty years ago, ten years ago, five years ago.

Schley:  Let’s talk about the big move you made. First of all, just tell me about Participant Media and what was compelling about that opportunity for you?

Shapiro:  So about three years ago, maybe a little bit longer, I was having a great time at AMC Networks. I was working on some great brands. There are great people there. It was a good job. And it was a job I probably could have done for the rest of my career. However, I do like change, I do understand that if you’re not changing, you’re beginning to die. That’s how I look at it. Especially when you get to be my age. And you know I was thinking about what was going to be, where did I want to be at 60? I started looking around at what I wanted to do. And to a certain extent, when you work at a place long enough, there are times where you get promoted past the things that you love to do. In my last job, I was spending a tremendous amount of time in windowless conference rooms with a bunch of executives talking about spreadsheets. And not that I don’t love a good spreadsheet and not that I don’t love windowless conference rooms like this one, but I was spending less and less time doing what I loved every single week. And I work really hard and if I was going to spend as much time as I do away from my family, I wanted to know that a) I was going to get to put my hands in the clay, and b) that I was actually going to be able to make a lasting impact both in the industry and in the culture. Those are two things that are incredibly important to me. It was an aha moment. I like to make change. And I have a long history of working on boards and with nonprofits. I actually came from originally from the nonprofit world, from the public theater, and so I started to look for things in the industry that might allow me to do that. Whether they were teaching at NYU or joining boards or really one of the things I was considering was starting my own business, a programming business. Through the course of that I got to meet and really spend some time with the people at Participant Media. Participant is a ten year-old company founded by Jeff Skoll, who was the first employee, the first president of eBay, who made billions of dollars doing that and then was one of the first signatories to the Giving Pledge. He decided to give away a good deal if not all of his fortune to make the world a better place. He founded the Skoll Group which is dedicated to making the world more sustainable and more peaceful, Skoll Global Forum, Skoll Global Threats and Participant Media. And the premise around Participant Media was that a story well told could help create change, that entertainment could actually inspire social change. They were a film studio exclusively up until about a few years ago.

Schley:  Name a couple titles.

Shapiro:  Oh, my gosh. “Charlie Wilson’s War,” “Good Night and Good Luck,” “Syriana,” “An Inconvenient Truth,” “The Cove,” “Waiting for Superman,” “Food, Inc.,” “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” “Lincoln,” “The Help.” So really important films and by the way, all the highest quality. Even the films that were not necessarily financially successful, you can’t say enough about the quality that’s in every film that Participant makes. And they had been primarily or exclusively a film studio up until that point and Jeff really wanted to get into TV. He felt that TV was too powerful a platform to pass up and we got to discussing it and you know there are a lot of executives in this business who can do TV as good if not better than me. There are a lot of executives in the world and in media who can really do social change and action really, really well. But I actually have a nice little marriage of the two and that really came out of our conversations and we decided to partner up. They gave me a gig there. I was the first and only employee in the TV division almost exactly two years ago this week and now we have about 80 people in the television division. Since then we’ve bought two different channels, actually married them together and re-launched them as a new programming brand called Pivot. What convinced me to make the change was the mission of the company, a double bottom line company, which is something that I had really never even conceived was possible, but now you look around and there are a number of them out there. Tom _____________ is a good example of that, Warby Parker is another one of them. But Participant is really the exclusive one in the media industry and the idea that my bonus at the end of every year would be judged not just on the revenue that we generated but also on the change we made. That was perfect for me. And everybody who knows me—when they heard that that was the gig—all of them, my old bosses, said well, that’s like you made the job for yourself. I can’t say enough about how gratifying it is to go into work and have everybody kind of spin from that same hymnal every single week.

Schley:  That said, it’s a big charge to start a new television…

Shapiro:  From scratch, yes.

Schley:  So I mean you’re the first employee, you sat at a desk, what did you do?

Shapiro:  First I had to work on negotiating the purchase agreements of Documentary Channel from the owners and for Halogen from that owner and then work on building the business plan of combining them into one, moving the operations. One was in South Carolina, the other was in Nashville, moving them to Los Angeles and New York. Building out that infrastructure. There was very little. There was no traffic, there were all the little things—the scheduling…

Schley:  The grinding minutiae of running a business.

Shapiro:  But building something from the ground up is really gratifying work. I mean, it’s like raising a barn. Everyday you can see progress being made and you don’t get to do that very often. I’ve gotten to do a lot of things in this industry that not a lot of people get to do. Buy a channel, bring it in, integrate into a larger entity as we did at Sundance. Three-quarters of those types of things fail and the opportunity to do that there with all those resources was amazing. To be able to construct a brand-new television brand and business and operation from the ground up, hiring every employee, coming up with the audience, coming up with the brand, coming up with the programming with this great team that I’ve been able to assemble. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Schley:  Evan, from an industry-structural standpoint, is it possible, would it have been possible for Pivot or is it possible for anybody else to start from scratch with a new building distribution cable market by cable market and satellite deal by satellite deal. Do you have to have that base?   

Shapiro: No, I personally don’t see how the dollar spent can be returned as quickly as buying distribution. It’s kind of a charged phrase, but buying another band and turning it into something else. It’s happened; I mean, Revolt is doing it. There are a couple of others as well. But when you look across the spectrum at the channels that will actually survive and succeed, most of them started with a nice head start. In the case of Revolt even, their deal with Comcast was a huge advantage to them in the marketplace. In the case of Pivot, knowing that we had that base of about $40 million to start with, it just put us on the map in a way that we couldn’t have done if we were literally going hat in hand saying, please give us distribution.

Schley:  So talk about the business of pay television today from your vantage point. How does Pivot make money?

Shapiro:  Primarily it’s an advertising-based business. I mean, we do have very good deals with a bunch of cable affiliates and pay TV outlets like Dish and Direct. It’s a dual revenue stream but actually I see it as much more than dual. One of the great things that Netflix has offered is a new home video market. That’s a pretty powerful thing and when the DVD started dying, I think the industry thought, oh, my God, that’s a huge revenue stream that’s going to go away but EST through iTunes and _______ through the various players as long as you stay true to your cable affiliate agreements. It’s nice to know that those revenues are there. Foreign revenue has actually been a really nice thing for us in the first couple of years, being able to distribute content around the world. It also helps the other part of our double bottom line which is the mission reaching other territories. I do believe, however, that video is primarily going to be some combination of subscribed content. So I think that cable subscriptions, ______ subscriptions, those types of ongoing annuities will be one of the major drivers and the other is advertising. There is no better advertising media than television. Nothing comes even close. Reach certainly is a big part of that but the engagement. If you look at other viable forms of advertising out there in the world, there are things that work. But the thing that works best always is television. And that’s because there’s an emotional exchange between an audience and a storyteller that can’t be replicated in any other media.

Schley:  Let’s talk about your audience target for Pivot. You’ve done a lot of research and thought a lot about this brood we call the Millennials. What are they all about and why do they need a television channel?

Shapiro:  First of all, I actually prefer to refer to them as Generation Y. Millennials is really a packaging concept that came up at the end of the last century. Generation Y is—they get a lot of baggage, they get a lot of knocks by people who are my age and older who don’t really understand the motivations of this generation. This generation is the most digitally-native so they understand technology better than any generation that’s come before. They’re the most world-wise because of technology and they know more about their world and about their generation than any generation that’s come before them. But they’re also—because of two major events, which would be 9/11 and the Great Recession—much more concerned with the future of the planet. And that doesn’t just mean the environment although that’s a bit part of it, but it’s about society and about how we deal with each other—things like race, things like sexual preference, but also sustainability from a different standpoint which is the way cultures get along and conflict. So this generation is actually—I refer to them as the New Greatest Generation. They hold a lot in common with the Greatest Generation. Most notably, born into great privilege, very adept at technology, asked to save the world from problems they didn’t create. Not volunteer necessarily, always. The Greatest Generation we all love to sing their praises, and they saved the world from Fascism and many other problems, but they were drafted into service, they were called upon. We face the same type of circumstance now. We need this generation to save the planet from itself. Our generation’s pretty much fucked it up and we’ve handed them a whole lot of problems that they didn’t create that they now must solve. So what I really don’t understand is when older generations look at them as narcissistic, or navel-gazing, or self-entitled, I think it’s right for them to be a little bit selfish and wonder what’s going to happen to this planet that they’re going to have to live on.

That’s a big driver. That’s really why we decided to focus on this generation—is that they actually do care more than most.

Schley:  A sense of purpose?

Shapiro:  90% of them through our research is passionate about at least one cause. We see that somewhere north of 40% or 50% is passionate about six or more causes. Again, technology really helps in that, though. It’s very easy to protest when protesting means changing your Facebook profile. By the way, that’s a viable form of protest now. Just ask the people who are pushing PIPA and SOPA. Just ask all the gay marriage advocates out there. So when you look at how social change is made now, which is often through these forms of social media, of course this generation is going to use that platform to create change.

The other aspect of it is their priorities are not exactly what the priorities of the previous generations are but they’re also not out of whack, either. They believe in family. In fact, they’re closer to their parents probably than any generation coming before. They care about having a job of purpose. 80% of them say they prefer to make less money to work at a company whose values they agree with. That’s very strange especially for someone from Gen X who’s all about the paycheck right out of college. So we’ve created a programming brand that we don’t think has been present for them. There are great shows out there that they enjoy that have purpose and take on issues.

Schley:  From different places.

Shapiro:  Yes. We air a couple of them ourselves: “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Friday Night Lights,” etc., etc., but is there a home where a) their intelligence is going to be respected innately, where the faces on the screen, the people who are creating the content are from their generation. When you look at somebody like Meghan McCain or Joseph Gordon-Levitt or Josh Thomas, all of whom are on our network, they’re all of the generation and not just mouthpieces. They’re actually the creators of the show, the producers of the show, they’re the originators of the concept. That’s important. When you think about this generation, they created Facebook, they created Snapchat, they created Twitter. They can create things. We can give them power and good things can happen from it, but you have to trust in them and you have to give them something to respond to.

Schley:  What do you want to be for them? I remember there was a time—there might have been a fleeting moment in my day when MTV was our thing. That is my channel. Somebody finally made me a television channel. Is that what you want to be for Gen Y?

Shapiro:  Yes, we definitely want to reflect this generation in a very specific way which is we want to reflect the best parts of who they are back to them. But it goes back to calling them into service. We definitely believe that this channel is a clarion call. It’s time. Join. We’re not going to tell them what to do. We’ll give them various options and we do hundreds of different ways they can actually make change within their cultures and within their lives on a monthly basis. We give them a platform, our website called takepart.com, to take action there. But really what we want is to tell stories that inspire them to go out and make change on their own. Or to gather together in a community. And that’s really, I think, the big differentiator within this generation from previous ones is that there’s a sense of community there that is much larger and much stronger than ever before driven in good part because of technology.

Schley:  I see these behaviors that you’re expressing in my kids. Well, yes, of course.

Shapiro:  How old are your kids?

Schley:  I’ve got one that’s 26 and one that’s 23.

Shapiro:  Right. They’re right in the heart of it.

Schley:  I’m so taken about what you said about “All in the Family” earlier in our conversation. And I feel like a lot of those principles about “maybe we can, maybe not shape opinion, but influence opinion a little bit.” Taking root in what you’re doing today, is that fair?

Shapiro:  We want to give our viewers and this generation enough information to formulate their own opinion. There will be opinions expressed. When you do a live television show with Meghan McCain and Eddie Huang and Jacob Soboroff, opinions will be given. The opinions of the people on the show. Joe Gordon-Levitt has a tremendous number of really great ideas, especially about how to make television. You look at that show, which is the world’s first truly open source television show, that’s a very specific idea. But we never come out and say, well, this is the only way. This is meant to inspire conversation with you and your community about what you want to do now. If we can help, terrific. If you can go out and do it on your own, also great.

We’ve got a couple of really amazing new shows. One’s called “Human Resources” about this company called TerraCycle which was founded by a guy, Tom, who’s 31, out of his dorm room at Princeton, which is really the world’s leading company for up-cycling. They take trash and turn it into new products. That’s not what the show is about, though. The show is about what does it look like to work in a place where you believe in what they’re doing. It’s not always perfect. But it’s always interesting. And we’re doing another show about young entrepreneurs here in Fairfax, in the Fairfax region of Los Angeles, that are about primarily young people of color starting their own businesses, starting their own careers, many of whom they’re the first in their families to start a business. It’s taken for granted in a number of families in this country that, well, I’ll just do what my dad did. Or I’ll just do what my mom did. But that’s not always how it works out in many communities across this country. So we’re trying to be a reflection of what’s actually going on out there and to provide best practices and opportunities for the community to learn from each other on how to get shit done.

Schley:  I have two more questions for you. One is I was interested in reading your bio and how you sort of kicked around and found your way into the media and communications business. And like everybody’s path, it’s not only your path.

Shapiro:  A winding path.

Schley:  What would a 23 year-old Evan Shapiro do today? Where would be your pursuit point? What would you say?

Shapiro:  That’s a great question. That’s really a good question and I actually get asked that a lot. I think it really depends on who that Evan Shapiro is and what their interests are, but I think we’re about to go through a huge renaissance of independent television production in the United States. Nothing against the big studios at all, but there’s a lot of overhead there, there’s a lot of infrastructure, there’s a lot of things about those studios that don’t allow for adaptability or nimbleness. But there are some really terrific small production companies that are growing up here in the United States who are making the best shows on television. And certainly the most popular shows on television. That’s where I would push somebody who is looking to get into the business today would be to go and try to get a gig, whether it’s pushing a broom or answering the phones at an independent production company. That’s where I think the rubber is really hitting the road. I think that’s that where the great creativity is coming out of. We work non-exclusively but we work predominantly with small independently-run television production companies, run oftentimes by the artists themselves. That’s where some really great stuff is happening and I think a lot of the change in the industry, the cross-platform stuff, the brand integration stuff, the storytelling innovations—you look again, I have to go to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s show “HitRecord.” That show would never have survived at a major studio. It never would have gotten out of development, frankly. And he’ll tell you it probably wouldn’t have been able to be made the way it was made on any other network. But because he has this independent production company called HitRecord and he’s working with a brilliant independent producer, Brian Graden and because he came into a truly independent non-public company like Participant, it just jelled. And I’m proud of a lot of things in my career. That show is a difference-maker and it shows that television of the past doesn’t necessarily have to be the television of the future. It doesn’t abandon what’s great about television, it adapts what’s great about television into a new format. If I do nothing else at my time in Participant that’s the thing I’ll point to as, wow, we really made something special.

Schley:  I mean it seems like that like in this world where some of the scarcity in positions are sort of gone and there’s more opportunity, I guess that’s reflected in what you’re talking about.

Shapiro:  And frankly, you talk to people who run businesses now and the smart ones are inviting the young people in on day one to offer their ideas. They may not take the ideas but they’re listening to them. Those are the companies that will win, the companies that embrace this generation and really include them in their decision-making.

Schley:  I want to ask you what’s the most fun about your job, but if there’s a subject we haven’t touched on, now’s the opportunity to riff about it.

Shapiro:  I think the thing that’s most fun about my job are the people that I get to work with. This industry is very sexy, it attracts very smart, very energetic, very passionate people. But then you add that mission to it and suddenly the quality of people and quality of talent you attract, it’s remarkable. I don’t know that I was prepared for how much the Participant model was going to attract the best and brightest from the talent pool but from the executive pool as well. That’s stunning and it’s been really, really gratifying and just a ton of fun to just know that there’s a higher purpose than just ratings and dollars and the treadmill that we can so often get into in this business. Frankly, the television industry I actually do a lot with the Cable Center to help the industry recruit the best and the brightest into our talent pool. I think if we managed to shift our focus just enough to embrace change and embrace this new consumer, we will have no problems attracting the best and the brightest because it’s such fun to work in television. And if you can look towards the future and help use the platform to make change, we will get the best and the brightest. We will win, we will survive well into our next fifty or sixty years.

Schley:  It’s easy to have a more optimistic view of not just cable television but kind of the world, talking to you.

Shapiro:  And by the way, this generation gives you that optimism. When you spend enough time with people in their late teens, early twenties, early thirties, you can’t help—they understand the problems the world faces, but they definitely think there’s a bright future out for them and they’re going to be a part of making it happen.

Schley:  Well, hopefully, we can check back in in another five or six years and see…

Shapiro:  Hopefully I’ll still be working in the cable industry.

Schley:  This has been great. Evan Shapiro, thank you so much for being a friend of the Cable Center and for sitting down with us today for the Cable Center’s oral history series.


Save to PDF

Israel "Sruki" Switzer

Israel Switzer

Interview Date: Wednesday June 30, 1993
Interview Location: Washington, DC
Interviewer: Archer Taylor
Collection: Archer Taylor Technical Collection
Note: Audio Only

TAYLOR: We are doing a recording - an interview for the Richard Schneider Memorial project. I am interviewing Israel Switzer, better known as "Sruki" ... long time engineer in the cable television field. I am the interviewer, Archer Taylor.

SWITZER: Do you want to put the date on record, Archer?

TAYLOR: The date is June 30, and we are in the NCTA building in one of their vacant offices. I'd like to start the interview, Sruki with the background on you and your family ... where you came from, what your family was like, how you grew up, and so on.

SWITZER: I was born in Calgary, in Alberta, province of Alberta, in Canada, and yesterday was my birthday - June 29, 1929.

TAYLOR: Congratulations!

SWITZER: I am of immigrant parents ... the classic Jewish family immigrants from central Europe, from Poland and grew up and born in '29 in the Depression and in very modest circumstances, I guess the usual, as I say, for that time, quite usual. Grade school in Calgary, high school in Calgary. Then I went away to the ... I guess not the big city, but in those years, the only university in the province was in Edmonton, 200 miles north of Calgary.

TAYLOR: Where did the family first establish in...?

SWITZER: In Calgary ... and lived in Calgary all of their lives in Canada. They came in '28, from, as I said, from central Europe and lived there. I grew up there, but left to go to the university in '46, I guess. I really didn't spend much time in Calgary after that. I was a ... I guess today they call them nerds in grade and high school and generally good marks in high school and particularly in math and the sciences. My intent at the time was to take chemistry. I was going to be a chemist. I remember nearly blowing up the family kitchen. I think probably I was stewing something in acetone or something, on a gas stove and blew the stove out and charcoal ... that is, carbon particles all over the house and I suppose it could have been worse than that.

TAYLOR: That's what you call a learning experience.

SWITZER: But I also became deeply involved in photography while I was in high school and had my home dark room and took photography very seriously and later paid my way through the university as a photographer. The first money I ever made, which was delivering groceries for a neighborhood grocery store on my bicycle, I went and bought an encyclopedia with ... I think I probably read it cover to cover ... I have it still at home. It has a place of honor on my bookshelf at home. It's a 1939 Encyclopedia Americana in red buckram - 30 volumes, probably ... keep it still.

TAYLOR: You were still in Calgary at this time?

SWITZER: Yes. As I said I lived in Calgary through high school. I left to go to the university. I had to go to - I guess they call them state colleges now - this was provincial university, and the closest available, because we just couldn't afford to send me to the equivalent of ivy league schools in Canada, which would have been the University of Toronto or McGill University in Montreal, or maybe even University of British Columbia. So, I went to Edmonton, again, in modest circumstance and worked most nights as a photographer. I remember working one whole winter developing and printing pictures for a street photographer. Do you remember the people used to stand on the street, snap your picture, hand you a little tag?

TAYLOR: Oh yes.

SWITZER: I did the night shift on the dark room work on printing up the orders ... that is, developing the film and then printing up the orders for those and I worked for a banquet photographer ... probably the last photographer in the world to use flash powder.

TAYLOR: For goodness sake.

SWITZER: This would have been '47 ... '46 or ... probably winter of '46, '47. His specialty was taking these huge banquet groups.

TAYLOR: Did he have a panoramic camera?

SWITZER: No, he had a sort of wide angle ... they weren't glass plates, but I think the film would have been about 18" by maybe 7" and it was sort of a great big plate camera and we had multiple stands to light the room and it took flash powder really and 4 or 5 trays of it. And I learned pretty quick not to look up after the flash, or you would get the dust in your eyes. So I helped with that and did the dark room work on that ... all contact printing - didn't have an enlarger for that size plate and did miscellaneous photography work, but it hurt some. I wasn't nearly as hot a shot in college as I had been in high school and I soon switched also from chemistry to physics after my first year and then just took what they call a pass degree in physics ... graduated in '49, I guess that was just before my 20th birthday. I went on to do some graduate work in physics.

TAYLOR: What caused you to switch from chemistry to physics?

SWITZER: I don't remember Archer, just what the change was. I think that it was just that I didn't find chemistry nearly as interesting and it seemed to me that the chemistry was going to take more memory work than I cared to apply ... that physics had a little ... was closer to mathematics ... had sort of a clearer, more simple logic background than chemistry did. At least that was my experience in first year and looking forward to it...

TAYLOR: I find it interesting that Bob Powers who was at the Bureau of Standards, and then became Chief Scientist at the FCC, now with MCI, is a chemist. He has a PhD in chemistry, not chemical engineering, but chemistry. And he has turned out to be quite an engineer, too.

SWITZER: Do you know Mark Dzuban?

TAYLOR: Oh yes.

SWITZER: Mark is also a chemist in physical chemistry and he's turned out to be a video engineer.

TAYLOR: I didn't know that.

SWITZER: One of the best. You get varied backgrounds, but I never took engineering. But I did start on the masters program then and my research thesis was ... I don't even know if I can pronounce it still ... The Aerothermal Effects of Solar Ultraviolet, that is, the biological effects of solar ultraviolet. What I had to do was to build a very special photo electric system for measuring and accumulating, integrating, solar ultraviolet. So it was a quartz photocell in a ... I think we had some kind of Lucite housing, and we had calibrated the transmissivity of it on a spectrometer and because the output of this photo cell was so low, we were measuring picoamperes or something like that. No trick at all today, but in 1950, '51, that was a real major technical problem and then running an integrator to integrate and chart the whole thing and then we had a counter which was adapted from a traffic engineering counter. So, we had an integrator which charged a low leakage capacitor ... some kind of trigger circuit that then triggered at a preset voltage, discharged the capacitor and then clicked this traffic counter and then it would print every 15 minutes. That's the way this traffic counter was built, so we had to count out of ... so we had a paper tape then, a record of solar ultraviolet and then this had to be correlated with the project in the biology department that was trying to correlate solar ultraviolet with the population of rabbits, somehow ... and sparrows. I used to help them ... I would go over and help them anesthetize, I was the anesthetist and we would anesthetize the rabbit and the biology grad student would then do a quick operation to remove the ovaries and check the ovaries then to see if they had been affected somehow ... could correlate with the solar ultraviolet measurements I was taking. We also had to ... they were checking something in sparrows, but those we had to shoot. The rabbits we could rehabilitate ... sew them back up again. I remember going out and shooting sample sparrows with a little 410 shot gun ... lots of sparrows. I don't think we were affecting the ... I don't think they missed a few sparrows for that week. Although I had a modest stipend for lab demonstrating ... and the like ... usual thing for grad students ... I still had to work at the photography most nights and I never did finish my masters degree ... did all the work ... finished all the academic requirement, but didn't quite finish the thesis, and so, never got my masters degree. I say logged the time ... six years altogether, I guess, with the under grad and the grad work. Summertime, during from '49 through '52, I worked as a photographer at Jasper National Park. I worked for an excellent, and truly great photographer. He had been head of the National Film Board, which was the big government photographic agency during the war. He had sort of semi-retired to Jasper and ran a photographic business in Jasper ... we had the publicity contract for the big hotel ... the big resort hotel in Jasper ... and he still worked as a photojournalist, regularly. He was away a good part of the time, on assignment, as a photojournalist for some of the major Canadian photo periodicals. I did his dark room work, so I got to be a very good dark room technician in terms of the chemistry and processing of film and printing. I managed the dark room ... I managed the photo retail shop.

TAYLOR: Is this all monochrome photography?

SWITZER: No, we were into color, not into print. We were into processing Ektachrome at the time, that is, slide films. The work for the public ... that is just photofinishing, was all in black and white. But I did install the first sort of automatic printing machine for photofinishing. We had that, with auto contrast paper, I remember ... but still on a small scale. But for his work, I did the color transparency work ... chemistry ... the processing, but we didn't do any printing. That is, the transparencies were then sent into the magazine that had commissioned the work. Up to about ... I think the biggest camera we used was a 3 and 1/4 by 4 and 1/4, Speed Graphic. His favorite though, was a Rolleiflex. And I got one of his hand-me-down Rolleiflexes ... I think about a 1950 model ... and I have it still ... the Rolleiflex that I used then and I did some camera work, but it was soon obvious to me I wasn't the class of photographic artist that he was. But then, when I was leaving the university, that is in '52, I was offered the ... television broadcasting was just starting in Canada in those years and through this work at Jasper, I had come to know very well the principal radio broadcaster in Edmonton. He was a neighbor of my boss's in Jasper ... that is, he had a summer home in Jasper ... got to know him very well ... and that fall, in '52, he had gotten the license for the first television station in Edmonton and it was going on the air in the fall of '52. He offered me the job as station photographer. And that involved of course, a lot of movie work ... and I was doing some at Jasper ... that is movie camera work in 16mm.

TAYLOR: You mentioned that broadcasting ... television was just starting in Canada. Of course the color television standards in the United States were adopted in 1953 ... black and white in 1941. What was the history of television in Canada?

SWITZER: The origins of television in Canada, were that when the border stations started ... Seattle, Buffalo ... they were the principal border stations ... that is, adjoining Canada ... Canadians put up roof top antennas then to get the American television stations, so places like Toronto had roof top antennas...

TAYLOR: This was post-war?

SWITZER: This was post-war. There was nothing pre-war. There was nothing pre-war at all. There was, early, soon after the war, a wired project in Montreal.

TAYLOR: Rediffusion?

SWITZER: Rediffusion. And rediffusion brought their ... twisted pair, if you care to call it ... their HF technology and their special TV sets.

TAYLOR: Was this Qwist at that time?

SWITZER: Yes it was. They were fairly well along in the late forties, in terms of their understanding of the technology of that particular kind of distribution. So they had quad pairs, all balanced, and in production ... that is, it was considered a mature technology at that time. And they had these special TV sets which had no tuner ... they had an IF, in effect, that worked at the HF frequency that they used, which was around 5 megahertz or so. You had a tap switch then for selecting the program that you wanted. So Rediffusion had been doing quite well in England, with this, soon after the war and of course, the history of that was based on wired radio ... that is, running a similar system, with loud speakers, all over Europe between the wars ... that is, in the 20's and 30's and then they adapted that television. But Rediffusion had been doing that in the UK, particularly, and they were then looking all over the world for places to take it to. They were looking principally then at what you call former British Empire sort of things and so they came to Montreal. And they built a system in Montreal and had several thousand units running on that basis, in Montreal. You knew Ken Easton?

TAYLOR: Oh yes, indeed.

SWITZER: We should find Ken for this project. He is retired.

TAYLOR: Yes I know. I've talked with him. I've got so many people that I could interview that it's...

SWITZER: That project is what brought Ken Easton to Canada from the UK. He had been with Rediffusion and they sent him to Montreal

TAYLOR: That's interesting. I didn't know that.

SWITZER: ... the technical side of this. So this was the first actual television in Canada. And they ran on a closed circuit basis ... that is, they originated some of their own programming and they repeated some off-air from the U.S. So that could be considered a very early cable TV system. And I don't know if it predates what we consider the pioneer American systems or not. I'd have to do some checking onto the actual dates of their operation in Montreal, but it would have been around 1950 or so. If that is the year, then it is sort of coincident or slightly after the American precedent that we consider. Television broadcasting started in Canada then in '52 ... that is, local stations ... first in Toronto and then shortly after in Montreal. The classic story is their opening night in Montreal, they put their ID slide up when they flipped on the transmitter and it was upside down. It was pathetic for the history of television in Canada.

TAYLOR: Now were they broadcasting to the NTSC monochrome standards?

SWITZER: There was never any question of standards. It was NTSC monochrome. Color wasn't authorized in Canada until sometime later ... I don't know the exact date but the official authorization for color in Canada followed the U.S. practice by quite a few years. And the reason was given as economic ... that they didn't want Canadian stations ... I'll use the term paraphrasing their intent of squandering resources on color when they should have been using the money to produce Canadian programming. That's been the regulatory position in Canada ... to spend the money on Canadian programming, rather than on technology. And that has carried through, even to the question of high definition television. Very recently, the Chairman of the Board of CRTC - whom I know quite well personally - and I, shared a panel platform at a high definition conference in Canada, two years ago, and he said, quite clearly, that the emphasis in CBC was in no rush to get into high definition because of what resources they had and they had been cut back because they operate under government funding, would be spent on programming and not on technology. That has been the general approach of the regulatory authorities in Canada, and so color came late in Canada. Although color, of course, was being received from the U.S. and as cable operators, we had to deal with color transmission early on because the history of cable in Canada, has really always been based on relaying American transmission.

TAYLOR: I was reading a biography of David Sarnoff and talking about the color situation in the 50's and 60's, after RCA beat out CBS on the field sequential color ...

SWITZER: In the second round.

TAYLOR: In the second round. The commercial standards were adopted, but NBC was the only one that did any color at all. In fact, the CBS and ABC people were saying, "We are going to wait until there is an audience and then we'll consider going into color." And it was actually ten years later before they really got around to doing any extensive coloring.

SWITZER: But do you think it hurt them economically? Because RCA had a motive ... they had the patents, the promotions, the TV sets to sell and I mention the patents because that's been an important position for RCA. They had a stake not only in the color sets that RCA manufactured and sold, but in the other sets that had been sold. They had a very powerful motivation.

TAYLOR: Of course the main thing they had was David Sarnoff and it was obvious that after he was gone, they couldn't pull together.

SWITZER: Now as the mover, but that's what it took ... it's very much chicken and egg ... you need programming, you need sets, you need programming, you need sets ... but I don't think it hurt ABC and CBS to sit back and watch until there was a reasonable base to broadcast.

TAYLOR: As a matter of fact, over the years, we've seen frequently, on NBC, not too good color. It's all pretty much changed now with new equipment, but back in the early days, NBC had some problems ... in fact they talked about the vestigial side-band problem as "NBC Halo". By the time CBS and ABC got into color, their equipment was better and they were able to do a better job than NBC ... than the older stations of NBC.

SWITZER: I remember talking to broadcast engineers at the time on how they were setting things up and they said, "Well, their standard was the Kodak commercial ... that if they could reproduce that Kodak yellow ... that's how they were judged." I used it in that conversation in comparing then, European and American approaches to television technologies in general ... that American television was driven by commercial ... by advertising. So the technical criteria ... the technical standard for the network, for the station, was to satisfy the advertiser. If the president of Kodak or the president at Kraft or whoever, thought that his product was coming through on his TV set at home in the right colors, then that was ok ... he didn't have to do anymore than that. Whereas European television, being mostly non-commercial, the standard they had was they would set a classic engineering spec and they would then expect the engineering department to conform to it and spend whatever money was necessary, on both the research in terms of testing and techniques and testing equipment and in maintaining equipment to meet this spec. And I have always held a view that that is why Europe for many years was sort of ahead of American ... the American, the actual technology itself.

TAYLOR: Do you know the story about Jack Parr and his program? While he was still doing the late night show, he went to England, for a vacation sort of thing, for about a month I think. And the agreement was that the BBC would record his programs to NTSC Standards, fly it back to New York, to put on the air. So they did this and the telephone began to ring off the hook at NBC ... the advertisers were saying, "What are you doing to our commercials? Why are they so bad?" And the problem was that the NTSC tape that was being flown from England was so much better than what the commercials were doing in New York, that they looked bad.

SWITZER: By comparison.

TAYLOR: These engineers did a lot of discussing back and forth in the trade press on this, and my final conclusion, from listening to what the engineers had to say was that the difference is what I call "TLC" ... tender loving care. Every step of the way in British television was carefully controlled, as you say, it was a precision operation - everything was done right.

SWITZER: Always done by the numbers. That was the only criteria they had, was the numbers. They didn't have these advertisers then.

TAYLOR: And they kept it up constantly. They were continually monitoring numbers.

SWITZER: And they had generous budgets, I think also for engineering.

TAYLOR: The budget didn't depend on sales.

SWITZER: Yes. I was at the NAB show, quite a few years ago, where Phillips introduced the plumbicon color camera. It was a huge improvement over the.... [masked by interviewer comment].

TAYLOR: That was a few years ago!

SWITZER: Well, it was about 25 years. I won't call it an uproar, but it was interesting to watch then, the American engineers - RCA principally, coming over then to see this plumbicon camera working and how much better it was, than what they had. But the color technology that started this discussion of color, by asking about when it was introduced in Canada ... as cable engineers, we had a concern with the handling of color and also then, an understanding of what the problems would be. I had found that the best help were the network people ... that is the telephone network people who had to handle the transmission, because it was all ... at least in Canada originally ... it was all on microwave and I think mostly in the US, mostly on microwave. What do they call it? TD 2? The

classic AT&T version?

TAYLOR: TD 2 ... that sounds right ...

SWITZER: Whatever the designation was. But the classic AT&T, 4 gigahertz system. And reading then the papers, and looking at their manuals on the checking of that and the specification and the modifications required to bring the network transmission up to color spec was then a good education in the problems that you could have with the handling NTSC. Because certainly in those years, and I don't know that there is even now an engineering school that is an EE program that teaches television engineering ... that is where do you learn NTSC? And I suppose there are some technical colleges, but if you look at EE programs I don't ... do you suppose there is one that teaches broadcasting technology?

TAYLOR: I would be surprised if there isn't, but I can't site one.

SWITZER: I can't site one either. And certainly in those years there weren't. And so you started with an EE degree or an equivalent and you had to learn color, you had to learn broadcast technology. And I don't know what the formal programs were. As I, over the years, reviewed Curriculum Vitaes for broadcast engineers of various times and at various levels, they all seemed to have learned it on the job. Mind you, there were some very good books though available from early on ... I'm thinking of Fink and the NAB manual and one or two others. So that there have been very good broadcast engineering textbooks and references and handbooks available. And also in transmission, there are a couple of blue jacketed books from AT&T on transmission engineering, which have helped in understanding cable transmission.

TAYLOR: Let's go back to how you got into ... or what you did after your college and how you got into cable.

SWITZER: When I left college in '52, this was very early in the Canadian oil boom. And that oil boom was centered on Edmonton, which is where I had been going to college. And in those years, the oil companies were the just hiring the EE classes wholesale. There was no trouble in getting a job in the oil business, if you were inclined at all. Well, not having a full master's degree and not feeling that I really had any future in academic physics, this looked pretty good. And I went to work for a geophysical company, except I picked an odd-ball one and it was a company called Weiss Engineering ... sorry, Weiss Geophysics.

TAYLOR: Weiss?

SWITZER: Weiss. And it was actually a South African company, because geophysics of the non-petroleum variety was pretty well understood and practiced in South Africa because of the huge mining industry there ... and this company had come to Canada to learn something about oil prospecting and also to try and apply some of their classic mining geophysics to oil prospecting. And I went to work for them in the fall of '52 for a salary of $401 per month. And it was 401, because at the $400 level, I was subject to some kind of social security taxes or whatever, but at 401 I didn't have to pay ... and so that was my salary at the time ... and I went out and bought my first car on payments ... I think it cost ... first new car ... I had owned a car before my first new car. But I went to work for what was essentially a mining-geophysics company. We worked in shallow seismic, which was understood by mining companies, and we also applied magnetic and gravity techniques. So I learned magnetometer, I learned gravity meter. Gravity meters ... you've probably worked with them Archer.

TAYLOR: No I don't. I'm not familiar with it at all.

SWITZER: I thought you had a geophysics background personally.

TAYLOR: No. Physics, but not geophysics.

SWITZER: Gravity meters actually measured the force of gravity as such. The instrument at that time was, in effect, a little quartz fiber, with a little weight on it and you measured, in effect, the torque in this glass ... in this little quartz fiber and through a microscope and you calibrated it by generally by taking it up and down an office building in an elevator and it was sensitive enough then to tell the difference on the force of gravity ... say from the ground floor to the tenth or the twentieth floor and you measured that and you calibrated the instruments that way. And you went around then, taking gravity readings on a grid, all over the country looking then for the density anomalies or for gravity anomalies and those could be correlated to geology structures that might have oil in them. So I learned mostly non-seismic techniques. As I say, we did a little bit of shallow seismic. And they also sent me on a mining project out to eastern Canada, which I didn't like at all. There we were doing magnetometer on a copper prospect. And what bothered me was the oil companies did things first class. When you worked for an oil company and you went into the bush for an oil company, it was first class. You had helicopters. You had Cats. You had track vehicles. You had four wheel drives. You had portable housing shelters - heated, cooled, whatever. Whatever it took to get you. This mining thing ... we lived in tents ... no proper privies even and the other thing was that in oil company work when you went to the bush and if it was anywhere halfway remote, we used to work 20 days ... I think 10 hours a day straight and then take the rest of the month off. I thought that was great. I thought that was a sensibly way to work in the bush. Mining, you worked Monday through Friday and then you had two days off sitting in the bush camp twiddling your thumbs. Anyway, I didn't care for that and I went back to Calgary and went to work for an oil company. I went to work for a company called United Geophysical, which was owned at that time by Herb Hoover, Jr. He was the son of the President and he then later sold it to ... sorry, it had been founded by Herb Hoover, Jr. and he had recently sold it to Union of California. We were the geophysical subsidiary of the big oil company. Then I learned seismic. But I worked on the instrumentation side. And for that company, my main job was being the maintenance engineer on a kind of a field test of the new multichannel magnetic tape recorder. Seismic was traditionally done ... you won't mind a mild obscenity on the tape, will you?

TAYLOR: Not at all. Incidentally, you will have a copy of the transcript to review, and if you would like to take anything out, that's up to you.

SWITZER: You know how seismic is done?


SWITZER: You drill a hole in the ground, maybe that big ... three or four inch bore with a truck mounted rigging, depending...just through the overburden so that you can couple the energy of a few pounds of dynamite, then solidly into the ground. Then you string out these geophones, as they're called, which are really low frequency seismic sensors and you string them out, maybe 100 foot intervals for a quarter mile each way and you then have a lead back from each of these pickups, back into a multichannel recorder. You explode the charge. It sends these waves down. You pick up the echoes ... it's an echo sounding process. And the classic recording had been a multichannel paper graph ... like an ECG graph and I think, traditionally, there were sort of 24 traces. You had a mark when the explosive charged ... that was your reference and you got these wavy traces ... 24 of them. And you are interested in frequencies generally below 100 Hertz because that's all really that would get down a few thousand feet and back up again. And that had been traditionally done, then as I say, on paper charts. So, they had developed over the years, because seismic started probably in the early twenties, the techniques of filtering. You had LC filters in your amplifiers and could set them for different settings and the like. And so to get a series of recordings with different filter settings, you then ... it took some time, you had to take, reload the hole and do it all over again ... make a new recording.

TAYLOR: Were these band-pass filters?

SWITZER: These were band-pass filters ... generally low pass filters but you had sets of low pass - high pass, you could set band-pass arrangements of various kinds. So this was a tedious process and quite slow then to get multiple recordings from the same set-up. United had the idea of applying multichannel tape recorders to the process and making a broadband recording on tape and then playing it back ... then later through filter settings of various kinds, "pop lines" so to speak. So we had the first field test of this multichannel tape. It was a 2" magnetic tape - 24 heads on it and it was in a continuous loop - you got about a second or two seconds of recording time on it and I was the field engineer then ... sorry, the maintenance engineer on that and I had to see that it kept working and I had to do the off-line play-backs at night then, through the various filter settings. We played from the tape then to a paper track oscillograph because this is what the geologists were used to reading. So I worked on that for quite a time. Learned a bit of geology, but still going through all this field work and I was still single ... relatively young, I guess, 21 - 22, and still writing home at the time. When I went into this, they put you through a training program ... you worked on a couple of weeks on handling the cables and the jugs as they were called, the geophones, and you worked on the drilling rig to drill the hole and you worked a couple of weeks on the shooting truck, learning to handle the dynamite. And depending on the type of area we were in, we could go through a ton of dynamite a day. And so I was writing home and saying, "Well, on Monday I start on the shooting crew." My mother calls back ... she hadn't raised her boy to be fooling around with dynamite and I said, "It's ok folks, as long as I know my ass from a hole in the ground, I'll will be ok." But I worked at that and then they brought me back into the office in Calgary to work on a special thing in well-logging. Well-logging is also a classic oil field technology and it's usually done by a resistivity probe and they put an electronic probe down the hole and they log then the resistivity of the various geographic formations that they are going through and they are logged very accurately against depth- there is a very special sheave that the cable goes over - the cable's low stretch. And they had developed over the years a technique of well-logging - firms like Schlumberge - they were the big companies in that. And it was routinely done on every well.

TAYLOR: Based on the soil resistivity?

SWITZER: No, on the rock. So they would log the entire bore hole. And this was very important to the geologist in understanding the geology of the area that they were in and they would log dry holes and they would log productive holes and it was a very important database. United then, developed a technique that they called sonic well-logging, and they used a tool then that would log the sonic velocity and the formation. It was a longish pole - maybe 10 feet long and they had an electrically driven hammer that would make a "ping" at one end and you would pick it up then ... a little further up, so you could measure the velocity of the sound in this formation over a 6 to 10 foot interval and you then logged the velocity - the sonic velocity in the well and it was thought that this also might be helpful to geologists. I worked in the office in the interpretation of that. And this got us involved then in trying to do Fourier analysis. Well, this is 1957 I guess by now, and I'm trying to do Fourier analysis on a whole bunch of data and the only computer system I have available is sort of punch card. Well, if you can imagine doing a Fourier analysis with decks of punch cards where you are correlating data against a deck of cosines on a deck, and it could take you weeks to do anything ... if you did it at all ... I think we did it once, and then said, "This will never work." But I picked up one of the EE magazines - a new product announcement called an electronic computer, called an LGP 30 and they show a desk sized machine and a little bit of spec on it and I thought, "Gee, this is interesting" and I send in the coupon, and a few weeks later a couple of salesmen came to see me. Turns out, that the company that was selling that computer was, in effect, Royal Typewriter - a company called Royal McBee which was Royal Typewriter and the McBee part of it sold simple manual accounting forms. I don't know if you've ever seen these one write check boards, where you write carbon through and distribute them.

TAYLOR: Oh yes indeed.

SWITZER: Very basic, simply an absolute antithesis of the computerized system. So here are these two salesmen who are used to selling typewriters and manual accounting systems, come to see me with this brochure about an electronic computer and say, "Quite frankly, we don't know a darn thing about this." Corporate has decided that they ought to get into electronic computers. They were manufactured by a company called Librascope which was a good sized American aerospace technology firm based in Los Angeles and Royal had bought the marketing rights to this thing. I said, "Well, I looked through the brochure and as far as I could figure out it looked to be a very useful sort of thing." So they said, "We think there is a prospect for it in Western Canada, with all this oil boom going on and the company will send you to their training school, if you can get the 2 weeks off to do that." So I did. I took their 2 week course in this in Los Angeles, to learn it very thoroughly - got hands on experience with it - and decided that really, we should have one. So this was '57. This was a desk sized machine, it had tubes - the flip-flops were tubes - the logic board was discrete dials, about a 1,000 discrete dials on a board, but the logic underneath it was very thorough, that is, I learned Boolean algebra and the operational equations. It was what we would call now "RIS" - reduced incontruction set. It had 4-bit instruction code, 16 instructions - input output was a punch paper tape - not a teletype, but what is called a Flexawriter, which was sort of an older model IBM Electric, with a paper tape punching reader on the side. It had a magnetic drum - 4K, 32 bit words - and it could actually, compute things. The drum was 4K and in those years, it sold for $32,000 - in 1957 - if you can imagine. Compared to the other computer equipment available in the thing, it was considered pretty good. But when I came back off that course, I found I had been fired. What had happened is the management had done a leveraged buyout a month or two before - sorry, a few months before. They bought it from Union Oil and so comes Christmas time and instead of the customary bonus at Christmas time, there is sort of a little letter in the envelope that says, "Because of our circumstance at this time, we are going to have to forgo the Christmas bonus." I didn't think that that was right - that employees should in effect, be paying for their leverage buyout and I had remarked to the president who had come up from Los Angeles, because we were a major office there in Calgary and that gee, that I had admired their business acumen and that they had allowed me to do it and I had hoped that some of it had rubbed off on my hand, when I shook his hand. They didn't like that remark and, as I say, when he got back and I got back ... so I went to work for this computer company ... that is for Royal McBee and was their principal Canadian computer salesman, system analyst, trainer ... was a one man...

TAYLOR: Was that in Calgary or Edmonton?

SWITZER: That was based in Edmonton. For the next two years or so, I did all their computer work ... replaced I think about six or eight of these machines in western Canada which was really half of all the stored program machines in all of western Canada at the time. There were a couple of big IBM systems that major oil companies had - they were 704's or 705's. I don't know if you remember those models ... they were great big, tube based IBM machines ... there were a couple of small Bendix machines, which were comparable to the machine that I had ... that is. So I sold and installed the first computer to the University of Alberta - the first computer that the University of Saskatchewan had. These were real pioneering days in electronic computers. I was on the Charter Board of Directors of the Computer and Data Processing Society of Canada ... that is, that we were a big enough factor, for being this typewriter company, and the computer business in Canada to award us a seat on that board. But then, I fell into cable TV really quite by accident. I think that it was obvious that Royal wasn't doing well enough in the computer business to stay in it and I could have gone with IBM, but I would have had to wear a shirt and a tie and a hat - a white shirt, a tie and a hat! And I didn't want to do that, that is, the IBM.


TAYLOR: We are now on side B of the first tape. Sruki was interrupted at the end of the last tape, but we'll go on from here.

SWITZER: Fortunately cable television came along just in time to save me from a fate worse than death ... that is, having to wear a shirt, tie and hat. And this was summer of '54. I had some vacation coming and I spent some of it then with friends who lived in Saskatoon.

TAYLOR: I'm mixed up on the dates, because you've been talking about '57, '58 ...

SWITZER: Oh, sorry ... I have misspoken in terms of historically correct records. I had two sessions in geophysics. Now, thank you for correcting me. I went into geophysics when I left the university in the summer of '52. I worked in that ... I worked for Weiss for a year and then I worked for United Geophysical for a year and then I left it in the summer of '54. OK, now we are back on time track ... on chronology track. What I did then was to fall into cable television in the summer of '54, and then about '57 it was kind of slack time in cable television ... and I will come back to that ... we had nowhere to go, so I went back into geophysics for a year, fell into the computers for two years and was doing the cable television, sort of part-time, keeping an eye on it, because I had an interest in a cable TV system and then went back into it full-time about '58, '59.

TAYLOR: So the computer experience with Royal McBee was in the later part of the '50s, and after having done some cable work.

SWITZER: And after having done some cable television work.

TAYLOR: I think we've got the record straight.

SWITZER: OK, now we have the record straight. So it's now the summer of '54 and I am still in geophysics - in field work, in seismic work and I take some vacation and I go to Saskatoon to visit friends and this is a man, his name is Torchinsky, Ben Torchinsky and we'd been friends since ... his wife also, we'd been friends since childhood, literally. And had been good friends through the university. He took his masters in Civil Engineering and then went to teach Civil Engineering. He was an assistant professor at the University of Saskatchewan. His personal, professional specialty was foundations. And as he particularly, and many engineering profs in general, did some consulting work on the side ... and his project that summer, was that television had started in '52, in major Canadian centers, now in '54, they were starting to build a television station in a city like Saskatoon which was then, only, perhaps 100,000 population, but served a big, agricultural market area. So they are going to build a television station and the licensee, was as usual, the established radio broadcaster there, hires Ben to design the foundations for his new tower that's going to be ... I think it was going to be a 600 foot wave stack. Do you remember ... RCA wave stack design for TV towers? And high-band...

TAYLOR: I guess I am familiar by the name, anyway.

SWITZER: This is a channel eight operation. And RCA then, had a tower design that they called a Wave Stack and the tower was a big steel tube, which acted as a wave-guide. And the top was slotted then in a pattern ... that is, a radiation pattern and so this big steel tube served as a structural tower...

TAYLOR: I didn't realize that they had done this at VHF - I knew they had done this at UHF.

SWITZER: They had done some at VHF and this one was VHF and it was about 600 feet high. Ben had been hired to design the foundations for it. So we are sitting in his living room and he's working then on the foundations for this big tower and again, it was his personal bent to think what entrepreneurial opportunities now television presents. So we sat and talked about all the things that might be done and we pretty soon dismissed the idea of retailing television sets or fixing them or anything as mundane as that. I remembered a magazine article I had read about cable television and I said, "Gee, this seems to make sense in my Canadian circumstance because here is this television station ... it's the only television station for 100 ... the nearest one is 150 miles away ... there have to be some good sized towns that are going to have reception problems ... there is pretty severe regulatory limits on the number of television stations ... we understood that already, so this might be a good thing. I went down to the library the next morning, retrieved this magazine. I think it was discussing the early ... sort of 1949-50 cable television experience. I think that particular reference was ...

TAYLOR: One article that keeps coming out in these interviews was a 1952 electronics magazine - McGraw Hill publication ... I believe it was November, December of 1952. It's the one that got us started in Montana.

SWITZER: This was 1954, and I think it was a fairly recent article. And I think it dealt with the Oregon systems. But anyway, we looked at this article and decided we'd go into the cable television business. I quit my job with United Geophysical and Ben put up a little bit of money. I put up some time. I was still single and drew $50 a week and started looking around for cable television opportunities. We went first to Lethbridge. You would know Lethbridge in Montana.

TAYLOR: Oh yes, I know Lethbridge.

SWITZER: Because there was a television station in Calgary. Lethbridge which is 130 miles south of Calgary and roof top reception obviously was not going to be very good so we figured we could figure out something to get some kind of arrangement to build a system in Lethbridge. But my first view was that we would just go to a common carrier and hire a microwave circuit from Great Falls to bring then the Great Falls stations up on common carrier microwave and distribute those in Lethbridge and then eventually in Calgary. Because Lethbridge was perhaps 10 to 12 thousand homes at the time, but Calgary would have been in those years, maybe 50 or 60 thousand homes. Common carrier wasn't available so I filed applications then for private microwave from the border then, because we could get an American carrier to take it to the border, then build our own microwave system to take it on a closed circuit basis. The advice from the lawyers at the time was that in Canada, there was no regulation then, of anything that operated closed circuit. That seemed to make, I think, sort of legal sense anywhere ... I think it would probably be the legal case here that if you have a purely close circuit system, the regulatory situation would be much more ... well, it certainly was in Canada. I filed these applications and I got word back through the lawyer that they were very unhappy in Ottawa over this and I had better withdraw these applications. I don't know what would have happened to me. I don't suppose they would have knee-capped me, but maybe I would have had an income tax audit or something like that.

TAYLOR: Was pressure coming from CBC?

SWITZER: No, no, no ... I think just pressure in general from the government. That is, the government was concerned that this would seriously undermine their cultural policies. Television regulation in Canadian is the instrument of cultural policy and their concern is that they live in the shadow of the US, they speak the same language and how are you going to keep then, the Canadian culture alive unless you shelter and protect Canadian programming? And through all of this free trade agreements ... that is, the Canadian - US free trade agreement, which is what, two or three years old, cultural industries were exempted from that agreement. So even currently, cultural industries, such as television, movies, books, publishing, are exempted from the free trade agreement provision. There was certainly an awareness of that in 1954 and so I had found a loop hole and they didn't ... very difficult, the big regulatory process, to start passing acts of parliament and that might have unconstitutional anyway ... they just found the practical way with...

TAYLOR: The control, I presume was over frequency assignments and licensing.

SWITZER: The control of the microwave?


SWITZER: The control of the microwave would have been that way, the same as here ... that is, microwave is controlled by the Federal Regulation of the use of frequencies. But in the existing regulation, they had no grounds for denying microwave licenses for strictly closed circuit purposes. So anyway, we found it wasn't convenient to go ahead, or wasn't agreeable to go ahead with microwave feeds for Calgary so we thought, well, we'll do Lethbridge just for the one channel off-air pick from Calgary and started engineering then. We found a potential headend site. Maybe we would have run 10 miles of cable ... we were prepared to do that - single channel in '54. And then, the Calgary station announces that it's going to put a rebroadcast station in Lethbridge. So, that shot down our cable plan for Lethbridge ... although, we did come back and do Lethbridge in '64 ... ten years later we did come back, and built a very successful cable system in Lethbridge, but using different principles. During that ten years, I figured out another loophole, and that one they couldn't get me on. I'll come back later to how we built places like Lethbridge and Medicine Hat. So we started looking someplace else, and found Prince Albert. Prince Albert is about 60 miles north of Saskatoon and in a deep river valley ... a city of about 25 - 30 thousand at the time, 5-6 thousand homes. It's in a river valley and it's about 150 feet, I guess, down from the plain, down into the river valley and that's where most everybody lived, so this was going to work fine. It wasn't as big as Lethbridge, but it would do and we could put a 100 foot tower up on the south bank of the river, towards Saskatoon, run a cable then down into the valley and run a cable system. That's what we did. I was married in the ... I forget my anniversary ... I guess the summer of '55 ... spent our honeymoon working on the layout ... the designing of this system ... and then we moved to Prince Albert, Phyllis and I, in the fall of '55, to build this cable TV system. We did, and I did fine. We built it over that winter and in the spring of '56, then turned on our first subscriber ... during that winter ... terrible cold winters in Prince Albert, if you can imagine that far north.

TAYLOR: I've been in Edmonton in the wintertime.

SWITZER: This is worse than Edmonton. I did a lot of ... in those years, I was climbing poles myself and up the tower and ... I did it substantially single-handed. I had one helper to do the mechanics of ... and I think we had the phone company actually string the cable, but we had to splice it and mount the amplifiers and that kind of thing. I have ... my daughters found, when we were moving house, a couple years ago, a letter ... sorry, they found it in my mother's papers, when she passed away a few years ago, they found it in my mother's papers, a letter that I wrote my mother and father then, in the early spring of '56, when we had hooked up our first subscriber! "It works ... that is the system works! Here is somebody willing to pay us for it and that was a momentous day ... that is, my first actual cable TV subscriber." We built that system over the winter of '55 - '56 and I must have had it built then, by midwinter, because I remember now I had time to take flying lessons, because I got my pilot's license in the spring of '56, and I had learned over that winter, on skis, in Prince Albert. We lived there a year. We went through some of the franchising hassles that we later learned all about in the US ... we ended up having to take local partners, because of their local political influence ... but that was ok ... it turned out ok. We had the local radio station for a partner, we had local aldermen, or something like that. But that worked ok. That system, I forget the exact length, but we used SKL gear, these were their broadband chain type amplifiers. I forget what they called it ... a 213? And it had 12 6 AK5's, and a chain amplifier, ... those were adapted from wartime pulse amplifiers.

TAYLOR: That's right.

SWITZER: I think pulse amplifiers that had been developed for the atom bomb development.

TAYLOR: That's exactly right. Fitz Kennedy is gone. I wanted to interview him, but he was gone two or three years before I got started on this. But Socks Bridget has filled us in on that.

SWITZER: I was just going to mention his name, because ...

TAYLOR: Bob Brooks was able to fill in quite a bit of information about that early time.

SWITZER: And we used their directional couplers ... I am trying to remember what we used for taps ... I think we used their directional coupler for taps.

TAYLOR: That's that shielded two wire...

SWITZER: It was kind of transmission line...

TAYLOR: Yes, two wires in two-wire coax.

SWITZER: Yes, and with screw type terminals and a little can affair, and it was...

TAYLOR: Socks gave me a pretty good rundown on that development.

SWITZER: We had some whopping big trunk cable. It was solid dielectric Amphenol.


SWITZER: K-14, right. And the special connectors for those. Alex Dworkin who was a Jerrold rep at the time, he found an old K-14 connector for me ... how to place it, and put on a little presentation base ... I have it somewhere in my office.

TAYLOR: Who was the Jerrold rep?

SWITZER: Alex Dworkin.

TAYLOR: Alex Dworkin? I know Don Dworkin, but there is no connection?

SWITZER: No, Don Dworkin was in engineering for Vikoa I think.

TAYLOR: Yes, he started with Blonder Tongue, I think.


TAYLOR: Then moved over to Vikoa.

SWITZER: Alex was general manager for the Jerrold Canadian Rep. This was K-14, then for a smaller cable, we used war surplus, R-G 11. I mean literally, war surplus.

TAYLOR: We used some of that, too.

SWITZER: So we built this broadband network for carrying one channel. I suppose that it was probably extravagant at the time, but I thought it prudent to build for multi-channel, because sooner or later, we were going to have more channels. We did add a second channel and that was closed-circuit film channel ... we ran our own little film chain and bought movies for it, just to add something to it ... so we'd run one movie three nights a week ... something like that, which I had to run, because we didn't have any big staff for it. And I forget the exact subscriber counts, but we were quite happy with it, as a business. Later, our partner decided to put in his own television station, that is a radio station and eventually we sold it to him. We sold out of that ... but it wasn't a bad experience over all in the cable TV business. I learned a whole lot in having built it. So after that, I went back to geophysical work then ... this would have been around '56. The geophysical work I went back into was back to the same company, to United, but now I was in this sonic logging and that's what got me involved in computers. Now I'm in computers in '57, '58 and then I leave that to go back to cable TV, about '58, because now we had figured out some more places to go.

TAYLOR: This was when you were terminated with...

SWITZER: No, I decided then ... Royal was going to ... see I went from United to Royal because ... no the first time I went into cable was because they had fired me.

TAYLOR: I see, ok.

SWITZER: Ok, sorry. Then, the second time I left, because the computer was more interesting than the well-work I was doing ... it looked to have a greater future and I was getting kind of tired of field work. So I voluntarily went to work for the computer company because it was a whole lot more interesting. I left then, because it was obvious that we had done fairly well, but there was no long term future with that particular company in computers because it was obvious that again computer technology was going to go ahead a whole lot faster than Royal was capable of staying up with. About '58 then, I leave computers and now go to build a cable TV system in Esteban, Saskatchewan. And this is still with Ben Torchinsky. He had built up his consulting practice. He had by now left the university I guess and was a civil engineer in consulting full-time, with building a nice sized firm.

TAYLOR: Is it possible that I met him in the Chicago franchise proceedings?

SWITZER: Yes indeed.

TAYLOR: Yes, I was pretty sure I had.

SWITZER: Yes you were consultants on that.

TAYLOR: That's right we were consultants...

SWITZER: With Cablenet. He had built up his cable TV interest beginning then in '58 and just sold them out. He built them up to very substantial operation and sold them out about two, three years ago, to another Canadian company. The Chicago interest he sold unfortunately, two years before he should have to TCI. If he had held on for another couple of years he would have gotten a whole lot more money for them. But yes, that's the firm. And the roots of it then, go back to our having been in cable together beginning in '54.

TAYLOR: I knew part of that story from having that experience in Chicago.

SWITZER: In '58, then, I went to live in ... I guess we had one ... Jay had been born in Calgary so we had Jay and our second daughter, Kira, was actually born in Esteban, after we moved to Esteban. So anyway, we went to Esteban to build a cable system there. Esteban is in southeastern Saskatchewan. It's just six miles from the North Dakota border. It's 120 miles from the nearest Canadian transmitter at Regina. It is about 120 miles from Minot, North Dakota ... about 80 miles from Williston, which is where the nearest American transmitters were. So I built a 200 foot tower and could get reception from Regina... couldn't get anything from North Dakota because the continental divide between the Missouri drainage to the south and the Hudson Bay drainage to the north was quite a high ridge ... just on the North Dakota side. So this ridge was shielding us from Williston and from Minot. And it was then tough to get reception ... we didn't have satisfactory US reception at all. But we started with this system. I improved the Regina reception by putting in a single hop microwave. Now this would have been in '58 and I think we found ... we went about 20 miles closer to Regina. That was my first hands-on microwave system that I actually built and it was an old Motorola system that I bought used from the TV station in Calgary. It had been there for STL. And it was a real hay-wire arrangement I put up to...

TAYLOR: Was it two gigahertz?

SWITZER: No, this was around seven I think.

TAYLOR: Six or seven?

SWITZER: Six gigahertz probably ... and ten milliwatts or twenty milliwatts, pretty low power. It had a little klystron about that big, and a little hex screw on the side that you could turn to tune and it was modulated directly by putting video onto the repeller -- and all tubes of course, and this worked periscope style because you didn't have enough power to drive a line and so I had two kind of home TV towers, about this big maybe, 12" cross-section guyed every which way and a bridge across the top and I hung this reflector up top there ... pretty flimsy arrangement and practically no instrumentation. I'm not sure that I even had a cavity meter for checking frequency and it was pretty by-guess and by-god thing ... I guess nobody cared whether I was on a frequency or not, as long as I had the receiver tuned to it. So getting all of this lined up and working was quite a job, again, to do single handedly, but we got it working and that worked then to improve our reception from Regina and we built this system in Esteban and that was about a 2,000-home community. But then we didn't think this was enough for what we call commercial success, so I figured out then what I had do. This is one of the things that I am proud of in the development of cable TV in Canada ... is that if there was no American station close enough to give us good reception, I'd go and build one. I was getting familiar with the North Dakota side, that is, our neighbors were only six miles to the border and just across it, about 20 miles from Esteban there is a small farm market town called Columbus, North Dakota. They were on the lea side, that is, on the northern slope, also of this divide. They had really very poor reception and the Minot station wasn't about to do anything about it ... pretty small market station ... I think it was probably run out of Bismarck or ... no, probably out of Fargo. I went to them and said, "Hey, we will build you a translator on the ridge here, where we can get good reception and I'm going to site that so that we will have a fairly directional ... well, maybe 20 degree single panel thing that will illuminate Columbus very nicely."

TAYLOR: You were going to build this on the Canadian side?

SWITZER: No, I'm going to build it on the American side, on this divide, which separates Missouri drainage on the south side because there is about 12 miles or so in North Dakota along there, which actually drains into Canada and up, eventually into Hudson Bay ... and it's this ridge which was south of Columbus which was shielding this American town and shielding us. So I said, "I'll go on that ridge, south of Columbus, between you and Minot, and I will site this translator so as to illuminate your town and coincidentally, it illuminates Esteban which is 20 miles further on. Now I can't hold that license, but you can." So I got the Lion's Club of Columbus, North Dakota to apply for, and hold the license and we disclosed to the FCC that were paying for it ... they disclosed that they were getting it paid for by this cable system in Canada and that didn't seem to bother the FCC. So I had a license then, for this translator ... this UHF translator.

TAYLOR: Was this late 50's?

SWITZER: This is 1959. I had it all arranged, the geometry is such and the height and the power are such, that we could pick it up on our 100 footer ... our 150 footer at Estefan, but you couldn't do much on a rooftop antenna. So I built that for them, and again, I did the work and almost got deported one time for that. And it really upset me, because here I was doing them this big favor ... there were no technicians in the area to come and check this ... to tune it up periodically and the border patrol were after me for working illegally in the US! Anyway, this translator then, worked for a long, long time and it was ... I think we had two channels from Minot - we picked them up off-air ... repeated them on a 20 watt UHF translator. So that then, gave us an additional two channels in Esteban and now that was pretty good business. Then, that was '59 and in '60, we decided now, we can build Weyburn. Now Weyburn is 50 miles further away. We can, no question, get reception from Regina ... that is, from the Canadian TV station, but now, we are 50 miles further from this low powered translator and this is pretty flat terrain. So I do the profiles and the like, and I figure out we need 1,000 foot tower to pick up the translator. Well, we did it. I built, then, in the summer of '60, a 975 foot guyed tower. The best site we could find, the cheapest, was a garbage dump in Weyburn. Weyburn is about the same size ... about 2500 homes in it and it's probably the tallest tower ever built, exclusively for television reception. We put a 10 foot open grid antenna on top, added a low noise preamp ... bought from some aerospace company ... planar triode of some kind, which we had to replace periodically. Eventually, I had to apply pressure through the US Embassy in Canada to get spares, because they put them on some kind of restricted military list. I wrote a letter to the US Embassy that I couldn't buy them anymore and I wrote them and said, "How can any foreigner have confidence in doing business in US if you are going to cut off ... " So they gave me a special letter and I could buy all these GE triodes that I needed ... they had to be changed every six months or so. We built this 970-foot tower and I built it very inexpensively but to spec ... that is, to the applicable spec. Usually these towers are built with 60-degree angles and I built it with a standard, 90-degree structural angle. Again, an old school chum of mine, who is now a structural engineer in Toronto, then did the detail for me. And he worked out the detail of building this thing, with 90 degree, low cost structural angles. Ben Torchinsky, by now, had a structural steel firm in Saskatoon that was in the business of fabricating structural steel. His shop built a jig for the section and we welded them ... had them all welded up in the jig and hauled them down and built them. I had a crew put it up in February, if you can imagine. Anyway, we got it up and I think the total cost overall was about $17,000 at the time ... well, we needed to, for a small cable TV system. So that was the foundation of this cable system in Weyburn and that turned out quite well. And built on the same principle then of this picking up US signals from a US translator that we had arranged for and paid for in the US. So this takes us through to '62.

TAYLOR: This translator was just one channel?

SWITZER: Two channels.

TAYLOR: Two continuous ... you weren't switching between?

SWITZER: No, it was because Minot had only two channels ... they had NBC and I think a combined ABC/CBS service.

TAYLOR: So you really had, in effect, two translators then?

SWITZER: Yes, 2 transmitters, 2 translators and they were multiplexed, combined together to a single antenna system and we operated in the band there in the high 70's ... I forget what channel numbers ... EMCI I think ... Byron

TAYLOR: Yes, I know a Byron ... St. Clair.

SWITZER: Byron St. Clair, his firm at the time, provided the gear.


SWITZER: EMCEE, yes. They were sort of pioneers in the translator business.

TAYLOR: Byron was also a former Blonder Tongue engineer I believe.

SWITZER: I didn't know that. I got to know him fairly well during that period.

TAYLOR: Maybe I'm wrong, but that's been my impression ... he came from there.

SWITZER: So this is now '62. In '62 then, Ben Torchinsky now is interested in starting ... he had an opportunity to go into rape seed process ... wild-seed processing, because it was then recognized that rape seed could be ... not called canola I guess, but could be ... it's like mustard. Do you know the...? ... but it could be a very successful crop in that part of the country, particularly in the northern part of the Province ... he had a chance then to build the first ... to go into the business of building the first crushing and processing plant for it, so he needed some capital for that. So we sold a 50% interest in these two cable systems, in Esteban and Weyburn, to the only investor we could find in Canada at the time ... this was, even in '62, willing to invest in them ... and this was Famous Players Theaters, which was a wholly owned subsidiary of Paramount ... of Gulf and Western -- "gulp and devour" as they were called. But this was fine. They were willing to invest money in cable TV, so they bought a 50% interest in our cable system and Ben used the money to start Agri-Industries Limited, which then ... now a good size sort-of conglomerate ... they are out of the oil seed business a few years ago, but ... and they were the root of Cablenet which is the company then later that you met in Chicago. But anyway, we got now some capital in the beginning of '62 and an instruction now as to where we could do this again. I start looking around, and now we come back to Lethbridge. I say, "Well, if we build these translators here..." And I start looking at the map, and I had an old Belanca, single engine airplane, at the time, and I could fly it back and forth between Esteban and Weyburn and Lethbridge and I soon figure out that we can do the same thing at Lethbridge. Because here is the town of Shelby, which you might know ... it didn't have very good reception ... and here's this whopping big mountain ... Mount Royal I think they called it ... I think it's called Mount Royal.

TAYLOR: Anyway, I know it.

SWITZER: Good sized mountain ... just on the Montana side of the line and would serve Shelby very nicely and a couple of other towns in that area. And so again we go the Lion's Club of Shelby, and we will build them this translator. Except now it has to be omni-directional, which is fine, because then it will cover several towns in Montana and it will also then, give us a feed into Lethbridge and into Medicine Hat ... which are now much bigger than ... these are much bigger than the Montana towns ... Lethbridge is maybe 60,000 population, 15,000 homes ... Medicine Hat about 40,000 population at the time and just the right distance. We weren't nervous at all about putting 20 watt UHF up on that, because at those distances to Lethbridge and Medicine Hat, it's still a cable TV situation. So we did that. There was a jeep trail up the mountain. There was power available. We had also a good technician available in Shelby, who could do all the work for us ... sorry, I don't remember his name. Because the mountain had already been developed as a two-way mobile site for that area ... so we started Lethbridge then, and we got it going in '64. I built Lethbridge and Medicine Hat simultaneously through '64 and '65. I moved my family out to Lethbridge ... our third child, Sharon, was born in Lethbridge. We lived there four years then, developing the Lethbridge and Medicine Hat cable TV systems and they were built on the same principle of picking up the US station from these translators, which we were paying for, on the US side of the border. So we were there from '64 through '67 and these cable systems ... I'm trying to remember ... we built those Solid State, because by now, I guess there were Solid State ones available.

TAYLOR: I think so.

SWITZER: In Esteban and Weyburn, I think I built those with early Ameco transistorized equipment ... or maybe we started with tubes and then switched pretty soon to Ameco gear.

TAYLOR: Ameco's first gear was a hybrid. They had a Solid State early stage and a tube output stage.

SWITZER: No, we used Solid State ... they were germanium transistors and they were all transistor and in a broadband ... some kind of Cascade design. The first units we used, were actually just Solid State line extenders. I started with tubes there, because I remember using a line powered line extender from C-COR and I think they built the first cable powered line extenders.

TAYLOR: They lay claim to that.

SWITZER: It was a tube amplifier and it was powered through the cable and we used some of those. Then later, we converted it ... say beginning about '60, we started converting it to Solid State with these Ameco all Solid State, but the first units we used were cable powered line extenders. They were in a little can, about the size of what we would consider to be tap ... a multi-tap today ... little pressed aluminum. We called them "no-steps" because they had this no-step decal on top, because you generally just nailed them to a pole and you didn't want a lineman to step on them.

TAYLOR: This was the C-COR unit?

SWITZER: No, it's not. The C-COR unit was cable mounted. The C-COR was cable ... strand mounted, sorry, it was strand mounted. This first C-COR, sorry, the first Ameco line extender that we had, was nailed to a pole. It was just a little drawn can and a little ...

TAYLOR: And that was the one that had no-step?

SWITZER: And that was marked no-step.

TAYLOR: I remember seeing those.

SWITZER: And again these were germanium transistors that ran on minus 15 and there was no regulator. You had to go along, and with a volt meter, and there was a little pot underneath that you adjusted to minus 15 and of course as you went down the line, this voltage kept changing ... and so you would have to go back and forth and I think eventually they put a little regulator in it and they first ran on dc power ... which of course, ate out the connectors and stuff pretty quickly and so after a while, they switched to ac power for them. And then later we used their all transistor broadband amplifier ... and it was a 220 meg amplifier with broadband stage of about 20 dB gain and this was of course before Jerrold's suitcase design came out. So these had jumpers ... they weren't strand mounted, they sat in a little cabinet, which was mounted on the pole and you had a jumper system. I don't think we were too fussy about match at the time. We'd come in with some kind of 412 sized cable, originally not aluminum, because most of this was in pre aluminum days and we used a lot of an adaptation of the Bell cable ... of an AT&T cable, which I'll tell you about.

TAYLOR: Was this an air dielectric, with discs?

SWITZER: This was an air dielectric disc cable.

TAYLOR: Copper?

SWITZER: Copper tape and the copper tape was not soldered.

TAYLOR: Didn't worry about leakage?

SWITZER: Didn't worry about leakage at the time, because here was a heavy-duty polyethylene jacket on it, and what water is going to get through that? ...And of course it did. Vapor would migrate through the polyethylene and the water would accumulate in actual liquid form in the dips and give all kinds of problems. And I was starting, at the time to apply TDR techniques ... you could actually see it on the TDR ... it looked like mass sagging from the moisture. But that was the kind of cable we were using. And then you go to 59 jumper inside the cabinet into these amplifiers and they used the PL259 connectors which really wasn't very smart in the high band ... we were just though, beginning to get some kind of understanding of transmission theory as applied to cable TV. Of course the phone companies knew all about it, but hardly anybody in cable TV did ... and I don't know, maybe didn't care for a while. That was the technical sort of state of those systems ... longish cascades, but relatively low channel counts so I don't suppose in Esteban and Weyburn in those years, we ran more than five channels. We had started in Esteban, as I recall, with a low-band system and we went through then, adjacent channel operation and we tried inverted visual and aural carriers to see if that would help. I don't think it helped very much ... it didn't make any difference to the TV sets at the time ... most of them at the time were monos, but I don't think it helped our adjacent channel situation. But that was a big struggle with adjacent channel operations in those years. Transmission itself as to cross-mod and intermod, at least in my systems, we had so few channels it wasn't a big deal ... adjacent channels was the big problem and it helped when we got the first Channel Commanders - Jerrold's first heterodyne signal processors with separate ...

TAYLOR: ...tube commander?

SWITZER: These were tube commanders of course, but they had good audio levels - that is, audio carrier lever control and that's really what was the biggest help in running adjacent channels, was being able to reliably suppress the sound carrier. We were fiddling with it before with traps but your settings then were unreliable, that is, maintaining picture/sound carrier ratio then was unreliable.

TAYLOR: Were you getting diversity picture sound in your reception?

SWITZER: There was diversity in the reception and traps weren't reliable. They would drift off. So that was not really a satisfactory way to do it. We'd been doing it with simple strip processors and using a trap of some kind to try and suppress it. So we got tube commanders, just as soon as they became available, and they helped a whole lot.

TAYLOR: There is an apocryphal story, and I don't know whether if it's just legend or fact, but Phil Hamlin working in Seattle area, had this diversity problem and he devised a ... what was it ... T-630, wasn't that the RCA receiver?

SWITZER: 630 chassis, RCA receiver.

TAYLOR: He modified one of those so that he could motor drive the aural signal and actually he used the motor driven servo. It was that thinking, because by then, Phil was Jerrold's northwest representative and I think that's what kind of triggered Jerrold to go into a processor ... to get away from the motor, the servo motor.

SWITZER: I think the general experience was, that this was the only way you could deal with the adjacent channel was to hold that level down ... reliably so ... I think that then drove the development ... but there are all kinds of the early history of the business of mechanical sort of "make-do" I think is the classic American tradition. You look at the early weather board systems ... the various mechanisms...

TAYLOR: And the first news wire with a camera pointing to a teletype!

SWITZER: But the interesting part of that mechanically, was the old teletype would hop up and down, so then somebody put a mirror on, coupled to this shift mechanism, that kept the imagine steady in the camera. That was a mechanical improvement then, on the old teletype machine. But you look at now, what you can do with IC technologies and we didn't even have transistors then, in those days ... so if you had to do anything automatic. Now I remember working with ... it would have even been even in the early 70's, with trying to buck out co-channels with phase and amplitude feedback and using trombone lines for then phase control and you'd set it up manually to minimize it, and of course propagation conditions would change. We were thinking in terms of a mechanical system then, for amplitude and phase ... mechanical servos for controlling this bucking system. We didn't go into it, because by the early 70's, I think it was obvious to us that ... sort of when we come to it, by then, I was ready to give up off-air reception in general. I said, "This is not the way to deal with co-channels." We are going to use either microwave or satellite or whatever, to get close enough to the station, or preferably right into its master control room. And this is the view I take today. I got some boos and hisses at the NCTA convention at one of the sessions...

TAYLOR: Was this recently?

SWITZER: Just recently. Just a few months ago. There were some papers on ECHO cancellation for off-air paths and the new ECHO detector ... electronic servo ...if you wish to think of them that way. And I stood up in the question period and said, "Why bother? I'm not the least bit interested in ECHO cancellation. I don't think any cable system should have off-air reception anymore. I think it's 10 years to 15 years past when we really needed it ... when we didn't have sort of the regulatory or the economic clout to get direct feeds. This would have been very interesting. I'm not interested anymore."

TAYLOR: The direct feed has been bucked over the years.



TAYLOR: We are running again now. I inadvertently didn't notice the tape had run out. We will try and pick up what we missed here. This is the second tape. I am still interviewing Sruki Switzer. We were talking about direct feed to cable systems, instead of off the air and ghosting and so on ... I'm not quite sure whether we got recording all of that or not. As a matter of fact, maybe we don't need to go back over it. When you get the transcript to review, if you see something that's missing, just add something to it ... it's fine.

SWITZER: We had though started talking about these big parabolic antennas and that's one part of what I call past, and I think I'd like to forget about history in cable TV technology. Although when I made these remarks at the cable convention, someone came up to me afterwards and said, "Well, there is still a whole lot of cable TV systems that can't afford all of these technology improvements that you wish, satellite or microwave or whatever." But I guess there must be some, but the impression I get from the trade press is that they are all being swallowed up by big MSO's and all being merged into great big regional systems with fiber interconnects. And yes, I expect that there will always be some people dependent on long haul direct pickups.

TAYLOR: I recall meeting with Jim Hood of Catel, president of Catel, at one time ... on one of my return trips from Hong Kong. At lunch, I asked him, "What do you think is going to happen in the Telco cable confrontation?" He said, "I'll tell you exactly what's going to happen. The telephone companies are going to buy up the cable companies." And then he reminded of what happened in telephone after World War II when the Bell system bought up all the Mom and Pops ... all the little ones ...

SWITZER: All the independents ... nearly all the independents.

TAYLOR: Nearly all. Some of them with barbed wire on fence posts, as their means of communication ... made a lot of millionaires out of the old "mom and pops" ... they just gradually made them into modern, good quality telephone companies. I think something like that will probably happen with cable television ... maybe actually not buyout ... it maybe some mergers, and some consolidations and one thing and another but...

SWITZER: I think by the end of this decade, we'll see a pretty well integrated industry and I think off-air reception will have gone between these competitive pressures that we spoke of ... that is the broadcasters wanting to look as good as the cable channels. But the history of it, which is I guess, the main concern of ... our concern today is that we used to do some very heroic things. I mentioned this 975-foot tower that I built at Weyburn. It incidentally, is still up. It's going to be torn down this summer and I've been invited to cut the cable ... to knock it down. It's been replaced in function, by satellite, probably five years ago, but now they are finally ready to cut it down. We spoke of these parabolic antennas, saying the history of it is this fellow, really ... sort of by guess work, figured out that he could build a higher gain VHF antenna this way and I don't really think it was really understood as tropo-scatter propagation mechanism possibly until I took a hand in it, when at McLean Hunter, we bought the North Bay system and then decided to build more of these antennas in other cable systems that we had. And so we built several ... we built one in Guelph. I remember building one in Winnipeg. On a consulting basis, I built one at Meadville ... for what was his name ... he was a NCTA director, a pioneer ... he had a daughter who took over from him ... Yolanda ...

TAYLOR: Barco.

SWITZER: Barco ... George Barco. That was Meadville, wasn't it?

TAYLOR: Meadville, yes.

SWITZER: ... built one for him then. Went into the calculations and the like for scatter, from gain ... I think it was mostly military papers that I was ... papers out of military research that I was looking at ... because they were using scatter. I guess some Telco's were for over water, hops and the like. But it wasn't a very reliable mode.

TAYLOR: No, it certainly wasn't.

SWITZER: Remember they ... main thing I introduced, personally, into the construction of those antennas was the idea of heating them, because this was a problem at North Bay ... icing. And it would knock them down ... so I figured out we could electrically heat them and so I started building the screens ... actually, it turned out that 045 lashing wire, was just the right size! So we built insulating supports for them and we built the grid out of 045 lashing wire. And so we could put 220 volts across, and run about 50 kilowatts into this screen, which was sort of the right voltage. It was convenient to get...50 kilowatts was not an unreasonable power burden for an hour or two at a time. So we could heat these screens then, if there was a threat of icing and that turned out a big reliability ... at least it improved the mechanical reliability of it.

TAYLOR: I had not heard of this heating...

SWITZER: We did most of our Canadian ones that way. I guess ... I don't know what they did Meadville for theirs, but certainly all the Canadian ones that I did, we built that way and with the heating for them.

TAYLOR: I got to Torrington, Connecticut the day after an ice storm had taken down their big parabolic.

SWITZER: Well, if they had asked me ... I would have told them how to prevent that, because it worked very well. You had to start the heat before, but you generally had some kind of warning of what was done. As I say there, also in the same category of heroic is single or multi-hop chains for off-air assistance. We built some very long super trunks, also to help reception.

TAYLOR: There are some places where moderately sized systems, there like in New England for example. I was up at Bath and Brunswick, Maine, recently, and they're trying to receive things like Boston stations and Portland, but they're just a little... well, Portland I guess is reasonably all right. But the Boston station is a very long distance for them. And without it they're missing some of the key network and important sports events. So it's up to the station to do something about that, other than cable...

SWITZER: I think stations will. Who are these group of people who are promoting a kind of spot beam satellite for broadcast ... Taylor and ... who is the ex-Hughes engineer that does consulting work now, on satellite?

TAYLOR: I've drawn a blank.

SWITZER: I think Taylor out of Tulsa.

TAYLOR: I don't know him.

SWITZER: But they had proposed a system for satellite broadcasting on a localized basis ... on a regional basis, using K-band satellites with multiple spot beams and it appealed to me. Because I believe that satellite does a very much better job than terrestrial broadcasting -- very much better -- in terms of coverage, in terms of quality and that these would be lower cost than conventional wide-beam satellite. I think they would be affordable by regional stations, like Boston, like Seattle, New York, Atlanta, Miami, New Orleans ... what you call major regional centers, to provide direct feeds to SMATV, to cable TV. I think the problem is that it kind of threatens the concept of localized broadcasting.

TAYLOR: That's the issue, and so much of regulation is based on that...

SWITZER: The whole act ... the whole act is based on local.

TAYLOR: ...really undercut the foundation.

SWITZER: You see, that is all ready starting to change in Canada. I have been recommending, in direct conversation and in published papers and articles in Canada that we give up terrestrial broadcasting in Canada, and I mean it literally and reassign that spectrum to land mobile, particularly to the PCN systems, or expanded cellular systems.

TAYLOR: I don't think that hasn't been thought of and talked about here.

SWITZER: I've got a paper from NTIS, a paper giving an actual study on the economics and the reassignment of single UHF channels. If the FCC would allow it, for example, a Los Angeles UHF operator would be better off to sell his frequency... for a conversion to cellular than to operate it as a niche, hind-tit UHF television station. It's worth far more ... UHF channels are worth far more to cellular and to land mobile than they are to most UHF broadcasters. But in Canada, the change in concept, from local to regional has already started. CBC has virtually closed down their local operations. They operate as a national and regional net and most operations like Regina-Saskatoon are operated together now as a regional Saskatchewan network. Calgary and Edmonton that way. Vancouver so dominates British Columbia that you could consider it regional. I proposed for example, to the Ontario Educational Authority, who have a string of about 15 UHF transmitters across the province, all fed by satellite ... by K-Band satellite ... KU-band satellite and I've said, "Why are you bothering? 99% of your viewership is by cable anyway. You have a satellite anyway, why don't you just shut down your terrestrials, declare it to be a broadcast system. Even if you have to buy satellite dishes for the few thousand people who are dependent on direct reception, you'll be money ahead, because they will save 10 million dollars a year in the operation of their terrestrial transmitters." And I think I have them almost convinced. The lease on the CN tower, which is that big 1,800 footer in downtown Toronto, is expiring within two years and I think they would seriously consider not renewing it. Because I'm sure the asking price on the renewal will be pretty high ... even as a bargaining chip to say that, "We don't need you anymore ... we'll go satellite."

TAYLOR: You're speaking about the CBC or the Educational ... ?

SWITZER: No, I'm speaking about the Provincial authority. Now, the CBC comes behind them in terms of it ... the UHF broadcasters in Canada are already so dependent on cable ... 99% of their actual viewer hours are on cable. I asked the chairman of the board of one of the big broadcasters - Global - "What's your channel number in Toronto?" He didn't know. He knows his cable channel number, which is channel three, but he didn't know his broadcast channel number or where the transmitter was, or the power or anything about it. As far as he is concerned, he is cable three. All his transmitters are UHF ... he has some V's and some V rebroads in low density areas, but their transmitters in big urban areas are all Us and he doesn't know the channel number in Toronto. I didn't know. I had to go to the book to look it up and so I ... we will ... sorry, I was saying that the idea of regional broadcasters then and satellites are a logical technology to use, rather than fiber. I really like -- for that function -- I like satellite better than fiber and if we are talking about transmission of program material across, even regions, say, a few hundred miles in radius, I think satellite is a better way to do it than fiber. Not to say that it is wrong to interconnect headends by fiber because you've got all multiplicity and you've got stuff going back and forth and all kinds of things. But for the distribution of program material in a forward direction, satellite is much more efficient.

TAYLOR: That's right. You were starting on your connection with McLean Hunter and that's a pretty good place to bring in some of the contributions that you've made, because I think that kind of started at that time also. I listed to a few of them that occurred to me: HRC, Phasefiddling, frame sync ... that's all intermod control ...

SWITZER: That was all done at MacLean-Hunter. There were some things before that though.


SWITZER: I worked with, with used to call them "flicker-dickers," that is, comparator switchers for bench sweep testing.

TAYLOR: Well I knew about the flicker-dicker all right.

SWITZER: Yes, but I had done one with a ... who were the big kit builders at the time? Who was the big kit builder in the 50's?

TAYLOR: Oh, Heath.

SWITZER: Heath. I had done the same thing with a Heath electronic switch and scope and sweep, really before Jerrold bought theirs out.

TAYLOR: Which was a reed.

SWITZER: Which was a reed relay type of thing. The original one was a mercury wetted Reed relay. I had done it with a tube type electronic dual channel scope switch which in effect did the same function. Mine was a Heath switch. But I also started ... I'm trying to think when I started TDR work, whether I was at McLean Hunter or not ... because I remember you sent me...

TAYLOR: I sent you down to San Diego, yes.

SWITZER: That system was being sold I think to Cox.

TAYLOR: Cox had a minor holding and they were going to buy the rest of it, I think is what it was.

SWITZER: You sent me to San Diego to check out these cables, because they were that notorious strip braid cable and every place else in the country, it had gone bad with vapor migration and you were worried about... It was El Cajon, out behind San Diego.

TAYLOR: It was Mission Cable.

SWITZER: Seems to me I was still at Lethbridge at the time, which would have been pre '67, and I don't know if I had a TDR then, because certainly at MacLean-Hunter I could afford to get one ... so would this have been after '67?

TAYLOR: It was just about that time.

SWITZER: OK, so maybe it was in my earliest years at MacLean-Hunter, because I went to work there in July, '67.

TAYLOR: It was just about that time, I think.

SWITZER: Hewlett Packard had come out with this TDR instrument and I thought it was a good tool for use in cable. I must have been at MacLean-Hunter because I don't think we could have afforded one when I was in Lethbridge. And so we bought one and I tried it out on cables and on connectors and it taught me a whole lot about transmission and theory and a very useful kind of instrument. I remember your sending me to San Diego then to check out these cables. Because this system was in service, we had to do it in the middle of the night, because we had to take the cables off and put the TDR on and I learned that when you are doing work at night, I always tell the police department! I think I spent, I don't know, a week or two, or whatever and we found those cables to be absolutely dry. They were ok, which was amazing. I think it was the desert ... even that close into the ocean, that El Cajon area is pretty dry.

TAYLOR: That's right, it is ... they're on the other side of where the moisture drops, is what it


SWITZER: So I did a lot of TDR work, both on connectors and it also got me interested in impedance standards because the TDR turned out then to be a very good technique for setting an impedance standard. Impedance standard is set in terms of a transmission line of known mechanical parameters that were translatable then to -- you could then calculate. And there were transmission lines standards available from European sources. I got GR, General Radio, to build me some 75 ohm standards and I guess I gave papers at the time on the techniques of calibrating transmission line impedance standards for cable. Again, all of this stuff well known every place, but cable. I think the whole history of cable in the early years ... I was possibly, when I went to work ... when I went into cable in '54 - '55, in those years, possibly one of the very few EE's actually working in a cable system ... couldn't have been very many ... outside of manufacturers ... couldn't have been very many working in cable systems.

TAYLOR: I think you are right ... Charlie Clements was one of them, up in Waterville.

SWITZER: There weren't many and I wasn't even an EE, at least college graduate ... I was a physicist. I didn't get engineering certification until I think the middle or late 60's and got professional engineering certification in Canada. But I did a lot of work in those years, that would have been then in the late 60's and early 70's with TDR. And very useful both in a practical sense and in an understanding, that is in learning transmission line theory and how cables work, that is reflections and standing waves. Well, VSWR, we never used as such, but return loss concepts were more useful. And all of that helped then in improving cable system performance. I think you are right, all this started then, with the association with McLean Hunter because now I had a budget, I had a shop, I had some help for things like that. One of the other things, not on the list you mentioned, which happens to do with transmission improvement, was I got a little field portable x-ray machine.

TAYLOR: Oh yes, I remember that.

SWITZER: I used that for auditing the work that our contractors were doing on cable system construction. The connectors at the time were multi-piece and came in a bag and you would tear open and what would happen is the craftsman would lose some of the parts and wouldn't want to climb down the pole to get them. And so the connector ended up looking ok from the outside. And it might work for a while, but it wasn't clamped on right or some of the gaskets, or whatever were missing so I was able then to x-ray them, in the field, in place after they were done. We used 4" by 5" Polaroid film. That was actually also a Hewlett Packard machine ... came from some subsidiary they owned and this was very useful. It sure scared the contractors, in that they were being watched.

TAYLOR: That was even before the sleeves were put into practice.

SWITZER: The integral sleeves.

TAYLOR: The internal sleeve. The first one of course was a separate piece and you never had the ability to inspect it, unless you could do an x-ray. That was why the integral sleeve came along, because no one could believe the contractors.

SWITZER: So maybe we had some influence then on ... some pressure on improving connectors. That's the thing I think I'd probably used the first hex crimp tool for F connectors. Again, I got this from kind of military or high quality electronic practice and got Canadian manufacturers then to make us a F-59 with a longer crimp sleeve that could be hexcrimped and so I'm pretty sure that...

TAYLOR: Did you have an influence on Amp to produce that?

SWITZER: No, Amp came along much later ... they did a considerably improved F-59, but I didn't deal with Amp, because there other manufacturers like LRC and the like ... the people in the Syracuse area ... there are two or three firms making connectors there.

TAYLOR: Joe Hale, you know Joe Hale I guess, down in south San Francisco ... is sitting right under two, full power stations, had a real problem with ingress. He said he could go out one week and the next week, he had to do it all over again. But he was talking to the Amp salesman and Amp had a little sleeve, because they had to have something to compress on ... that was the only reason they did it, was mechanical. Joe thought that was a good idea and persuaded Jerrold to start using it ... I've forgotten what they called it ... VCK, or something like that ... a little internal sleeve for reasons of making the connector tight so that it wouldn't cold flow and loosen up. He gave the credit to the Amp salesman as having the device there.

SWITZER: Now Amp did a very much improved connector in terms of overall mechanical design. All I did was to take a standard F connector and change the crimp ring - from the little narrow crimp ring into a longer crimp ring of about a half an inch long that a hex tool could handle and on the internal mandrel. We didn't have that sharp point at the back quite as sharp, because with that much pressure on it would cut the braid. So we modified the shank and serrated it a bit. And this was strictly mechanical ... I didn't have in mind any leakage or any further mechanical improvement. And people like Amp then, later went along and virtually did a complete redesign of the 59 to give it very much an overall improvement. But I think I used the first crimp connector and just really because I wanted a better mechanical grip on the...

TAYLOR: This was before Eric Winston did the integral sleeve?

SWITZER: This is well before ... now integral sleeve is not for 59's ... integral sleeve is for aluminum. No, this hex crimp I'm talking about was just for F-59's. Integral sleeve was a big, big improvement.

TAYLOR: Joe Hale was talking about the aluminum.

SWITZER: No, no then that was integral sleeve was the big improvement in that. I'm just talking about replacing the very narrow crimp ring on the original 59's on drop cable with a hex crimpable type of thing ... just to improve the mechanics of that. One of the earliest things also I did, I think my first design project at McLean Hunter was we used aerial photography. We got the aerial photography company to give us recent photography and to print them at 200 foot to the inch scale and we used the actual photograph for base map. We had them done on sepia, on plastic and we used the actual photograph for the base map, for the draftsman to draw on. That worked quite well. I remember giving a paper on it at an early NCTA convention. The photography company then, adjusted the scale so we had fairly accurate scale of whatever we wanted. We never justified original photography for our purpose, but in a big metro area like Toronto there was always recent photography anyway ... they were doing it every two years on a...

TAYLOR: This would have been in the late 60's?

SWITZER: This would have been '68.

TAYLOR: There were other people that experimented with the aerial photos. Jim Palmer's people did some work with aerial photos. I'm not sure about timing ... I don't know where that came in.

SWITZER: We actually drew on the photo. We did our actual plan right on the photo.

TAYLOR: I've seen some of them done that way. That may have been later.

SWITZER: The transmission developments came out of this North Bay System that way. I got a call from the North Bay manager that he had added a channel -- I think added a channel on channel 10, which was the local channel. He put something on it and he was getting complaints from non-cable subscribers of the beat on their reception of local channel 10. I went to have a look and found that the typical situation was in a small apartment building with kind of 2 by 4 partitions. TV sets, back to back were laid out with a subscriber on cable on this side of the wall, non-subscriber with a rabbit ear on the other side of the wall, separated by about six inches of wall board and 2 by 4. And what was happening is that the channel 10 on the cable was then leaking off our 300 ohm matching transformer terminal through the wall, onto the neighbor's rabbit ears and causing a beat with his reception of local 10. So it occurred to me that, if we could phase lock the two, that would help a lot. But there was no catalog phase lock equipment and I carried this idea around for a few months and then I happened to meet Arie Zimmerman, probably at a trade show or something. He was then a salesman for Anaconda. Anaconda was doing cable TV test equipment or something like that.

TAYLOR: Arie was doing the test equipment for Anaconda and Anaconda actually had trunk and...

SWITZER: Sorry, he specialized in test equipment. Yes, they were kind of full line equipment suppliers in those days.

TAYLOR: He was doing the test equipment for them.

SWITZER: I asked Arie about this ... well, what happened eventually is Arie decided to leave Anaconda and then make this kind of gear ... he could see a market for it. So he made very simple phase lock boxes for us that would take channel 10 in off a little antenna at one end and give us a CW carrier out the other - phased locked to that - and we could use that then, to generate our own local channel 10. That did help the problem considerably, and this was in the first phase locking of the cable channel to a local channel. Arie then and Burt Rosenbloom started Phasecom to build equipment of that kind and decided to go into headend equipment. This would have been early 70's ... '70 - '71 perhaps. About that time, we at MacLean-Hunter bought the cable TV system, which was then in its infancy in a place called St. Catherine's, Ontario, which is not far from Buffalo. It's perhaps 20 - 25 air miles from Buffalo and it was considered a tough cable TV situation -- tough cable TV market -- just 40 miles across the lake from Toronto, 20 miles from Buffalo. But we thought we'd give it a try anyway. But this cable system had been started with single ended and had built out with single ended Jerrold equipment I guess. Solid State in the suitcase style, but whatever the model was, it was still single ended - 54 to 220 MHz.

TAYLOR: Starline One, I suppose.

SWITZER: Probably.

TAYLOR: Was Solid State.

SWITZER: Was Solid State, but single ended and we needed more than 12 channels between local pickup problems and we wanted to fill in the mid-band and we couldn't do it because of this second order distortion problem. So what I figured out to do with it, was to put it on harmonic. So in response to this problem in St. Catherine's to run 20 channels on a single ended system, I developed the concept of harmonic and we got Phasecom to build it for us. And I don't know the exact chronology, but McLean Hunter I guess... Maybe before that, we had bought a 50% interest in Phasecom, sort of to help them to get started, because we wanted phase locking equipment and it seemed like a good idea at the time.

TAYLOR: You saw a need besides North Bay for the phase lock.

SWITZER: Yes, for the phase locking equipment. So we invested and made a deal with Arie and Burt and we financed it I guess, and had a 50% interest. But then, the experience with the phase locking then, got me to think about harmonic carrier as a means then of overcoming the second order distortion problem because second order beats would then fall within zero beat in a harmonic system. So we got Phasecom then to build us a set of headend equipment, because by then, they were in the headend equipment business. We got them to build us a set of headend equipment in which all the channels were phased locked and locked to a harmonic comb. Once they started developing this gear ... and they also got an interest from a company called, I think, Laserlink which was working in New York to develop a broadband microwave distribution system.

TAYLOR: This is Joe Vogelman.


TAYLOR: Had nothing to do with laser ...

SWITZER: Had nothing to do with laser at all ... it was a microwave system and I think the intent was in effect, an AML microwave.

TAYLOR: I think that's the intent, yes.

SWITZER: The intent was, but they had distortion ...

TAYLOR: Except they were FM ... very narrow deviation FM.

SWITZER: But they also then wanted to try an AM system and they actually ordered a harmonic set, because they got wind of harmonic ... thought it would help their distortion problem ... and then the first harmonic headend that they actually built at Phasecom was for Laserlink. They built that before this system for St. Catherine's for me. So I went to Phasecom, then, to help them check out, sort of do the proof on the system, this 20 channel system they had built for Laserlink. So we are making distortion measurements and of course we can see the comb is nice. We can see the beats. We pull a picture carrier. We can see the beats, all single. Because we had a pretty good spectrum analyzer available for the time -- that HP model with the 110 MHz head and the 10 Hertz resolution -- so we could see that was working fine. We ran the usual proofs on the modulators for baseband tests and the like -- spurs -- all of that. Now, starting to make some distortion ... actual distortion measurements -- and they came out a whole lot less than we had expected. We are running them through two or three amplifiers in cascade, at high level. They generate some intermod, and we couldn't figure out why. It occurred to me then, overnight at the hotel, that this idea of what we called later "phase fiddling" but in a harmonic carrier system -- really in any coherent carrier system, whether it's incremental or harmonic -- that what we have is the amplitude components of the Fourier analysis of a repetitive wave form. Then of course, it's reciprocal -- it works in two directions. You can take a repetitive waveform and by Fourier transformation, get a frequency spectrum, which is this comb of 20 carriers of unit amplitude, plus a phase spectrum. And nobody had thought about the phase spectrum. In fact in most applications you don't worry about the associated phase spectrum. But here there was a phase spectrum, and there's a unique relationship between a waveform and a specific amplitude phase relationship. So I thought, "Gee, if we pay attention to the phase now, we aren't going to do anything about the carrier levels." They are set by our signal-to-noise transmission requirements. But if we can manipulate the phase, we can actually manipulate, then, the wave shape of this repetitive waveform. And I could look at that then on a broadband scope -- on, at that time, a 220 MHz scope, which wasn't unreasonable for the time. And we could actually see this waveform. It then occurred to me -- literally overnight -- that by manipulating the phase, we could control peak-to-peak amplitude; also, that the peak-to-peak amplitude, once established, would be stable; that it wouldn't change. Whereas, in a system of given amplitudes, but random phase relationships, who knows what that amplitude might be. So we actually then went and started to adjust phase, and look on the scope, and we could adjust phase just by changing the jumper connections between the modulators and the combining network. So we found that that worked quite well. And I still believe it to be a very, very useful technique, particularly in fiber optics systems now, in which second order, is again a problem. We really got out of second order with push-pull amplifiers. Nobody worried about second order again for years and years until fiber optics system come. I did have a talk with a Jerrold field engineer, within the last year, about field experience and inharmonic systems with fiber and I still believe it's a useful transmission tool.

TAYLOR: As a matter of fact, this has been rediscovered by folks at the CableLabs.

SWITZER: Well, I wrote ... there was an article six, seven months ago, by one of the people at Cable Labs and it says, "What's going to happen in composite systems in digital and analog?" He worried about the beats then, into the digital section, and I said that it shouldn't be a problem. You use a coherent carrier system, whether it's harmonic or incremental and at least you'll know where the beats are ... and they'll be in one place. And then I suggested -- I'm very interested in seeing this VSB digital modulation scheme -- what do they call it, VSB 16? or 16 Level VSB? Because there will be -- they suppress the carrier, but at least you know where it is. And if you then lock it into your incremental scheme, I think that would overcome intermodulation problems. There are going to be reflection problems and the like, but at least that would deal with intermodulation. And I referred him to these papers, which, I guess, go back into the early seventies. But anyway, we built quite a few harmonic systems. And in fact, most TV manufacturers then started providing for harmonics in their automatic tuning systems -- in their digital tuner controls. Most cable manufacturers -- most cable box manufacturers -- also dealt with harmonic, usually just with a one and a quarter MHz shift in the second oscillator, so that would bring it back to nominal. And, to point out also, that incremental ... I said it's really a harmonic system ... in classic harmonic, they are integral multiples of six megahertz. You can consider a coherent system to be integral multiples of 0.25 MHz ... just high numbered harmonics. Though 0.25 is not quite as useful, because in a full harmonic system, all intermod products of whatever order fall at zero beat. And also, I think the mathematics show that you can control amplitude better with low harmonic numbers. Ron Katznelson has been doing a lot of work on harmonic lately, and he believes he has a scheme for automatically controlling it at the head end ...

TAYLOR: Yes, he was telling me about that.

SWITZER: ... and I have his first paper on it, but I think he's spending more time now on broadband ... the point-of-entry descrambler systems. I think that has his attention now.

TAYLOR: Nobody seems to be picking that up though.


TAYLOR: He doesn't have what it takes to manufacture.

SWITZER: This point-of-entry, off-premises converters ... when did Times Fiber Communication do theirs and there were two...

TAYLOR: Texscan.

SWITZER: Texscan also did one. I remember participating in quite a few panels in those years, and very much against off-premises, and I think making a pretty good case for it. And I think in the arguments that I presented, I think all turned out correct. And I took a similar view on these, what do you call these jamming systems?

TAYLOR: Interdiction.

SWITZER: Interdiction systems. I had tried interdiction in my shop at MacLean-Hunter in the early seventies, using a programmable HP synthesizer. And we did it on the bench and I think proved the point and didn't follow up on it, because I was not interested, in principle, in off-premises techniques in general. Just as a basic principle, in cable system architecture, I am still not interested in point-of-entry, off-premises. My view for the last few years, and continuing, is that the public -- the general public interest, the broadest public interest -- is best served by some kind of addressable descrambler system -- no doubt digital -- which is so thoroughly standardized and so widely used, that it comes built into every TV set and VCR at relatively low cost.

TAYLOR: I think this is the heart of the conflict, between EIA and NCTA.

SWITZER: And NCTA ... and I think that NCTA and the big MSO's still see the ownership of the descrambler equipment as a major profit center. My personal view is that there will come, maybe soon, a what would we call it ... a Carter Cable case, like the Carterfone case, which will force, and show the virtue of, consumer ownership of terminal equipment.

TAYLOR: Of course this is almost mandated by the 1992 law, but nobody knows how to do it.

SWITZER: Yes it is, but I don't think that industry wants to do it.

TAYLOR: Yes, how to get it done.

SWITZER: I don't think that the industry really wants to do it. I believe that MSOs ... well, now sorry, let me back up on that. I have talked to some who I believe genuinely believe that they would like to get out of the capital burden of providing subscriber terminal equipment. And then you get, though, others who say, "Well, what it comes down to is the question of employment of capital. And the more capital I have invested in the business, the more money I can make, and the more money I have a moral claim to make. And as long as I can raise the capital, I'd rather it was my capital than the consumers." But I believe that the experience with telephone equipment and the whole trend, ...certainly in America, is towards consumer ownership internally. So a news item, on some chip set, that is going to do ... oh, parental control, somebody has a ... did you see that a few days ago?

TAYLOR: I've seen somewhere about it, yes.

SWITZER: Some chip set "to provide parental control." And they said, "Well, it could be built into a TV set for $5.00 or for $10.00, or it could be built into a set top converter, so that cable systems could charge an additional $0.25 a month for it. See, that's the psychology. But that is pre-Carterphone ... that's pre-Carterphone telephone psychology and I don't think that it's going to turn out that way.

TAYLOR: The attitude towards the remote controllers, when they charge 3, 4, 5, 6 dollars a month, for remote controller and you know well, they are buying it for $6.00 or $10.00 a unit themselves.

SWITZER: I wrote NCTA 3 and 4 years ago, cautioning them that, Nader, when he wants to bash cable, that this is so egregious a situation, remote controls, that that is where they will grab you ... that's the vulnerable point of the industry.

TAYLOR: No question.

SWITZER: Yet I talk with American cable operators and they say, "Yes, we know it, but it is so important a part of our revenue stream, that we can't give it up ... or if we give it up, we'll have to raise the basic." And cable systems that I'm closer to, this is what they've had to do ... is back off on the remote control charge, and raise their basic, because it has become so important part of the budget.

TAYLOR: So now we get bashed on the rate increase.

SWITZER: But in terms of cable TV technology, as I said, I have not, at anytime, been keen on off-premises. And still, I'm not keen on off-premises. And people say, "Well, the technology is such that scrambling systems are vulnerable." And yea, but the digital ones are a whole lot better. We have this huge satellite industry that is dependent on that kind of technology – satellite-to-home. DBS, Hughes, people to follow, European operators, ones coming in Asia, are going to have to figure it out, because they have no choice. We don't necessarily have to pioneer that technology, but they will prove and show which are the viable, reliable technologies. And broadcasters should have it also. And scrambling and addressability should be part of the broadcast standard. The television broadcaster should have the option to run part of his schedule scrambled. If I am a TV broadcaster, and I want to run baby blue or mildly blue movies, or whatever -- say, after midnight -- I should have the option to do that, and I should have the support of a receiver, nationally standardized, that is able to do that. In the beginnings of television standards, it wasn't contemplated and it wasn't practical. And I think the time has come to build addressability and enciphering into television broadcasting.

TAYLOR: Well isn't there a transitional problem of considerable number of years...if the set manufacturers build it in, it's going to be 10 - 12 years before the majority of the manufacturers have it.

SWITZER: Yes, but as long as there is some agreement on how it's down, then you start with adapters. It's like the transition to UHF. It was years before there was UHF and in the meantime, you got by with a set top converter, even in UHF, for as relatively simple a standard change as to move to UHF.

TAYLOR: Did you ever argue with Cabletime about their unit in the UK?

SWITZER: I sure did. The one in the UK. I did indeed. I wrote a big long paper for a British client, very much against the Cabletime, because we wanted the same franchise thing in the UK that usually the Cabletime would get ...


SWITZER: ... against the Cabletime, because we wanted the same franchise thing in the UK that usually the Cabletime would get. But I think I had a hand in getting it later changed to where they say, "Well, the license period is now technology neutral." But again, I think I was right in terms of all the arguments that I gave on it.

TAYLOR: I argued with them pretty heavily on the same thing and got myself kind of hated I think.

SWITZER: Well, by Cabletime ...

TAYLOR: By Cabletime.

SWITZER: I don't think anybody else would...

TAYLOR: And users, they kept arguing that there was such a large volume of users, but that was forced by the way the regulations were set up.

SWITZER: And British people wouldn't believe that you had a very good chance to get the license extended later ... it was a British tradition.

TAYLOR: That's right. We are about at the end of the tape ... let's not run out. We are back in business here, after changing the tape. This is the second tape, side B and I've asked Sruki to comment about HDTV and digital compression ... digital transmission generally.

SWITZER: The view I've taken on HDTV is a bit pessimistic with respect to market acceptance, but I guess that view is fairly widely held. But also I took the view that this kind of standards effort, which the FCC is into now, would not be very helpful and would probably be unnecessary. And I wrote, I guess a letter, to one of the newsletters, that has been widely circulated, probably 4 or 5 years ago, pointing out that standards wouldn't really matter in high definition television. I called it The Invasion of the Japanese Standard Snatchers. And I point out that there is television without broadcasting and I think that is one of the results of the evolution of cable ... the evolution of the VCR, the evolution of computers, and the coming further evolution of things like interactive services. There seems to be a failure among regulators and among television broadcasters to recognize this -- I'll call it fact -- that there is a whole lot of television, both in terms of equipment and particularly in terms of viewer involvement, in terms of hours spent and money spent on non-broadcast television and even on non-cable television, increasingly so. And, that high definition would be one of those non-broadcast areas. And what I foretold, and what I think still has a good chance of happening, is that high definition would happen in this country without a standard. And that some entrepreneur would start a high definition service, by satellite, picking whatever standard was convenient and available and that worked reasonably well. And at that time, when I wrote this first, four or five years ago, news looked perfectly well. I didn't care whether it was news or what, but that it would start as a non-broadcast service. It would start by satellite as a movie service, distributed on a national basis. It would be a movie service because that didn't depend on special high definition production. Hollywood has warehouses full of high definition program material ... wide screen, 35 and 7 millimeter material ... thousands of them ... very attractive programming. You don't even have to worry about its popularity. It's all there, it's in the can, it's paid for. And the terms for high definition are negotiable. And that is really all the high definition programming that most people will want. Who cares if they see the news in high definition, or a sitcom in high definition. But a movie in high definition -- wide screen and high definition and with four channel stereo, or whatever -- that is something worthwhile. So I take the view, and I still take the view, that that is how high definition will start and that is as a satellite delivered service. And satellite, because it is relatively low cost and you hit the whole country with a single transponder ... you push one switch, in Denver or wherever, and you're in business all over the country. And even if the TV sets cost $10,000 or even if they cost $15,000, that everybody with a paid-for Mercedes or BMW in the driveway... I distinguish "paid-for", that is, they've got the ability to write a check for $10,000 or $15,000, on a whim -- and to pay $50 a month for that service. A half of one percent of the total households is a suitable aggregate audience then to start a high definition service. Bringing that up to date, now, I believe that probably Hughes. It should be HBO, if they have the foresight to, but it probably will be Hughes, because they have the transponder and they will have the need. They'll have the economic pressure. HBO and Showtime are sitting in what you would call reasonably comfortable pews. But Hughes is going to hurt and I think they'll find high definition as a way to get some publicity -- as a way to make some money And that's how it will start. And it's not going to start with terrestrial broadcasting. Now, one of the benefits in technology of high definition of course, where the American preceding started. And GI then had the foresight or whatever, to recognize that it could be done digitally, not just the digital compression but the digital transmission – a major step forward and a major contribution to television technology in general. And so, the digital video compression, which is now going to be very important to cable TV, is in effect a byproduct of the high definition process. And if that high definition standard proceeding hadn't started, we might not have the availability of DBC now for cable television and other uses. So that turned out to be a very fortunate thing. But high definition, I don't think it's going to come by broadcast, at least not for quite a while, because you already see that broadcasters don't really want to do it. You spoke of the early days of color. CBS and ABC didn't want to do it until there was an audience. NBC did it only because they had a major economic stake in the future of color -- in patent rights, more important than in manufacturing. Because it was obvious they weren't going to make all the color sets, but sure, they were going to get a royalty on every color set, whoever made it. In high definition, I don't think it's clear that there is a stronger patent position or that there is one organization in a position to push it, for that reason. And broadcasters I think are going to resist it, and they are already telling the FCC, "Gee, you're giving us this channel, but we'd really rather run the compressed multiple NTSC services on it, than high definition." So I think there is going to be a lot of foot dragging on the part of broadcasters. If I were a big time, major market broadcaster, I would of course go out on day one, with high definition, but not off my terrestrial stick ... I'd find some reason to say, "Hey FCC, Mr. Chairman, I can do it better by satellite. And please, I would rather do it across the whole northeast, out of New York, by satellite, and get high definition started that way. And here's an economic case to be made. Because I will then reach a much greater audience, and we need that to get it started, because the number that I will reach with high definition from the World Trade or whatever, is going to be relatively small compared to serving the whole northeast market in Boston. And all these people aren't interested in it anyway." I don't know if the FCC would buy that, but it seems a logical way for a broadcaster to go. And a New York station could afford to do that, and with the prospect of capturing a larger HDTV market now I might be interested, as a broadcaster. But I don't think it's going to turn out the way the FCC is directing it, in effect, to local -- to local simulcast off the same stick, and with the same coverage area. It's just not natural to broadcast high definition in that way. They see it as the next logical improvement on television, in the same way that color was just a step up from black and white. But I don't think it's that at all. It's not that at all. It's a premium kind of luxury special case service and it's not going to be economical on this same local basis with all these reflections and transmission problems, even with automatic equalizing and the like, to fix it all up. The logical way to broadcast high definition is by satellite and the logical markets are broad markets, because of the low acceptance. And it's going to be major market operators that will justify it. But even before then, there is going to be a movie service by satellite.

TAYLOR: Those are very interesting thoughts and...

SWITZER: And for cable ... that is, the implication for cable. It's just going to be another service for cable to carry. I don't think even the biggest of our sort of integrated cable systems will have a big enough market to justify a sort of high definition service. And I think they are going to be happy to say, "Well, as long as it's contained in a 6 MHz channel, and the compression has opened up more spectrum for me, yea, I'll carry it. But when only one in 100 of my subscribers is actually going to use it, I'm not going to be really happy about it, because what do I make on carrying the local high definition service? That is, I'm carrying the local broadcaster's high definition service. What's it to me in terms of the economic import compared to using that channel for something else?"

TAYLOR: Of course, then there becomes the question of "must carry" which is still indeterminate with...

SWITZER: If I have to carry it, I will, but it's not going to be a big thing in my galaxy of cable services. Now, if I have a stake in some national service, a la HBO by satellite, and now I have a cut... I've got an HBO kind of deal, where I've got 40-50% of the gross, and I'm getting $20, $30 or $40 a month for high def services. Now, one in 100 subscribers, that's ok! I'll do that. But just carrying the local broadcaster's high def service, I'd rather he didn't bother. And in fact, I'd pay him a bit to wait awhile.

TAYLOR: I would think that the time might come when the broadcaster would pay the cable company to carry it ... he's trying to get advertisers.

SWITZER: Yes, but I think the way this whole thing will shake out ... I have not read that New York Times editorial, but I look at the Canadian experience...

TAYLOR: Neither have I.

SWITZER: That it will shake out to "must carry, but no pay" and that's a fair trade, because if you are a UHF broadcaster, you need cable carriage.

TAYLOR: That's right.

SWITZER: If you are a VHF broadcaster ... traditionally, you didn't care. But I think it will sort out that way to "must carry" but no money changing hands. Anyway, the high definition led to digital video compression and that's major, major technology breakthrough. I talk about it this way ... that we have a sort of dichotomy ... we have the transmission people with fiber and they say, "This fiber has so much bandwidth." Theoretically, a single fiber could carry the whole country.

TAYLOR: Almost infinite.

SWITZER: Didn't you read Gilder's paper ... Gilder's article in ...

TAYLOR: Forbes?

SWITZER: Forbes.

TAYLOR: Yes, I did.

SWITZER: Very good article. He forecasts a country full of dark fiber and in effect, a huge radio space confined in a fiber. And everybody will just broadcast their signals into it and take them out all addressed and packetized and all of that. And what the phone companies will operate are just these big networks of dark fiber all over it. The concept is, in effect, just a huge -- call it hyper -- radio space, packed into glass fibers. But the transmission people say that we have this huge bandwidth. And so who needs things like compression and intensive signal processing ... we have so much bandwidth, just throw it all in and don't worry about compressing it. And the computer people say, "Well, we have these marvelous computation chips, CPUs. We have memory. We've got all kinds of signal processing chips and they are so cheap, and work so well, that you don't need much transmission. In fact, we'll pack a movie onto twisted copper pairs, which take a whole lot of chips and computation and signal manipulation." And so the question is, who do you believe, and who's going to prevail, and in what time period? Well, it turns out that the computer people have been kind of firstest with the mostest. They are here sooner, with more practical stuff. And there is another advantage to the computer people's approach, in that you can localize it. You don't have to build a city-wide network. You can pack compression in a terminal and use it here, or down the street, or where ever you need it. And that's important then, in the deployment of the technology. So I think for the next ten years certainly, the computer people have the upper hand. And beginning ten years from now, I think we will find then that the transmission people, particularly with fiber -- and I'm not talking about Gore's National Fiber Highway network... I don't think it will be government run or government sponsored. But there will be so much fiber around and it will so cheap that it will then, in its own right, make a major change in communications technology, and, of course television along with it. And it will, at that time, have the advantage of both -- we will then have computation in terms of signal processing and we'll have very cheap, abundant bandwidth. I think that there will be so much fiber around, that toward the end of this decade and maybe sooner -- this is mid '93... I bet within five years, you watch the MCI-Sprint-AT&T wars, that the next generation of long distance promotion is going to be unlimited long distance calling within the continental US for $50 a month. They'll be able to do it, because there will be so much fiber.

TAYLOR: That's an interesting ... it's a probability.

SWITZER: So, the... as I said, the digital video compression... one, it expands available bandwidth. Secondly, it introduces the advantages of digital transmission. And that, I believe, is a tremendous advantage compared to the analog transmission we are using now. My own personal view -- and again, I have expressed it several times -- is that we will see a number of all-digital systems by the end of this decade. I think that by the end of this decade, the digital will have enough of a track record and prove so attractive that a number of cable systems will be saying, "Hey, it works so well, and so many of our subscribers already have digital boxes, that we are going to put the whole system on digital." People say I'm crazy, but I think that by the end of the decade, we will start a significant number of all-digital systems and in the five years following that, a virtual complete change to digital transmission for cable. Digital transmission for broadcast will take until 2010, but I think by 2010, we will see virtually all television in digital form. Do you remember when Irving Kahn came back into Telecable and he founded his optical ... he was making optical devices?

TAYLOR: Optronics? Yes ... General Optronics.

SWITZER: Yes, there was an NCTA convention ... or one of the major shows, either the NCTA or the Western Show and he showed a 12 channel broadband system... fiber system. Small booth and Irving was there and I remember telling him that "I don't want to run fiber this way. I've spent my whole professional life wrestling with the problems of FDM multi channel analog transmission and I'm sick and tired of intermodulation and cross modulation. And if I'm going to use fiber, the natural way to use fiber is digital, and I'm going to use it digitally or wait until I can use it digitally." And I said this again at a meeting at an NCTA conference a couple years later -- again in a question from the audience -- that this was my view on the proper way to use fiber. But I didn't want to use it in an analog form. Then, in the summer of '79 ['89?], I pick up a note somewhere, on ATC and Jim Chiddix is working now, with some analog fiber systems. At that time, I was hard at work on the first cable round in Hong Kong -- had specified an all band system, that is an 860 MHz system. Well along into that, I was also working in the UK with 860 MHz systems. So I call Jim and ask if I can come to Denver and see what he's doing. He invited me down. And he and -- who is his chief assistant on that? -- Dave Pangrac, and they show me what they are doing on it -- a bit of the history. They had started trying to work on a rebuild for Kansas City I think, is what they had been working on. And they found these microwave lasers that Ortel, I think, was making. And they had tried those out and it looked like it was going to be a very practical thing to do. And they showed it to me in Denver and I said, "Great! Now I can build a one gigahertz system." That was my use for it. They had another use. They wanted it for rebuilding and upgrading older plants to 450 or 550. And my only reaction now was that now I could build a one gigahertz system, because now I could shorten my cascade. I could shorten my coaxial cascades. Because, yes, I could get 860 MHz amplifiers, principally from European sources. They had the bandwidth, but they didn't have the channel handling capacity. Now I come and ask Jerrold, "Can you build me a really proper one gig or 860 MHz amp?" And they say, "How about split band?" And I say, "No." And they said, "Well, we just don't have the chips to do it." Then when I discussed it with Ed Evanbach and this is back in '86 - '87 I guess, and the chips didn't seem in prospect. And I was telling Ed, "Your are right. We are not going to have one gigahertz chips because I don't believe American operators will ever buy one gigahertz. And without the American market, the chip manufacture is not going to do it. And I was right, American operators are not interested in one gigahertz. Was it ATC that did the one gig system in Queens? ... Time Warner.

TAYLOR: Time Warner, yes.

SWITZER: And that was being discussed then. And I said, "That will be the only one gig system built in this country. And I would call it Qube. It's just another Qube. Time Warner has a political publicity statement to make to show the phone companies not to fool around. And it was like a Qube. It's a kind of franchising -- a political thing. Now they made a whole lot of money on Qube. People said, "Oh no, Qube never worked." And it won the franchises...

TAYLOR: It won franchises all over the place.

SWITZER: It won franchises that were worth a billion dollars later. You went through it, I went through it ... competed with them ... didn't win many of those ... I mean, I didn't win many of those. And I said, "This is the same kind of thing. This is going to be the only one gigahertz system in this country, because American cable operators don't really need it. And if they don't, there are not going to be chips. And so I was content then, to work on the UK systems with the available 860 MHz amplifiers. And I didn't want to back down from 860, because the British TV set is UHF only. And I wanted to meet -- it's the most cable-unfriendly cable TV set in the world. And if I couldn't change it, I'd have to change my cable system to meet the TV set! So, anyway, that was my reaction to seeing Chiddix's AM fiber work. It was that I could now shorten my cascade to where I could build now, practical 860 MHz systems, with a real loading capability. I went on, to redesign... I went right back to Hong Kong and redesigned my Hong Kong system to make extensive use of fiber. And that was really just based on my faith and what I had seen in the summer of '87 in what ATC and what Chiddix and Pangrac were doing. Now, British Telecom, it was a major partner, with about a 40% or 50% stake in that. And a major change like that of course, they wanted to sign off on. So, I'm dealing with telephone company engineers and I'm now proposing an AM fiber. And even to me, personally, I had not been terribly interested in analog operation of fiber. But now I see that it works and, talking to those guys in Denver, I can see the economic significance of it. Now I'm sold. I still would rather run digital, but we are not ready yet. But obviously, this is going to work, and now I can see that. The way I worded it in my memo to British Telecom, is a quote from Julius Caesar, "There is a tide in the affairs of men which taken... " And I quoted that whole thing. And I said, "There's now started a tide in the affairs of cable television, in the American market, which is this AM fiber and it has so much appeal and it is so economically important in the American cable TV market that it will work. And it is my confidence then that this is an irresistible technology tide that I am now writing this into our Hong Kong design." The BT engineer said, "Analog fiber doesn't work." I have to make a special trip to London, meeting with BT engineers, to convince them to go through this whole philosophical economical argument, to where they would sign off on fiber, and they still weren't happy about it. But really, I convinced management, I never did convince the engineers, but I convinced BT management, then, that it was the thing to do.

TAYLOR: It's interesting, in 1973, Corning asked me to come up to Horseheads and go over with them fiber, and how it works and what it could do and how it could get into cable. And after a couple days up there with them, I wrote in my little brief report that I sent to them, that there are a lot of uses of fiber in cable, but for distribution, not until we get a $10 D-to-A converter! And of course now with the inflation and so on, that is about $35, I think or $40.

SWITZER: No, it's going to be less than that.

TAYLOR: Yes, it already is lower.

SWITZER: Archer, you reminded me a few years ago, that I had written some notes that transistors wouldn't work in cable!

TAYLOR: But I had the same reaction you did. I was not happy with am fiber to start with. I wrote to Jim about it.

SWITZER: I came around pretty quickly.

TAYLOR: ... I began to realize that it's governed by the TV sets. The conversion, and this is what I had said in 1973, the conversion is the problem.

SWITZER: But I think that by the end of this decade, the digital transmission will be so well established and so many set tops already in place, that I think we can run the whole system...

TAYLOR: Oh, I see it happening. At the show in San Francisco, the "ring concept" over and over again, these people are showing rings and while rings can work with the analog fiber ...

SWITZER: That is getting pretty long for ...

TAYLOR: They get awful long for that. So they are going to move into the digital, and that's coming.

SWITZER: Well, Rogers is running their ring architecture that way, but the ring architecture is another... It's a separate problem in cable system architecture. I'm not sure it's economical for a cable only system. It becomes very attractive when you're in Rogers' position in Toronto - where you own a cellular operator, where you have 50% interest, what amounts to the MCI in Canada, and you are a major cable operator. And now their fiber ring is not justified for cable.

TAYLOR: No, I understand.

SWITZER: But it is justified when you have all these other businesses and who are using it. And so for cable only, it's a pretty expensive sort of thing to do, because to run a digital transmission trunk and every one of these hubs along the way. You've got to convert to analog, have a stack of modulators ...

TAYLOR: For $300,000.

SWITZER: ... and maintain them ... and it becomes wholly expensive. When you go all digital, then of course, it doesn't matter. In my more recent Hong Kong design, proposed as a second stage, what amounts to a passive, all-digital net, to be built about '96 or '97. And that would run this way. In effect, we would build a passive optical bus, which operates initially at 1.2 gigabits. What we would do, is we would dump in a forward direction, 1.2 gigabits into every home. Then, there's a demultiplexer, and you pick out of that, that's equivalent to 800 compressed channels ... so you have 1.5, or even 2 megabits. And then five years after that, you can step it up to 2.4 and it depends on the availability of the consumer affordable 1.2 gig front end. But I thought that by '96 '97, we could do that. And it's a very simple approach then, to an all fiber network. But we didn't get to file that! Spent $3,000,000 on the application, that is for last September, and then in the last hour of the last day, the client decided not to file it. I don't know if you followed this last round of Hong Kong ...

TAYLOR: Not too much.

SWITZER: ... but anyway, great place.

TAYLOR: Very confusing. Let's talk about PCS, perhaps even CAPS and POTS and cable involvement with these things.

SWITZER: Well, I think that cable will be involved with PCN, with telephony, with communication systems ... with telephone systems, particularly with things like PCN. Not because we have any technology advantage, because ... that CAPS, you mean that's that ...

TAYLOR: Competitive access.

SWITZER: Oh yes, being that. I thought you meant that distributed antenna sort of thing to support the...

TAYLOR: That's a part of the PCN - PCS.

SWITZER: I'm not too keen on that. I believe that cable systems - cable companies, will get into that sort of business. Not because they have particular technology advantages but because they've got the right sort of corporate culture ... corporate structure for it. We are used to investing, making big capital investments up front. We are used to getting a few dollars back a month. We are used to dealing with hundreds of thousands of customers on a sort of retail basis, taking their calls -- at least the better systems -- responding to their problems, building, collecting, selling a service that is essentially very similar to ordinary phone service. So we are psychologically ready for that kind of business. The matter of whether we have any big technical advantages, I am still not certain of. I do not like the prospect of running a telephone type service on the coax cable network. It's been demonstrated by First Pacific, AT&T is now making terminals for it, US West is...

TAYLOR: Broadband Technologies.

SWITZER: Yes. US West is kind of sold on it. I'm nervous because of the dependence on active repeaters. It may turn out OK, but I'm nervous about it, and I'd just as soon someone else kind of carried the technical responsibility for approving that. I would rather use my fiber network, to the extent that I'm putting it into cable -- networks into the cable systems. And also as a reason to extend it further into the network, to use that fiber to support these other services like telephony and then use a more conventional transmission technology, say copper pair, for the last few hundred meters or so, to the home. But we will see. I don't think that is a major technology squabble. But I've been interested in cable systems getting into telephony because we've got the money and the organization for it. The technology aspects of -- sort of coincidental technologies, to me -- is a secondary reason to get into the business. One of the problems though ... what did you call CAPS?

TAYLOR: Competitive Access ... I've forgotten what the P is ...

SWITZER: Anyway, you start to ask what are the economic reasons to get into the telephone business, because local phone service has traditionally not been very profitable. It can be in the UK, but at very much higher rates than American phone companies get for local service. Here it has been necessary, once long distance was separated out economically and structurally, sort of organizationally from the local phone business to provide a cross subsidy with an access fee. Well, if the subscriber pays, what is it, $3.50 a month or so ... I think that's what I pay in my Palm Springs phone bill, plus the access charges that the long distance companies pay... So, the economical motivation in this country is really to compete for that access revenue. And that access revenue is substantial and that's what is driving most of the alternative, local access technologies and entrepreneurial undertakings. They look at all that big money, and say, "Instead of it going to C&P here, it can come to me." There is a risk it seems to me, that I haven't seen discussed, that that structure might change. That is, that whole financial structure of charging for access might change radically in some way, to a greater degree of independence between local phone business and access charges -- long distance access charges. So it would raise local charges but reduce access charges. The local service would still not be terribly profitable, but at least it would stand alone, without access revenues. Because what will happen is that more and more of it... Because in effect it's self defeating. As these alternative local access technologies, whether they are radio based, or cable TV based, or whatever, start to siphon off access revenues from the LEC's, then they are under pressure to replace it somehow. And they are going to say, "Hey look, we've lost half of our access revenues. What the hell, take away the rest of us and just make us self sufficient without access revenues, either from long distance carriers or from our customers." And that so radically changes the economic appeal of alternative local access that I'm not sure that alternative local access is a safe business to get into. PCN is a different thing. PCN is sort of an alternative, a technical and economic alternative to cellular. That's a different sort of thing. PCN, I believe, will turn out to be sort of -- call it third generation cellular. The cellular technologies and pricing will come down. PCN systems will become more elaborate, as people get them and expect more from them. That is, they will consider... I mean, I wouldn't bother with this PCN if I could afford cellular. Because to people, functionally... the functional idea will be cellular. Actually cellular works quite well. PCN features, well, single number and the like, to carry around etcetera, that's really a function of switching.

TAYLOR: That's really another issue.

SWITZER: That's another issue. That's a function of smart switching. And that's available both to ordinary phone companies and to the cellular companies and is a function of the intelligence and organization of the network systems. The PCN is based on microcells, on low powered handsets, which are presumably cheaper and longer battery life than traditional cellular. But traditional cellular, the handsets are getting cheaper and lighter, the battery life longer, they are setting up more microcells. But the function is still going to be very appealing that it will work from a car. Because it is still very much a car operated society and sort of ... so the service ideal will still be full cellular. And I have this PCN only because I can't afford the cellular, or they don't have room for me in their spectrum. And so PCN will inevitably move up functionality and in economic affordability -- that is down in cost up in affordability -- towards cellular. And so we will end up, sort of as a new generation cellular, competing directly with traditional cellular.

TAYLOR: Already, the cell sizes in cellular are becoming smaller and smaller and smaller just for necessity ... and they are going to come together at some point.

SWITZER: Yes. But again, the appeal to a cable company to get into it, is they've got the structure, they've got the infrastructure, they've got the mentality, they've got the capital resources. Well capital resources, you look at the balance sheets of some of the big MSO's ... they are still pretty highly leveraged. But they are starting to straighten themselves out. Look at Time Warner, taking in partners, unloading their debt, cleaning up their balance sheets, and so they'll get themselves into better shape to be able to afford the...

TAYLOR: They are so much better off now, then they were say, 10 years ago.

SWITZER: See, financing cellular ... that's a bankable thing. There was never any question that cellular wasn't going to be a big success. If you got a license, you could take it to the bank or Wall Street or some place, and raise the money and no trouble, pretty cheap. PCN isn't going to be quite the same way. There will be financing available, but they are going to look at it like venture capital things, and people are going to expect higher yields and the like on investments in PCN because it isn't quite the kind of "fish in a barrel" type of business proposition that cellular was. There is no question that when cellular came in, everybody wanted it. It was going to be a big success and it has been. I don't think you can have that confidence in PCN.

TAYLOR: Sruki, we've been at this for quite a while and I think I better call an end to it. And I must express great appreciation for your time in making this tape. We will send you a copy of the transcript. I will first edit, to check things that I know about.

SWITZER: Are you going to do a paper transcript?

TAYLOR: Oh yes.

SWITZER: Oh, I thought you were just going to send a copy of some of the arguments ...

TAYLOR: No, you will have a paper transcript. That's what takes time. Nobody wants to do it so don't hold your breath waiting for it to come.

SWITZER: Do they have budgets for this?

TAYLOR: Yes, this has come as a result of ... well, Strat Smith thought of the idea when Richard Schneider died. He approached Gene and Richard's wife and made the suggestion that we were doing this project and that it would be a good memorial for Richard. And they all thought that was a great idea and so there is money that supports it ... not a big amount of money, but it's enough to get us going. I'm always thinking of new people I'd like to interview. I ran into Danny Mezzalingua the other day. There's one of the early manufacturers, Craftsman and that they became one of the majors now, eventually, so I told him I'd like to interview him. And I keep thinking of new people all the time ... Frank Drendel is one. I didn't realize till I read Bob Brooks interview that Bob bought Frank Drendel into the business, right out of college and look where Frank has gone now! I have contacted Hank Diambra. As a matter of fact, Strat tells me that Hank really generated the idea of a technological history ... oral history and I still have to interview him. I tried but he was leaving the country or something, but I'll get to him. But he tells me that he has a catalog file of just about every piece of equipment that was ever manufactured. And he said that it's a huge file ... across the industry, and he said he had to build a building to put it in ... it's such a massive file. He said it's well cataloged and now, I've got to see that! That's beautiful!

SWITZER: He was...?

TAYLOR: Entron. Incidentally, he ...

SWITZER: Oh, my mistake, that was Entron that did that strand mounted tube line extender, not C-COR. [Actually, the "no-step" line extender was Ameco.]

TAYLOR: I thought ... because he claims that cable powering is a first. Now, Jim Palmer also claims but ... I suspect Entron was there first.

SWITZER: Yes, right, that was Entron. I suspect it was Entron, because I had his tube type amplifiers - low band amplifiers. OK, well anyway, we are winding up this tape.

TAYLOR: Yes, well interesting. Again, I thank you very much for your time and cooperation and it was fascinating. I have a telephone recording device and if questions come up, I might give you a call and we'll record it over the telephone.

SWITZER: Sure. Another thing, when you want me to check a transcript or edit or whatever, if I can get it on disc...

TAYLOR: I can do that. That's easy enough to do.

SWITZER: I've been working on patent suits and depositions and the like and I've found it much easier to work off a disc.

TAYLOR: I'm sure it is. That can be done very easily.


Save to PDF

Anne Sweeney

Anne Sweeney

Interview Date: Wednesday October 04, 2000
Interview Location: Burbank, CA
Interviewer: Elizabeth Glass
Collection: Hauser Collection

GLASS: This is Elisabeth Glass at the Disney Channel in Burbank, California on October 4, 2000. Today we're interviewing Anne Sweeney, the President of ABC Cable Networks and President of the Disney Channel Worldwide. This oral history is made possible by a gift from The Hauser Foundation. Anne, can you tell us a little bit about your background, where you were born and your experiences growing up?

SWEENEY: Sure. I was born in a small town in the Hudson Valley – Hudson, New York – in 1957 and my parents were... my father was the principal of the junior high school there and my mother was an elementary school teacher and shortly after I was born they relocated to Kingston, New York, which was a much larger town, probably somewhere between 25,000 and 28,000 people. I grew up in Kingston; I attended John A. Coleman Catholic High School, then went to the College of New Rochelle where I received my bachelors degree and then to Harvard University Graduate School of Education where I got my masters degree in education.

GLASS: After you had your master's degree in education, what were your career choices at that time?

SWEENEY: Well, I went to Harvard really for a couple of reasons. While I was at the College of New Rochelle, I became very interested in kids and television and really kids, first and foremost, and when I started at CNR I wanted to be a teacher and in my first year you had to take Psych 101, or Child Psych 101, and shortly after that started, the teacher informed us that we would have to work in a child study lab a couple of days a week and it was really through that experience in the child study lab that I discovered that teaching was very, very difficult and I just didn't see myself responsible for teaching kids how to read. I remember when I told my parents I was so afraid that they'd say, "No, no, no. Get over your fears, you can do it." Because it was in a sense the family business, and instead they said, "Thank God you found out now. What is it you want to do?" And I didn't know immediately, I just knew that it was something for kids, and in my senior year of college, a friend of mine in the theater group had been a page at ABC and introduced me to the people who were hiring and at that point I fell head over heels in love with television. I didn't think there was any greater job in the world than being a page at ABC, and being a page meant that I wore a navy blue blazer and a gray skirt and I escorted guests and I answered the phone and I ran for coffee and all of the lower level tasks but all of the upper level access to how television is actually made and I really cut my teeth as a page for Good Morning, America, on the local news, at the radio group at the desk, and just the world opened up to me. So as I was completing my senior year of college, I felt that I still had a piece missing and that was a deeper understanding of how kids learned and I'd heard about a program at the Ed. School at Harvard that had some of the folks who had started Sesame Street and I went up over Christmas break that year and spoke to Gerry Lessor, who had been one of the key people on the team with Joan Gantz-Cooney and Sam Gibbons and Dave Connell and it just connected for me and I felt that the Ed. School would be that piece that I was missing. While I was at the Ed. School – I think when I started, I believed I would end up at Children's Television Workshop, not only because my teachers had a connection but because I had been an intern there, for Sesame Street and Electric Company Magazine, my senior year. But as the year wore on, I read about this new cable service called Nickelodeon that had started in Columbus, Ohio, and this was now January of 1980 and Nickelodeon had started in April of 1979. And in reading about this I became really curious about what a full television channel devoted to kids programming would be and after graduation, I did a short stint at a production house in New York that eventually folded and during that time came in contact with Sandy Cavanaugh and Gerry Laybourne, who were at Nickelodeon. Sandy was the director of programming and Gerry was the manager of acquisitions and I went in to interview for a secretarial job and to my surprise there were three people waiting for me in the office and they all interviewed me and at the end of this meeting, one of the people said – they each had a secretarial job open – and at the end of the meeting, one of them said, "If you could pick any job here," meaning the other secretarial jobs for the other people, "whose job would you pick?" And I said, "Well, I would pick Gerry's, because I believe I'm good at evaluating programming, I believe I understand kids. I certainly have spent a good amount of time in my educational career trying to do that." And as we were walking out she said, "The health plan is lousy." So I didn't know if that I had gotten the job or I shouldn't feel badly about not getting the job, but I did get the job and I started at Nickelodeon in January of 1981 and there were 10 of us and we were part of a company that was still fairly new that was called Warner Amex Satellite Entertainment Company, WASEC, and we were the programming arm. And WACI, Warner Amex Cable, was the cable arm, the people who were going out and getting the franchises in the city and building the cable systems.

GLASS: And at the time, Nickelodeon was the only channel in cable devoted to children.

SWEENEY: Yes. Nickelodeon was the only channel devoted to kids and it was in 2 million homes.

GLASS: It's had tremendous growth. Can you talk about the experience of helping to grow Nickelodeon into the powerhouse it is today?

SWEENEY: I think the experience of growing Nickelodeon really became the way I looked at... it formed the way I looked at my career going forward and it formed the way I looked at the cable industry. We didn't know what we didn't know; we just knew we didn't want to do it the way everyone else had done it. And at that point, toy driven animation was hugely popular and the afternoon blocks on syndicated television and the network Saturday mornings were the powerhouses in children's television and because we didn't want to be like everyone else, it probably took a little bit longer than any of us thought it would. But it was a time of great experimentation, there was a lot of risk taking; we were making it up as we went along and we knew that was just fine and we were never daunted by the challenge of it because I think in our hearts, and I'm speaking for a very large group of people, we did believe in our own success and we did believe that there was a place for a channel devoted to kids, or a channel devoted to music, or a channel devoted to something else.

GLASS: What jobs did you have while at Nickelodeon?

SWEENEY: I had a different job just about every year of the 12 ½ years I was at Nickelodeon. I was a secretary for a year; I became a coordinator of acquisitions and then a manager and then we started taking commercials, so I added program standards to my piece of the pie. I then became a director of acquisitions and then we were continuing to launch new channels, we launched Nick at Nite and then we launched a comedy channel called Ha! The Television Comedy Network, at the same time HBO was launching The Comedy Channel and at that point I started buying under the MTV Networks banner and bought an enormous amount of programming in a very short space of time for the April launch of this channel, which in the end did merge with the HBO channel, but the merger provided a great benefit to the MTV Networks group, in that a lot of the programming that had been acquired had been acquired for the entire group and easily migrated to Nick at Nite and really grew Nick at Nite faster than we had originally anticipated and Comedy Central was born out of that merger and became a channel that is still co-owned by the two companies.

GLASS: You've been involved in the early stages of Nickelodeon and when you left Nickelodeon you went over to FX. Here at Disney you are overseeing Disney and Toon Disney and Soap Net. Can you talk about what is involved in launching a new cable network from soup to nuts?

SWEENEY: Do you have a week? I think the most important thing always is there a need or desire for this in the marketplace. And by marketplace I really mean the people watching television; it really does begin and end there and doing that homework in the very early days and being very clear about what's missing, and as clear about what it is your company has to bring to the party, I think are really the two essential elements. It isn't really enough to have a good idea that you are in love with. It has to be a good idea for 30-40+ million people out there. Starting with understanding the audience really helps you form the kind of channel and Soap Net is the most recent example of that. Soap Net was born out of the fact that soap operas are still a very healthy genre but suffering from a lifestyle change with its core viewers and we took this idea of really making it easier for people to access the shows that they love out into a test situation and we tested two different formats for the channel and very quickly learned which one would work, and then did a great amount of homework with this group of people who would be watching soaps later the same day on what additional needs they had. What else did they want; what else did they want to know? And that's how we slowly put together the pieces that became Soap Net. That's the creative process. Probably equally creative is getting the deal done with cable operators and the DTH businesses and both making sure that this commercial venture works for both parties and that something like a Soap Net is perceived to be valuable. And again, that's where all of the early research comes to play: being able to demonstrate that this is something that is valuable to the customers of the cable operators, who are also our audience, is key.

GLASS: Then what about the marketing side of that?

SWEENEY: The marketing side is two-fold. The marketing side is both to your community of affiliates as it is to the consumer and really working hand in hand with the operators and with Direct TV and Echo Star to make sure that they have all the ammunition they need to use Soap Net or any other service in a way that benefits their business and hand-in-hand with that is helping the consumer find it and helping the consumer use it. In the case of Soap Net, it is very user friendly.

GLASS: In your career, you've had a number of very high-profile mentors, Gerry Laybourne and Rupert Murdoch. Can you talk about those experiences a little bit?

SWEENEY: Sure. I think I've been very fortunate to work not only with very talented people, but in very diverse companies and I think the early lessons of Nickelodeon and WASEC were extremely valuable in my personal and professional growth. That's where I became very comfortable with taking chances and with thinking outside of the box and I think moving on to News Corp. and Fox took that up to a new level. That was just "Wild West" and getting out there with big ideas and really forging ahead and coming to Disney I've been fortunate yet again. I feel like a walking casebook study in brands at this point, having worked for three of the best known. Coming to Disney was a great lesson in working with something that had probably more history than the other two companies combined and the Disney brand, at first, was quite daunting to me but I remembered my early lessons from Nick and from Fox and it's really "be not afraid." This is a brand that is loved and cherished but this is a brand that needs to continue to grow and be important and be contemporary to its viewers, ages 2 to 102. I think it was really that early training that helped me embrace my new job and this big brand in a way that's been very successful

GLASS: With so many cable channels out there today that are products of very strongly branded companies, do you think it's possible to launch a new channel that isn't already branded?

SWEENEY: I think it is possible to launch a channel that isn't branded, but I think you need to be extraordinarily clear on what it is that channel is going to do for people and what is missing in the marketplace and I can look at FX as a great example. FX was an idea of Rupert's, not the name certainly, that came a little bit later, but Rupert had a great desire to bring live television into cable. He believed that television was attractive because it was immediate and it was fresh and it was happening as you watched it and we launched with seven hours of original programming every single day. We took over a building on 5th Avenue in the twenties and outfitted an entire floor as an apartment: grids on the ceilings, we had a lot of handheld cameras following people around. We started with a morning show, we had a news show, we had a collectibles show, we had a music show, we had a show at the end of the day called Back Chat, which was basically, tell me what you're thinking and tell me about your day. We did the first on-air, on-line auction; we auctioned off X-Files memorabilia and we were very experimental and what we learned very quickly was that the public didn't know it needed live. They, the viewers, felt that live was important for news and sports, but entertainment, maybe not so much. The collectibles show though probably was a great lesson in early E-Bay, and we've seen many copies of that show certainly since. The idea of launching new personalities, Jeff Probst was one of our personalities who's gone on to Survivor, Tom Bergeron, who's gone on to Hollywood Squares, Laurie Hibberd, who's guested on Good Morning, America and other shows, I think the great beauty of it was the careers that it launched for many people, including myself. But again, the lesson was understanding what the public wanted and what the public needed and in the end it wasn't seven hours of live television everyday.

GLASS: When you're faced with that, when you realize that they don't want seven hours of live television, how do you turn the ship around?

SWEENEY: Well, you get very honest very quickly and start to make some moves that get you a little bit closer to what the audience needs and our moves at that time were really more toward interactivity, but I stayed three years and didn't get to see it through but I think the collectibles show was probably the greatest example of where the future was going and where the Internet would play in this phase with consumers.

GLASS: When you left FX, you came to Disney. Can you tell us about your years at Disney?

SWEENEY: There have been four and a half years at Disney; I was hired by Gerry Laybourne, who came over as head of the group and then replaced her as head of the group two years later. The first days at Disney were really pretty amazing to me. I'd spent my whole life in basic cable and had never worked for a pay business and at that point Disney was doing what they called a hybrid model. They were basic some places and they were pay in others but there was an underlying desire here to take the Disney Channel basic, fully basic, and I took that as one of the goals that I had to accomplish. It's one thing to have a basic business strategy, but it's another thing to have a programming schedule that is really more of a pay network than basic. So, the second goal became to move the programming strategy and the business strategy together and have them marching down the same street and then there was the issue of this big brand and how it stays fresh and relevant and connected to its audience. There were a series of programming and marketing moves that we used and continue to use. That's never a goal... I always feel that it's a goal that has to stay a goal. It's not something anyone can ever say, oh, we've done that. Resting on your laurels just doesn't work in television and some of those moves included doing Disney Channel original movies. Really kid driven family entertainment that kids could watch, parents could come into the room, feel totally comfortable watching and feel engaged and they've been stories about kids facing the issues that 9 to 14 year olds face. It's everything from divorce and remarriage to relocating to the problems of puberty, things that are very real to kids, expressed sometimes in very fanciful ways, but expressed in something that kids can lock into and feel is really more about their lives. The movies have helped, a lot of the off-air work that we've done has resonated as well, in particular Zoog Disney. We discovered, probably four years ago, in watching kids that when they got home from school, it was homework, snack, turn on the television and turn on the computer and chatting to their friends while they watched television, chatting to their friends about what they were watching on television and these communities that were forming and this interactivity in a very primitive stage that was starting to unfold. So we started to experiment; we came up with a group of characters called the Zoogs, only because it was a fun sound to our ears and to kids who we talked to in focus groups and we created a mythical space called the Zether and the Zether was a space between your computer and your television set and the Zoogs move comfortably between the two mediums, just like kids do and we had kids register, we e-mailed their parents to gain permission and then they engaged in the games and the polls and the chats that were all related to a programming block on the channel called Zoog Disney. Well, today, over 2 million registered users later and a block that's now become a three day weekend idea, the idea has really taken hold with kids and I think one of the most wonderful, yet surprising results is that they average age of our Zoog Internet users is 14 and it's interesting to me because the Disney brand is often criticized for being young when in fact it isn't, when in fact it is embracing the future and what's going on in kids' lives.

GLASS: You have been able to capture these children who are now 14 at a younger age and have brought them to this point and brought them to the Internet. Do you have plans to develop other channels to keep that audience that you've been nurturing over the years?

SWEENEY: We've talked about a number of ideas and again, it plays back to what makes sense. If you're talking to teenagers, what is it that they're interested in, what is it that you would program, and I don't have those answers. I think there is a channel for Disney to do for pre-schoolers and their parents. Our feeling about little kids and their parents, I think, is different than other companies out there. We really are focused on the whole life of the child. That includes their family and I think that's a characteristic that distinguished Disney really every step of the way.

GLASS: What are your plans for interactivity on the channel itself?

SWEENEY: Well, Zoog Disney is really our first foray into... it's our very primitive form of interactivity but as the cable boxes evolve, as technology evolves, we feel that we're well positioned to embrace new technology and we're ready to let it take us to places we're anxious to get to.

GLASS: As part of your responsibility as president of the ABC Cable Networks Group, you also have oversight over E!, A&E, History, Biography, and Lifetime. Can you talk about those responsibilities?

SWEENEY: Well, I can tell you it's a wonderful group of assets run by very talented people and I love that piece of our portfolio because it really does give us the whole world of the audience. Carole Black is our CEO of Lifetime and has done an extraordinary job of connecting with women and programming to women. Her public affairs initiatives are really ringing bells. I think what Lifetime has done for breast cancer research and support of women with breast cancer and getting women to find out and be checked is phenomenal, nothing short of phenomenal. Nick Davatzes is our CEO of A&E and History and A&E has always been a strong and impressive brand. Certainly Biography as a franchise is absolutely famous. I think the History Channel is probably what I go to quickly when I think of Nick and how that business developed and how quickly it grew and I really do believe that Nick Davatzes made people want to know about their history again. He made them want to reconnect with their country, want to know where they came from and where they fit in in the scheme of things. Mindy Hermann is our new CEO of E! and she is a dynamic executive, who I think will take E! to its next level. E! is just over 10 years old now and has birthed Style, their new channel, which has grown very, very quickly and again, is an idea that I think embraces not only fashion, but everything that we consider to be style, all of the things that we live with, all of the things that we do. I think that'll be a winner.

GLASS: In your view, what have been some of the pivotal issues in cable television in the last twenty years?

SWEENEY: Oh, I think there have been a few. I think starting with the franchise battles of the early '80s and watching cities choose who would wire them and who would provide for them. I think the regulation in the early '90s was certainly a pivotal point and within the last couple of years, I think all of the consolidation. Those, to me, are the three biggest markers in the last twenty years.

GLASS: Let's talk about consolidation. How do you see that as beneficial in the long run to consumers?

SWEENEY: I think in the long run, it probably is. I think it's probably a better organization for the consumer and for the country. As a programmer it's very difficult and certainly in Disney's unique position and your past of being pay and basic, it was likely in some markets that the cable operator who owned half the market would have Disney as pay and a cable operator who owned the other half of the market would have Disney as basic and that's a very confusing message, both for a marketplace to understand, a consumer to understand and a programmer to try and market to.

GLASS: Disney Channel is the only channel that I can think of that has migrated from pay to full basic. Were you able to do that so successfully because you own so much of your own programming or did you have battles with program providers when you did the migration?

SWEENEY: We didn't really have battles with program providers. We've been clear for the last nine or ten years that this is how the business strategy of the channel was continuing to evolved and for the last four years, I've treated the business as a basic cable business and that's informed the kinds of deals we've done with suppliers. I never tried to... you can't play it both ways. You have to be one or the other and we've chosen the basic route.

GLASS: In your vision, what's next for cable television?

SWEENEY: I keep hoping that it's true interactivity. I keep hoping that we are headed into a world where consumers have a more personal experience with television than they have had in the past.

GLASS: You also have a family and how have you been able to balance your family with your career?

SWEENEY: Well, I've been very fortunate for a couple of reasons. I've always worked in places where my job made sense to my kids. Certainly at Nickelodeon there was a strange kind of symmetry to it, to be working in children's television and thinking about kids and their needs and desires and their entertainment every day and going home and doing a far more personal version of that. My kids have always had a mother who worked; my husband has always had a wife who worked and we've been very cognizant of this two career family that we have created and have both made sacrifices and choices that have really been for the benefit of the family, including moving to California, which we perceive to be a good thing for ourselves and our kids.

GLASS: What do you feel that some of the biggest issues are in television today, from a family viewing point of view?

SWEENEY: I think parents have always needed help in understanding how kids watch television and to talk about what kids see on television and encouraging them to sit down with their kids. I also think that people overall need help with technology and how to deal with all of these forces that are now coming into your home. When I grew up, we had three big broadcast networks and a couple of local stations that came from the Albany, Troy, Schenectady area and on a clear day we would get channel 13 out of New York and I grew up with cable. I grew up with a tower in the Hudson Valley with cable lines that ran into homes. I remember though when pay television started and movie channels started to come in and what a phenomenon it was and then followed very swiftly by video games. Pac Man, and I can't even remember the name of it now, but it was the ball that bounced up against those blocks and slowly ate away at the blocks on the top of the screen, but I remember when all of this was happening. It suddenly felt like there were so many things to do, so many choices, and life wasn't just about school and a limited amount of television and ballet and piano and art and all of the other things. So I think the thing that parents probably need the most help on is not being crowded by too many activities or too much television.

GLASS: How do you feel about ratings versus what is good solid programming for children? Do you think that most programmers today are really after the ratings more than they are delivering quality programming?

SWEENEY: It depends. At Disney Channel we are not an ad supported network, but we care deeply about how contemporary and relevant our programming is. We care very much that kids are watching it. We care that we are connecting with kids and families. I do think, though, that a lot of times I see people compromise their audiences by going for ratings because ratings drive advertising dollars.

GLASS: You've taken on the responsibility of being president of the Disney Channels worldwide. What does that entail?

SWEENEY: It's so exciting. It entails a lot. It's first and foremost a focus on our brand and insuring for the company that we are delivering on the promises that we make to kids and families and that we are maintaining not only their trust, but a strong and very vibrant relationship with them. Our businesses – we're in 13 territories with channels and 45 with branded blocks, usually free television and this is a massive undertaking. But it's very exciting because it is so reminiscent of what was going on in the United States 20 years ago, watching cable operators. Some of them started well before 20 years ago, but watching cable start to take hold with consumers, watching this acceptance of technology coming into their homes, watching them start to grapple with having more than three or four channels, having to work with the consumers and the platforms on why Disney Channel is meaningful to them, what Disney Channel is about, how to explain it to them and to their children.

GLASS: Have you found that the Disney brand is pervasive in the markets you're already in through the movies and toys and books?

SWEENEY: Disney has a very long history outside of the U.S. It's a company that's over 75 years old and has been distributing its movies through many countries for many years, so there is a great understanding of the brand. That will change as television becomes more pervasive.

GLASS: As American channels march off into foreign territories, do you feel it's important to also include indigenous programming?

SWEENEY: Absolutely. Absolutely. I think the greatest mistake any American business can make is to treat the international market place as an export business. I think the greatest value you can derive from a company that is, as Disney is, international is the two way flow of information and creativity and really understanding other cultures and what's important and being able to respond to that in a smart way.

GLASS: You've enjoyed 20 years of tremendous success in this industry. What advice would you give someone who's just leaving college and looking at the opportunities of cable television, broadcast or the world of the Internet today?

SWEENEY: I'd tell them to look at it with an open mind and to walk into it as clear headed as possible and without any preconceived notions of what it is and to really approach it as – television still is a place that is a frontier and I don't think we've figured it out in the last 20 years because I think the next 20 years are going to be even more exciting and we're going to be juggling many new technologies that change the way we think about the way we make programs and change the way we have to think about our audience.

GLASS: Do you have any thoughts in summary that you'd like to leave us with?

SWEENEY: I feel very lucky. I think I've been so fortunate and I didn't know it when I saw it. I just thought I was taking a great job at a really fresh young company. I had no idea where it would go. I had no idea if it would last, but what I came to appreciate about it over time was the fact that it was new everyday and for me that was probably the most important thing to learn, was that as long as it was new and fresh and as long as I could stay new and fresh in my thinking it would be a great place to work and I really think that's been the beauty of the cable industry for me, is that it always feels like something new is about to happen and it always feels like we have so much more to learn and we can get so much closer to our audience and we can provide so much more.

GLASS: Great, thank you very much.

SWEENEY: Thank you.

Save to PDF

Bill Strange

Bill Strange

Interview Date: Thursday January 17, 1991
Interview Location: Plano, TX
Interviewer: Ed Allen
Collection: Penn State Collection
Note: Audio Only

ALLEN: This is Thursday, January 17, 1991, and we are recording at the home of Bill Strange in Plano, Texas. This is Tape 1, Side A. All right, we are ready to begin and where we would like to begin, Mr. Strange is at the beginning. You were born in Dallas?

STRANGE: I am a native born Dallasite, born June the 21st, 1921, at Baylor Hospital in Dallas and with the exception of a few years, I resided in Dallas, or its environment all of my life.

ALLEN: Can you tell us a little bit about your mother and dad?

STRANGE: Yes. My father was an executive with the Ford Motor Company. My mother was a housewife. In the past my father had represented Henry Ford up in Detroit and chose to come back to Texas.

ALLEN: What was his profession?

STRANGE: He was a plant executive with the assembly plant. Well, he was a sales executive located at the assembly plant in Dallas.

ALLEN: And his first name was ...

STRANGE: William. I am a junior.

ALLEN: Was he a native Texan?

STRANGE: Yes, but not really. He was born on Indian territory. It wasn't even the United States, where he was born. As you know Oklahoma became a state in 1912. But, his family soon moved to central Texas where he was reared.

ALLEN: And then he came to Dallas to work for Ford?


ALLEN: You were born here then?


ALLEN: And your mother's name?

STRANGE: Was Martha. And she was reared as an only child from a rural mail carrier and a station agent down in central Texas. She is a daughter of an old pioneer that gave away about half of the county to get the Santa Fe Railroad to come through that area. She married my father and they were wed for fifty-three years when he died. She is still alive today in a nursing home and her mental faculties are great. She is bedridden but she is in good shape.

ALLEN: Her maiden name?

STRANGE: Francis.

ALLEN: Did you have any brothers or sisters?

STRANGE: I have one brother. He is alive in Fort Worth.

ALLEN: Older or younger?

STRANGE: He is two and a half years younger and he is in the automobile business.

ALLEN: And your schooling was all in Dallas?

STRANGE: Yes. I finished Woodrow Wilson High School and SMU. I attended a year at TCU and got my degree at SMU and that was the extent of my formal education, although as you well know we continue to learn.

ALLEN: And when did you graduate from SMU?

STRANGE: It was in 1943. I didn't know there was going to be a G.I. Bill so I joined the enlisted reserves in order to get my degree, which I did. I carried twenty-four hours in one semester. I made one A, six Bs, and a C and I was so thrilled. I reported to the military. I was first assigned to the tank destroyers and then to the air corps. I became an aerial gunner. I served in the states. They froze me as an instructor. I was there until I was discharged in 1946; was recalled in the Korean War as an adjutant in the truck battalion. I had been in the automobile business. I served a full year in the Korean deal. So I put time in two wars. My son served in Vietnam. So we all had some. He was in active combat duty more than I was. I was on active duty, but I wasn't in the firing.

ALLEN: Where were you stationed during World War II?

STRANGE: In Harlingen Air Force Base, down in the Rio Grande Valley. We trained aerial gunners. I was a gunner. Well, I had been in school in Denver--gunnery school.

ALLEN: What was your major field of study at SMU?

STRANGE: General business.

ALLEN: And when you got out of the Air Force then in 1946?

STRANGE: I joined with my father and my brother in the automobile business. We were automobile ... I bet three careers would sum up my vocation. I was ten years an automobile dealer--a Ford dealer--in west Texas and in east Texas, and following that I was in the investment banking business for ten years as an allied member of the New York Stock Exchange, partner in several stock brokerage firms. Then in 1970 I joined Charles Sammons as his deal man and was with him until I retired in '86.

ALLEN: What caused you to leave the automobile business and go into the investment business?

STRANGE: Well, I made money for everybody but ourselves. I went broke in the car business in 1957. I couldn't make it on borrowed money and that is what I had. So I sold out. I say I went broke, I sold out.

ALLEN: Where did you start in west Texas?

STRANGE: A little country town named Tahoka. The county seat of Lynn County south of Lubbock. I did pretty well there, but when I got down to Gladewater, the company had a couple of poor model cars that just killed me.

ALLEN: Where is Gladewater?

STRANGE: It is in east Texas, in the east Texas oil fields, down near Longview, Kilgore, Tyler.

ALLEN: So you started in '46 in west Texas and in '56 in east Texas?

STRANGE: I left the car business in '57 which was in east Texas and got into the security business in '58.

ALLEN: Who were you with in the security business?

STRANGE: I was initially with Bache and Company and then I was with a firm called Goodbody and Company, a member firm. It was bought out by Merrill Lynch. And then I was with Ling and Company which was a member firm, and then I left them to go with Charles Sammons.

ALLEN: While you were in the investment banking did you have any exposure at all to the cable industry or was Sammons?

STRANGE: No, I did not. I was actually hired by Sammons as a deal man, an acquisition man, perhaps. Really, there was no perhaps about it. Nearly all of my career in the cable business was that of a negotiator, a deal man, a franchisor. During the time that I was in the investment banking business, I was the mayor of the local community in Richardson, Texas and was also president of the Texas Municipal League which is an association of elected officials in Texas. Sammons thought there would be a great benefit in their relationship with cities and the franchising to have someone who had experience in municipal governments and so it was with that background that I went with cable television, went with Sammons. I was originally hired by Charles Sammons, worked right outside his office and subsequently they had some reorganization and they put me over in the cable company. I still related direct with Mr. Sammons. Until the day he died he kept three phone lines, one to the president of the company, one to my desk, and one to the marketing man. He personally kept his fingers on what was going on. So it was a unique and interesting relationship.

ALLEN: The time that you were mayor of Richardson was while you were in the investment banking business, so it was not a full time mayor position?

STRANGE: No. It was never designed that way. It generally works out, but it is pretty time consuming. They have the city manager form of government, what is referred to as "weak mayor," weak from the standpoint of authority to do anything. The city manager is charged and empowered with the running of the city and the hiring of everyone with the exception of the city attorney and city secretary. But, it takes a lot of time in relating to constituents, and appearances, and meetings and representing the community. And--oh I don't know--there is a lot that is read into it that is not there.

The American people, well not only the American people, but the people everywhere want to look to have elected officials, all seeing, all knowing, all powerful, as their representative. You have some of the best government in cities such as with the Jim Tates of Philadelphia, and the Jerome Cavanaughs of Detroit, the Bob Wagners of New York, all of whom were my contemporaries. I knew them very well, but they were strong mayors. You get the Boss Crumps and the guy in Boston and you get the fellow Hullihan out in California. You get these real strong mayors that develop.

So Texas and California and North Carolina worked principally on council manager's form of government in which the professionals run the city and the rule of the mayors is intended to be, but the people won't let it be, a ceremonial function to preside at the meetings, kiss the babies, and welcome the 10,000th resident to the whatever. It's a ceremonial deal, but as I say, the people still want to be able to elect their mayor, and they want whatever the mayor says to be the deal. They want to be able to reflect, "we know the mayor" type deal. So that's what we were. I never had a demonstration at city hall at all, wouldn't permit it. I told them we were not running a popularity contest. We were here to get the facts.

ALLEN: How long were you mayor?

STRANGE: Well, I was mayor actually two years, mayor pro tem two years, so I was involved four years. The last two years I was on the road all the time. I was speaking to all of the municipal officials so I brought up a pretty good wealth of experience in local municipal government to the people.

ALLEN: The position of mayor was an elected position?

STRANGE: Elected by the council.

ALLEN: So it wasn't a popular election.

STRANGE: Well, you had to run for office and I was elected. I was very gratified with a very heavy vote. The council chose to elect the mayor's spokesmen for the council or presiding officer for the council.

ALLEN: So you were elected to council and then chosen by the council as mayor.

STRANGE: That is correct.

ALLEN: How big was Richardson at that time?

STRANGE: When I went in it was about 10,000 or 12,000 and we planned for the community to be 125,000 or 130,000. I think today it is about 80 or 90 or around 100.

ALLEN: And what were the years that you were?

STRANGE: I was involved from '60 to '65.

ALLEN: And all of this time you were in investment banking?

STRANGE: Sixty-six. Yes.

ALLEN: And when did you start with Sammons?

STRANGE: In 1970.

ALLEN: So you were about twelve years then in the investment business?

STRANGE: Well, actually it was ten years. Ten or eleven years, somewhere like that.

ALLEN: How did you happen to end up with Sammons? What was the occasion of your going into his company?

STRANGE: His general manager was needing some help because he was convinced that Sammons should expand its cable operations and some other operations and he wanted to get out of the hotel business. I actually sold a bunch of hotels. I was the deal man. They needed a deal man and that is when they came to me.

ALLEN: They came into contact with you because they had been using you as an investment banker?

STRANGE: No, no. I think I got a very little bit of their business. I had come in contact with them ... my secretary knew their secretary, and there were some social relationships, but it was minor. They did some checking around, and if you are in politics, you get publicity and that type of thing.

ALLEN: Could you describe what the Sammons Company was like when you joined them?

STRANGE: Well, it was ...

ALLEN: What was it composed of? What were the elements?

STRANGE: Well, there were three or four major ones. At one time, he had eighty some odd corporations. It was very big. It was one of the largest and remains so to this day, one of the largest private corporations in America. His base of operations was created by insurance companies of which he owned six. I could name them but that is not germane. Then he was in what was called the "distribution business"--the supply business. They had supply firms.

ALLEN: In what lines? Food?

STRANGE: No. Oil well supplies was one of them. They owned a firm called Vinson Supply Company, a major supplier of oil tubing and things of that sort. They had Briggs Weaver which is a big major supplier of hardware supply type things. It was companies that I didn't particularly care for because it was heavy inventory, but they made money and that is what counted. He was in cable television, insurance, and the supply business. Then he had several ancillary or spinoff-type businesses. He had hotel businesses. He owned some hotels, old downtown hotels.

ALLEN: In Texas?

STRANGE: Everywhere. Well, I say everywhere, in several states. I negotiated the sale of the ones in Destin, Florida; Charleston, South Carolina; and Greenville, South Carolina. He owned a hotel, still does, a magnificent place in Asheville, North Carolina, still owns a hotel in San Francisco. He owned one in Texas which we sold. He liked the hotel business. Later on, I will tell you that is how come we used that hotel business to get our money out of Canada when we were expropriated in Canada by the Canadian government on our cable property.

ALLEN: Can you tell us something about Charles Sammons the man?

STRANGE: Yes. He was like a second father to me. He was an extremely ... well, there is no better word for it than the word tight. He was affable, people liked him. He was an entrepreneur that started out as an orphan, up here in Plano of all places, as a hay hauler and later on did laundry and all that sort of thing. He bought an insurance company called Reserve Life which was his basic firm. It was in the accident and health business. He was a master at direct mail. He was an entrepreneur, a pretty good salesman, a very good negotiator. He would make a deal and whenever he was ready to make a deal, he didn't fool around. So I would say in trying to put it all in a capsule, he liked to have his hands on all the details.

I can remember one attorney going to him one time and saying, "Mr. Sammons, I need to discuss my compensation with you," and he said, "up or down." He had a dry wit about him. There was a period of time when he was real active when I was there. We would meet outside his office at five o'clock for cocktails. He liked his scotch. We sat there and one day I took my shoe off unconsciously. I didn't realize I had it off. And he looked at me and he said, "Bill, does the shoe hurt your foot or whatever?" I said, "No Mr. Sammons, I just think better with my shoe off." And he said, "Hell, take the other one off." He had a wit about him that was very interesting.

They had an old cafeteria, not a cafeteria, it was one of those greasy-spoon restaurants on the ground floor of the building. It was called the Century Cafe, I think. I went in there one day and he invited me to sit with him. They had what they called "plate lunches" and they would cost about $1.35 at the time. This was 1970. I got a plate lunch. The waitresses were all women from forty to sixty. So I visited with him, ate my plate lunch and I put down 35 cents for a tip. Sammons picked up one of the coins. I don't remember which one it was. It was probably the dime, but I've told this story where I have said he picked up the quarter. And he handed it to me with this comment. He said, "Bill, let's not over tip in here, I eat here everyday."

He was very snug, but yet if he wanted to buy something, and he was convinced that it was right ... I got a real lecture from him one day in a friendly sort of way. I was buying a system and I was in his apartment in New York and talking to him back in Texas. I was about to buy a real small system in North Carolina. The man had gotten a bid of $125,000 and I was convinced that I could buy it for $110,000. And so I said, "Mr. Sammons I am bidding $110,000." He said, "Okay Bill, whatever you think. Are you sure you know the difference between the 110 and the 125? If it is worth 110, it ought to be worth 125." And I said, "Well it is your money I am spending and I am trying to do it right." "Well, whatever you think Bill."

So I thought better and called back to his attorney who had been with him for a long time and I said "Ken" and I related the incident. He said, "Bill, I've got one thing to say to you, don't lose the deal." He felt that if you were going to buy something, then you are going to buy it for the long term. Who in the world could say within a few dollars of what something was worth. If it was worth having, go ahead and get the deal before you lose it. That was his philosophy.

Now he never even began to buy if the price in his opinion was out of line. But if I would tell him the asking price, he would say, "What do you think it is worth?" I would tell him and then I would say, "I am not going to give that for it."

Once he got an idea what something was worth he thought he had bought it. He didn't even want to know after he had bought something. He didn't want to know any more of the details. We had to go to the banks and get the money. He had plenty of wealth, but we always borrowed the money. He said that's what banks are for. Banks put up money. That was the way he was. When he borrowed the money to buy Reserve Life, he never paid that note. That is what is called an "evergreen loan." He borrowed $25,000 from Republic Bank in 1938 and that company became worth, oh I don't know, several million dollars, but he never paid the loan back. That is what he maintained. I am sure that they renegotiated and all of that.

Charles Sammons was a visionary in a way because very early he saw cable as a good business. He likened it to the insurance business. You see he never had any oil, he didn't make his wealth in oil at all. He made his wealth in insurance to begin with because he said if you get that money coming in weekly, it is a cash business. This is what he maintained, and the cable was that way. In fact, if some of his other officers had expanded upon his desires, he would have been bigger than TCI because he would commit to buy just like that. In the early days we could have bought and look where we would have been. But, by that time, he had gotten substantial wealth and the other officers were feeling well let's not go too far. Not Charles Sammons. He didn't care how much he owed. Until the day he died at age ninety-two, he was ready to borrow money which was unusual for a man of those years. He never began to pull in and sit on and get conservative.

So in summary I would say that he was a unique Texas entrepreneur. He abhorred flashiness. He would not demonstrate wealth. He did not want a story about him written up anywhere. I remember one day he gave a million dollars to the Salvation Army with the express intent that they not publish it until he was out of town. Now it wasn't that he was such a benevolent guy, he just didn't want the publicity that goes with the showmanship that a lot of people that he knew ... all people are great on the showmanship, and he didn't want any of that. In fact, he wouldn't let us talk to the press, no big articles. So many times I have had to speak to the press and they would ask about Charlie Sammons, and I would have to take a different tack to get their mind off of it.

So he was a unique entrepreneur who saw the future of this country in communications. He was one of the early leaders.

ALLEN: So he was really a self‑made man?

STRANGE: Oh, no question. He was the epitome of the self‑made man. Absolutely.

ALLEN: How did he live? Did he have a large Dallas home?

STRANGE: No. That is a good question. He was in the process of building a Dallas home and his wife was in the attic at the finishing stages and she stepped through the attic to her death. When that occurred, he moved into one of his apartments which was Crest Park Apartments down in Highland Park where he died. That happened in 1969 and when that did happen he subsequently remarried ... until his death was married to Elaine Sammons, who now assumes the responsibilities he had. He never again went into the building of a home. He had a lovely penthouse apartment at the Crest Park apartment building that he owned. I can remember one time he was kidding me about wearing his shoes half soled. He was snug. He was a tight guy, but he lived that way and there wasn't any flashiness about him at all.

ALLEN: You mentioned he had an apartment in New York. Was that pretty much for business?

STRANGE: Yes. A couple of times he was there and I was somewhere else and I had to go over and see him about something, and hell, he would eat in the apartment. He wouldn't go out and pay those high prices. One time he was contemplating going public and Merrill Lynch (a proposed underwriter at the time) took them all out to a very expensive restaurant and he ate their ... out for spending so much money that he subsequently had to pay for. That kind of thing. So it was just his style. He didn't like anybody throwing money away.

ALLEN: Was he a man who worked constantly or did he occasionally get away?

STRANGE: Oh no. He didn't know what a vacation was.

ALLEN: So he didn't have property down on the coast.

STRANGE: Yes. Well, he had these hotels. He liked the one in Asheville. He also bought the Grand Bahamas Hotel. I don't know how many millions he sunk and lost in that, but that would be the extent of his vacationing. But he was working all the time that he was there. He wouldn't call back the many times that he was outside the United States because of the phone bill, but people would come to him. He was a great entrepreneur. I liked the guy.

ALLEN: How big was the cable operation in 1970?

STRANGE: It was approaching close to 100,000 when I joined.

ALLEN: And where did he have properties?

STRANGE: In about six or eight or ten states. He had property in Canada. He was driving in Canada one Sunday and noticed that there was cable up in the air. He stopped and called the person that owned it and wrote him a check on a Sunday. I have forgotten the exact dollar--two, three, or four hundred thousand dollars. He didn't have the money in the bank so he called the bank on Monday and told them he gave them the check for the cable system. That system subsequently got up to 22,000 subscribers.

ALLEN: Where was that in Canada?

STRANGE: It was in two cities. Trois-Rivieres and Shawinigan in the Quebec Province. Canada subsequently passed a law that all communications properties must be owned by 80 percent Canadian. We, of course, came under that and had to dispose of the properties.

ALLEN: Were those the only two properties in Canada?

STRANGE: Yes. And they dilly dallied around about disposing of them. Our people came up with a real good suggestion of forming a co-op and selling it to the subscribers. We couldn't get that approved by the Canadian government. Let me say right now about Canada. When you are outside the continental limits of the United States, you are a foreigner and don't you ever forget it. I don't care what language you speak. When you are outside the continental limits of the United States, you are a foreigner. At any rate, it got down to where it looked like we really had to sell our properties so we made a deal with a Canadian and incidentally it had to be a French Canadian because we were in the Province of Quebec. We had dallied around, our people dilly dallied around, and I got called into it after the fiasco. I probably would have done the same thing they did in retrospect. They continued to fight the government to maintain that they were doing a good deal. We had lawyers out our ears. So what happened is that we came up with a sale of the properties for $3,700,000. I remember this like it was yesterday although it was twenty years ago ... and got an escrow of $370,000 cash. Our people went to what is known as the CRTC‑Canadian Radio and Television Commission. The chairman whom I subsequently dealt with was a man named Pierre Juneau, a very powerful man in Canada. We had prospects to sell and we went to Pierre Juneau and said that we had these two prospects to whom we can divest ourself of our properties in Canada, and will you grant the permit to them? The answer was, and listen to this: That neither of them are unacceptable. Isn't that a hell of an answer? So we went ahead then and signed a contract for $370,000, correction, $3,700,000 and got $370,000 escrow money. And the Canadian government granted the permit to the other man. Our man that was the head of the enterprises which governed the cable systems and the insurance and everything had a terrific personality conflict develop between he and Mr. Sammons and Mr. Sammons fired him. And we are now into January of 1971.

ALLEN: Who was that man?

STRANGE: A fellow by the name of Darrell Manley.

ALLEN: Was he a Canadian?

STRANGE: No, no, here in Dallas. A native Texan, a good man, and frankly he was trying to enlarge the company to benefit Sammons, but Mr. Sammons was going to run his company. At any rate, they were having a board meeting in January and I get a call from Mr. Sammons and the board. They called me up into the board meeting. Mr. Sammons said, "Bill, where do we stand up in Canada?" I said, "Mr. Sammons, we are an illegal operator. We have a cable system going on without a permit." He said, "Well, I want to send Ernie Blank," who became the head of the enterprises and his hotel man who was a good friend of Sammons. "I'll send him to represent me. I want you to represent the board. You all go to Canada and see if you can get this straightened out." He said, "What's been done?" I said, "Very little. I have contacted the U.S. State Department and our State Department in Ottawa is prepared to receive me when we could go." So we went to Canada. I made three trips to Canada.

When we got there, the State Department in Ottawa told us that we all have had plenty of time to get out of this deal. You see that infuriated us. One of the reasons I wanted to back Representative Bryant's bill that we should have a quid pro quo that if you can't own but 20 percent in Canada, a Canadian can't own but 20 percent here. We had a Canadian come in and buy a Texas cable system. At any rate, our laws let anybody own it.

At that time the Arabs were thinking about coming in and buying our communications property and I was incensed over it. At any rate we ended up sitting down with a new guy. Well prior to that I went to the U.S. State Department in Ottawa and they said, "We can only help you sub-rosa. We cannot get involved in this. You've had enough notice in this. You knew what it was." Pierre Juneau, get this, assigned his brother-in-law to be with us in every meeting. They got Mr. Sammons disturbed at one time. So we sat down in a negotiation session with a fellow named Ernie Blank who is Swiss (I think he is naturalized now) spoke fluent French, German, and English. We went in and sat down ... I remember the man vividly. He has even called me once when he was in Dallas. He said, "I might have given you a million and a half, but I believe I would only give you a million, one hundred."

ALLEN: This was the man who had been identified as the person that the Canadian government had wanted to have the system.

STRANGE: Had granted the permit to.

ALLEN: And what was his name?

STRANGE: Henri Audette. Why I remember that name, I will never know. A reasonably decent sort of guy. He was in a powerful position. So I spent the first meeting getting him to agree to meet again. After a series of several meetings, each time I would get back Mr. Sammons would come over and he would put his foot up against the desk, "Well, how do we stand?" I got him up to a million nine. And Sammons came over and he said, "What do you think Bill?" I said, "I think I can probably pull another hundred thousand but I stand a chance of losing the deal." And he said, "We had that sold for three seven. I said, "Yes sir." He said, "Get the lawyers." I said, "Mr. Sammons, you are about to kiss off $2 million. "I don't give a damn, Darrell did, I can do it." And now my head is swimming. I got the deal that is salvageable at $2 million, and the old man is about to kick it out because it was unfair. Somebody told him he had a 50‑50 chance in the courts in Canada. I set up some telephone conference calls. I got some lawyers off ski slopes in Vancouver. I had our lawyers in Washington, our lawyers in New York, I had lawyers in Ottawa and Toronto, no Montreal, not Toronto. Montreal, that was where our principal attorneys were. And all of them, you know, you can imagine what the legal expense was this time. It was incredible. And all of them saying, "Well you have a chance at this." So finally, I said, "Mr. Sammons let me tell you something sir. You are fixing to fight with the Queen of England." He said, "I don't give a damn, right is right." I said, "Mr. Sammons, now wait a minute. We're not in the United States. We are in their country." Well, he still smoldered and I got a hold of Blank, and I said, "Ernie, talk some sense to the old man." I said, "We could do something with this $2 million for crying out loud." So he muttered and sputtered and finally gave the okay to do the deal. And here comes the shocker. We did the deal and then couldn't get the money out of Canada. So I am telling you I was just crushed. Here I worked the best deal I could get which was still highway robbery. The properties in the United States were worth $6 million. We sold them, we had a deal for $3,700,000 and then ended up getting $1,900,000. I told them that if we didn't get the deal done I was going to hold a press conference, call the Wall Street Journal, the Canadian papers and accuse Canada of being another Chile. It was right after all the Allende's stuff in Chile and I was really going to raise some hell with them. I was trying to get them to get something done. I knew that they had us in a barrel. There wasn't any question about it. Well sir, a light went on, and our people started leasing 737 airplanes. We formed a company called Adventure Tours with the money that we had in Canada. We filled those airplanes up and took them to our hotel in the Bahamas in the winter, but we made them pay us in St. Louis and that is the way we got our money out of them. Later on Adventure Tours paid the cable systems the $1,900,000 for our Canadian properties which gave birth to a very successful company that they have here in Dallas called Adventure Tours. So that was our experience with the Canadian deal. Why our government permits unequal treatment of its American businesses is unbelievable.

ALLEN: Was Sammons the only U.S. cable company that had Canadian property?

STRANGE: Oh no, no. One of the biggest was CBS. You know CBS owned cable property and chose subsequently to divest themselves of the cable properties in the states and in the process divest themselves to the cable properties in Canada and formed the company called Viacom.

ALLEN: Had they divested their Canadian before this law was passed?

STRANGE: No, not before that law was passed they had not. But now well I don't know. I am a little hazy on that. It was either ... if they did it before it was right before. My sense of recollection is that when Canada passed that rule they divested themselves.

ALLEN: Who else was involved in the investments in Canada?

STRANGE: There were several other companies. It wasn't very big at that time.

ALLEN: CBS was the major player.

STRANGE: Yes. According to my recollection. Sammons was not unusually big, although there weren't many cable systems then. This whole thing took place in 1970, over twenty years ago. They didn't have pay-tv in Canada for ten years after we had it.

ALLEN: When did Sammons first get into the cable business in the U.S.?

STRANGE: It was in the late '50s.

ALLEN: Can you recall some of the properties?

STRANGE: I can remember one that sticks out in my mind pretty good--Carlsbad, New Mexico.

ALLEN: Did he basically buy or did he build systems?

STRANGE: No, he nearly always bought. He didn't get into any building until later. See, he loved cash flow. He didn't like to start up. He wanted to buy something that was immediately cash coming in.

ALLEN: Now what were some of the other systems in 1970 that Sammons owned?

STRANGE: In 1970, he had a couple in Oklahoma. We had some in Tennessee. He had some in Pennsylvania.

ALLEN: Sammons still is in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Was he in Harrisburg that far back?

STRANGE: Well, on October 8, l971, we purchased--and I was on this deal--we purchased all of the cable systems of an equipment manufacturer by the name of Jerrold Manufacturing Company, and Harrisburg came in that package. Also there was some of the stuff in Illinois. We had one or two systems ... one in Glendale, California. I think that was not in the Jerrold deal, but was in Sammons. We had one or two Californians, but by and large the company overnight doubled to 200,000 subscribers in the fall of '71.

ALLEN: You negotiated that deal?

STRANGE: No, I was with Darrell Manley from Sammons who did. I couldn't think of parent company. So we negotiated that purchase giving $30 million for the 100,000 subscribers in 1971. And as I say at the time, it was the biggest trade that had ever been made. The Wall Street Journal reported it and all that sort of thing.

ALLEN: Why did Jerrold or General Instruments decide to get out of the cable business?

STRANGE: Well, they said and I think very properly so, they were in a manufacturing business selling to cable systems. They were continually being accused of taking care of their own to the detriment of the other customers that they had. There were cable operators. There was a lot of resentment to the fact that they had operating systems and were also manufacturers. So they chose to expand their manufacturing systems and that is one of the things that they took the money for. They continued to become the dominate and I guess are so to this day, probably the dominant supplier, manufacturer to the cable industry.

ALLEN: Were there others who were interested in buying Jerrold?

STRANGE: Yes. There were several, one of which was one of their people who subsequently died, God rest his soul, Bob Beisswenger. He had put a group together, was looking at buying it. There were several others. You know when you get started on a buying deal, you hear so and so is interested. Unless you actually see, you can hear anything about who is interested and they will tell you that others are interested and they may or they may not be. That is all a part of corporate acquisitions. You can run into anything. There was some heated trading back and forth on our part.

ALLEN: Who were you negotiating with at Jerrold at the time?

STRANGE: Well, the final negotiation ... Beisswenger initially, but the final negotiations, Moses Shapiro, a man that had long run General Instruments. He was regarded then and I suspect to this day as the popular CEO of General Instruments. I think he helped. He bought the deal from Shapp ... bought the Jerrold companies. As you know, Jerrold is the middle name of Milton Shapp, former Governor of Pennsylvania.

ALLEN: You say there was some tough negotiations, tough in agreeing upon price or other factors?

STRANGE: No, it was getting them to accept the deal. I mean we were just wanting to be able to trade with them. We would have pretty well given them what they wanted. We were interested and that was the form of negotiation. They were a tough negotiation from the standpoint of price dealing and there was tough negotiation from the standpoint that they've got a piece of property that you want and to be able to get your time on the "dia" so to speak.

ALLEN: So did you approach them about buying?

End of Tape 1, Side A

EDITOR'S NOTE: The historical references to Mr. Malarkey and the early days of the NCTA can be misleading. Readers who may be researching this period should also read the oral history of Martin F. Malarkey, who was the president of NCTA from 1950 to 1956, and that of E. Stratford Smith, who was executive secretary and general counsel during that period.

ALLEN: Today is Thursday, January, 17, 1991, and we're in the home of Bill Strange. This is Tape 1, Side B. Bill, I had just raised the question as to whether you had approached Jerrold or Jerrold had approached Sammons about the possibility of buying the properties?

STRANGE: I do not recall exactly. The only way that we would have been involved with them is if someone would have told us it was available. My recollection the more I think about it is that we learned that it was going to sell or be sold and then we cut ourselves in the deal because we had to get in to see Shapiro. We came into the deal late, really.

We contacted them after hearing it was for sale. They did not say to us come and buy us, not at all, or our systems are for sale. No, it was not done that way. We learned of it ... the exact way we got the information I do not recall. But we were either told by some banks or bankers or a broker, perhaps. There wasn't a broker on the deal. But some way we picked up. As you know in the cable TV industry, there's not very much that isn't known.

ALLEN: It's a small industry.

STRANGE: Very few secrets.

ALLEN: That's right. Well, you really hit the ground running in the cable business, then, when you joined Sammons because of the Canadian deal which was perking when you came in apparently.


ALLEN: And then, the Jerrold acquisition. Was that the first acquisition you were involved in?


ALLEN: Didn't start small, did you?

STRANGE: No, they put me to work. Then, shortly thereafter I got involved .... You remember the Report and Order of the FCC came out in March of '72. It discussed franchising and what goes in a franchise and even discussed local origination as to the number of subscribers mandated, all of which was subsequently changed. So I next embarked on a series of franchise changes and rate increases and things of that sort back in there and to get new franchises written that would be in compliance. Then, as we were getting them into compliance with the Report and Order, they changed the Report and Order.

ALLEN: So you were updating the language of the existing franchises?

STRANGE: Yes, to a great degree we were. One of the things we did was to get included in our franchises the ability to pass through the franchise fees and things of that sort. And then, of course, in the early stages many of the franchises were one page or three pages and granted in upstairs closet meetings and then last for fifty years or perpetuity and so forth.

And then I embarked upon ... I have twenty-seven rate increase applications. I got twenty-six out of the twenty-seven. But they were certainly justifiable. They had been set at five years for like ten or twelve years at five dollars. You go in there and show that after ten or twelve years you want fifty cents or seventy-five cents. And I wrote articles in the press about rate increases and was picked up that way.

So my time was spent doing that kind of thing and at the same time constantly looking for acquisitions because Mr. Sammons was really, really interested in acquisitions.

ALLEN: So once you got the Jerrold properties along with the ones that he had, you were up around 200,000 subscribers.


ALLEN: Did that put you as one of the larger of the ...

STRANGE: Yes, it put us in the top five or six in the United States.

ALLEN: Who were the other ones that were up in that category?

STRANGE: TelePrompTer was running number one. Cypress ... Warner was running number two. Cox was in there. Times-Mirror was in there. All of the players were in there but to a lesser degree.

I was quoted several times in the trade press. One of the most interesting comments that I had received was that I had written a sort of an article concerning a rate increase hearing which was a mythical rate increase hearing. I ended up showing how that no matter how good you were doing and how necessary it was, it got down to the political. I captioned this, "How do you vote?" In other words, can you be fair? I mentioned about the cable system had requested approval and the rate had been $5.50 for thirteen years and they wanted to increase it 75 cents. And then went on to say that there were articles about the rate increase hearing and the radio station was telling people to come before the council ... all this. And the cable system presented its financials. They had $2 million invested. While they weren't losing money, there were making only a small return. The net was $100,000 on a $2 million investment. And they want to add a satellite receiving station. They wanted to do some things like that. In order to do that investment, they had to have rank.

Now, then, this was the thing that I got a lot of calls about. I'm saying, in the beginning, I want the reader to assume a fantasy. Actually play a role with me and follow the steps. It may or not sound familiar. Pretend you are a newly elected council person in the city of Wonderfultown, Best State, USA. Now then, the first one to speak is the wife of a friend of yours. In fact, she and her bridge group work hard for many nights during your campaign. It was a tough, hard race and this lady contributed money as well as untold hours of work writing letters to voters and editors, making phone calls, putting up yard and bumper signs. In fact, she had been like a person possessed with working to help get you elected. The city council job pays only ten dollars a meeting with a pay limit of fifty-two meetings a year regardless of how many are held. Your friend, her husband, is a developer in the city and he gave $1,000 to your campaign. He is also present and will speak. The lady remarks, "Everything's fine as far as the cable pictures and complaints about the company are concerned," but she's simply opposed to any increase in rates. She states, "All the other vital services prices are set by the state." Now get this, this is printed in 1971, '72 or '73 and it's the very argument that's being made today, the very argument. The lady says everything's fine she is simply opposed to any increase. She states all the other vital services set by the state ... the city council's had an opportunity to stop at least one requested rate increase. She reminds the council the various utility rate increase is just inaugurated. The husband follows her and says he's developed a tract of land in town approximately two and a half miles from the cable trunk. And the nearest home ... the cable system won't run cable to his development without having to pay a proportional share of the installation cost. Her husband's quite adamant about not granting the rate increase unless the city requires the cable operator to bill to his proposed development.

The next two speakers are two sweet old ladies in their seventies who actually compliment the city and their service. Their only complaint is that they're on social security and don't want to pay any more even though it's only an additional 75 cents a month.

The last speaker is your priest who says he appreciates the problem confronting the council but he's there to protest any increase in the cost of cable TV. He says there's a large number of people who can't pay any more. You know how dedicated and committed a person is toward those less fortunate.

The hearing is closed and the matter is before the council. You recall the company's presentation ... seemed reasonable. And, yet, you remember your friends and now they said cable's okay but that you shouldn't support a pay increase. You remember vividly how your supporters worked for you. In fact, you realize that if it weren't for them you wouldn't be there. As you deliberate, you weigh the decision ... anger all your friends and make a foreign corporation pleased or vote against it and keep your supporters, your voters happy.

Now my question, could you be objective? I've always maintained you cannot have rate settings done by local government bodies. It cannot be done over a long period of time and have it done in an objective manner.

ALLEN: Well, you obviously had found a way of reaching those local government bodies if you applied for twenty-seven rate increases and got twenty-six.

STRANGE: Well, the case was well made. It wasn't so much that I was any particular articulate spokesman or anything like that. But once you could demonstrate that they'd had the same rate for years and years and years ... but the key to it was that any time you did a rate increase you had to give them something. So you'd always go prepared to give them something. It may have been just a new office ... I don't know. In the early days it was giving them additional channels, doing something. Or wiring an additional area. That's the sad thing. You never could, in dealing with a municipality, get it on the basis that you were justified it by your investment. No sir. It was what have you done for us today? What are you going to do today if we give you this? They have no business setting the rates. It's not a utility. It's not a necessity. It's a nicety.

But you've got to remember this, that the telephone industry, to a degree the power industry, almost both of them literally wrote the constitutions of the various states. If you want to read an interesting book that's out of print called Insull, named after the great utility magnate out of Chicago. And they started off and had everything set in place. You want to bring some effect, you try to handle the PUCs everywhere.

So now comes along a young upstart industry and so you have elected officials and people everywhere have a bite at the apple in the formation of the control and the legislation effecting this industry. You don't see them arguing in the Congress about control of telephone or power or gas or any of those others. They're seizing upon this because of the politics. Who in the world could be for the cable company beside the cable owners? Man, it's like jumping on crime. You can jump all over the cable people, you're not going to lose any votes. See? And the fact of the business is, Gore has capitalized on this. He's created a platform. He is the so-called savior of the people because he is going in there and fighting their battles.

Now, the horrible thing of this whole deal is that we've got some bad characters in our industry. Should never have been in the industry but they are and we can't help that. But there's an old saying, if you throw manure up in the air it gets on everybody. And that's exactly what has happened because of the horrible practices to a great degree .... I'm sure you know this but a big portion of it is brought about by the financial industry. They made commitments and loans on the basis of the fact that there was no control over the rates. If the guys didn't do a good enough job of paying on the loan, they just raised the rates to protect themselves. And on that basis, they continued to bid up the prices of which there's no way you could come out.

I used to look at systems being offered for sale. There was no way we'd pay that kind of money because you've got to make money in the business. If you have to pay what you have to pay, you can't do it. Well, they didn't care so those are the things that the good, decent operators have to .... And we have some wonderful cable operators in our industry. Good, responsible cable operators. I can name you four or five. In fact, for the record, I would say right now you've got a company called Continental which is a very fine operator. You've got a company called Telecable ... a very fine operator. You've got a company to a degree, Times-Mirror is a very fine operator. Cox operates a quality operation, they are quality operators. Comcast by and large runs a quality operation. Sure they have some ... when you have large operations, you're going to have an outlet or two that are not going to treat the public right.

You know our Lord missed out on one out of twelve. You start hiring a bunch of people, you're going to have a foul ball now and then. But we have some very fine ... and there are others that I didn't name that are very fine, responsible cable operators. And we've got some horses asses.

ALLEN: Who were some of the key players with Sammons when you joined the company in 1970 ... inside the company?

STRANGE: Well, it was very small. We had a chap who was president of the company by the name of Bill Karnes. In fact, he's still in the engineering business. He was heavy in the engineering tide. We had a chap before him he had just left before I got there by the name of Doug Jarvis. A very active chap in the financing. He's now with Chuck Dolan in New York. He made a big contribution to the company. Two or three others.

When I was with the company I really wasn't with the company. I was with the headquarters in which I was doing the acquisitions and so forth. Then was put over in the company in the first year or two and was working on those major situations of the acquisition of the disposition, again, and the acquisition and then began to do some rate increases.

ALLEN: So in sequence the Canadian thing, the Jerrold acquisition, the rate increases ... what came next in your activities with Sammons?

STRANGE: Then, contemporaneously, I was heavily involved with the National Association and spent about 50 percent of my time in working on and with the National Association.

ALLEN: How soon did this work start after you joined Sammons?

STRANGE: Oh, it started in the mid to late '70s. I was working primarily first on relations with legislators. Then I got very active in working on structuring of the board so that there would be more of the smaller operators that would have a seat on the board.

ALLEN: Do you want to talk a little bit about the legislation and what kind of things you were trying to do and who were the key players in Washington?

STRANGE: Well, at that time what we were initially doing, and I think that the National Association did a reasonably good job, what we were trying to do is to establish the bringing in of folks from the hinterland to the Hill. Setting up where they would call upon their legislators and to in turn get that done in the various states. That came to fruition, that came to pass.

ALLEN: Who were some of the cable operators who were particularly active in coming to the Hill?

STRANGE: You could always depend on the Joe Gans' ... there was quite a few out of Pennsylvania. Polly Dunn out of Mississippi. Tom Solsby from Communications Properties out of Austin. We had Gale Father and several of them out of California. California was very active in working the Hill. Pennsylvania was pretty active in working the Hill ... the Barcos.

Then at one time we had a real split and old George Barco got so mad he resigned over ... I think it was the copyright bill. We as an industry ... there never had been a copyright since .... Well, let me correct that. That's right. The copyright bill was about 1909 if my memory serves me. And they never had changed it to include such things as jukeboxes and all this other sort of thing. So, it came along and they needed a copyright bill. So we agreed to a copyright bill. All along I was in a group that was fighting the royalty tribunal because I felt like you took and set aside a group that would have literal life and death over you. But, nevertheless, George Barco had one way about the copyright. I've forgotten now who ... I want to say Russell Carp with TelePrompTer but it was either he or Bud Hoffstetter. One of them came with the copyright bill. And the industry supported the copyright bill because one, politically, its day had arrived and it was something that needed to be done. And so there was quite a bit of acrimony had developed with a few of them. As I say, George Barco was so against it he quit over it and he was the former head of the National Cable Association, former president or chairman, whatever the title was at the time he was there. And George Barco made a lot of fine contributions to cable and to legislation. I think in due respect ... while I've given George due respect, we were and are now in an evolving political situation because it's a new industry.

I'll give you an example ... maybe it could be more easily understood. If you can imagine a gigantic giant reaching down with his hand and pulling up all the telephone poles. Now we have no telephone, no power or nothing else off of those telephone poles. And now then we turn around and we come into all the communities and tell them we are going to put in a utility. If you can imagine the people who want to have the say so about what's done ... it's incredible. And, in fact, in the past I recently resigned from an activity that I was assigned to do because I had to answer to about seven different people. And I said, "Now, I'm going to tell you something. A camel is a horse drawn by a committee. And you all can take this and stick it in your ear."

And in a sense that's what the cable industry is faced with. Having to create .... I just got through reading an article in one of the trade press in which franchisors now today are talking two to five year franchises. What this says ... it screams out loud that it's the regulator that wants to manipulate, that's what it is. You see, once again, if you're jumping on the cable company from a regulator standpoint, there isn't anybody going to come to their defense. It's just like jumping on crime. You'll be applauded because nobody likes to pay a bill. I don't know why. They want the service ... they want this item, they want the other item but nobody wants to pay for it.

ALLEN: So your career activities with Sammons, then, cutting deals or buying systems and representing Sammons in Washington. You were the primary spokesperson for them at NCTA?

STRANGE: That is correct.

ALLEN: Did Sammons ever get into building systems?

STRANGE: Yes. It actually started ... oh, after we got the Jerrold systems, some of them needed expansion and they did some building.

ALLEN: Some rebuilding?

STRANGE: Yes, and extensions kept cropping up. As you see in the cable industry you have two ways to make money. You either got more money from the customer or you got more customers. The reason the rates stayed low for ten or fifteen years, there wasn't any need of raising rates. If all you want is more money, all you had to do is string another line and get some more customers. Then finally when you got about 70 or 80 percent of your area wired, if your expenses continue to increase, and they would, then the only way you'd make any more money is to raise the rate. So what we were in the extension .... Now I got the franchise for Fort Worth in 1981 and we built the city of Fort Worth and that was a gigantic undertaking. Many, many millions of dollars.

ALLEN: Did you have the entire city of Fort Worth?

STRANGE: Correct.

ALLEN: And any of the surrounding communities?

STRANGE: We subsequently got some of the surrounding communities. We had one or two and got Fort Worth. It was quite a political deal but we got it.

ALLEN: Was that the first build that Sammons did?

STRANGE: Not the very first. It would be hard for me to recall the very first. From scratch, the very first one was Turlock, California, if my memory serves me right.

ALLEN: Mid '70s?

STRANGE: Late '70s. They got the franchise out there ... it was an original Sammons franchise.

ALLEN: How did Mr. Sammons take to the notion of building when you said he was really more interested in the cash flow nature of acquisitions?

STRANGE: By this time he knew that if you built you'd get X number of subscribers so he was for that. In fact, a group of us went up to look at, and I was interested in building Brooklyn. I wasn't when I went. We retained a car. The fact of the business is, a car and a driver to drive us over to Brooklyn. And to this day, I think Brooklyn is one of the finest looking cities in America. They really get a bad rap but that is a beautiful town. We drove for miles. I couldn't believe what an attractive community Brooklyn is ... the absence of graffiti and everything. We came on back and I remember this is one of the last meetings that I was in. And Sammons owned commitments and I sat there and Sammons and I were the only ones that wanted to do it. He would not overrule his top people when they came in with logical arguments because if we all were for something, he'd buy it immediately because if it didn't work he could say they'd screwed up. But if they told him it wasn't going to work, if he overruled them then he would run the risk that he would be accused that he screwed up and he didn't like to feel that way.

But, at any rate, one of the questions came up and I said .... The president of the company was neither pro nor con. He was absolutely neutral on it. Said I'll build it if you want us to. And Sammons said, "What do you think, Bill?" I said, "I think we ought to get the franchise and ought to go." The engineer was asked, a brilliant engineer we had by the name of Hank Chiconi, and Sammons asked, "What's it going to cost ... a hundred thousand a mile?" The engineer said, "Could and more." And I interrupt about that time saying, "You certainly could do it for two hundred thousand, couldn't you?" He says, "That or more." And he kept going to where he says, "Remember this." You see he had about a thousand homes a mile in some of those areas ... three to five hundred homes a mile. But the wires were hanging on buildings ... absolutely hanging on the sides of the homes. And what would happen to those wires and then on the maps underneath ... oh, it was a nightmare! And so we did not go into the building on Brooklyn. We thought about the Bronx.

Then the state of New York regulatory thing became so intolerable. You see, we got East Hampton on the Jerrold purchase. Now I dealt with those people at East Hampton and I've never been in a political meeting as bad as that one was. They tried to run our lawyer out of the meeting. I'm telling you, people that have a lot of assets and have some time can be real asses in a meeting. Just terrible.

At any rate, the state of New York's posture with regulations is horrible, just horrible. So we've elected to get out. I don't think we have but two or three systems left in New York. So the purpose in reciting is that was it cooled our ardor for the major city up there.

ALLEN: Would you take the Fort Worth franchise as a kind of a case history? How did you start it? What process did you go through? What kinds of presentations did you have to make?

STRANGE: To begin with, we had just been turned down in Dallas and Fort Worth had its application a short time after that. So I put together a local group in Fort Worth and so did all of the other cable companies. I think, maybe, about six applicants. I put together a local group that was politically strong and we got the franchise on a six to three vote. But we came with the latest state of the art. We had dual cable but we only activated one cable. Gave them fifty-some channels with the idea in mind that should it develop the need, that you could utilize the second and it would already be up there.

It was a very heavy document--a big two books. Of course, there were some representations in it that the city had called for that we should do that the demand wasn't there to do. And we had all the negotiations afterwards that went on about when are you going to run an institutional line and there wasn't any institutions. I think there was one. And such things came ... see this cable industry brought that on themselves of promising them the blue sky and not able to deliver the blue sky because there wasn't any demand for it. All that junk of bank by cable and shop by cable. Although in all fairness shopping channels did come along and enjoyed a good fad. Some are even on to this day.

But the representations were done because they were encouraged to do so. And so they were encouraged to shoot their best shot and everybody .... One person, Storer, bid in this deal ... 232 channels. Now, who in the hell is going to look at 232 channels? So it was a heated political deal. We incurred the wrath, in a sense, because there's been animosity between Fort Worth and Dallas for nearly a century. The very thought of somebody east of the Trinity owning a cable system in Fort Worth was an (???). So what they did was that that was the need for local ownership. We built in five or six ... well, I'm failing to find a word. It would be a cell, a core or center in which it had the studios in it and everything. It had five studios ... none but one got used type of deal.

ALLEN: Heavy access type of ...

STRANGE: Heavy channels. You see, that's another thing. You can get a group of people interested in producing television who are very vocal, catch the attention of the council, and there may be eight or ten or twelve people. The press is on them and the TV. All the media is on them and everything and they represent no one. And the viewer, in particular, they don't represent. But the governing body goes along with this saying this is good for the people. We had the franchise, built the system from the ground up ... I forgot. We built Connecticut down from Hartford where the brass company is. I can't recall the name of it right now. It will come to me in a minute. Name a town or two in Connecticut.

ALLEN: Bridgeport?


ALLEN: New Haven?


ALLEN: It was down on the shore?

STRANGE: Well, it was south of Hartford.

ALLEN: Danbury?

STRANGE: No, over from Danbury.

ALLEN: Okay, we'll look it up.

STRANGE: It will come to me in a minute. At any rate, we got the franchise for it in the Jerrold purchase. We subsequently built it completely.

ALLEN: Jerrold had the franchise and hadn't started to build?

STRANGE: That's correct. Waterbury, Connecticut ... that's the one. And we built Waterbury.

ALLEN: So that was back in the early '70s then ... '73?

STRANGE: About in there. That was one of the first we built. What was so interesting about the Waterbury franchise is I get a call, fact of it is he came down ... the Reverend Everett Parker who is the head of media for the United Church of Christ based in Washington. He came down and said, "We want you to give us the franchise. We can relate to the needs of the people that cable will do this for." We said, "Sir, what do we get for this?" He said, "Oh, taking care of the downtrodden," and all that sort of thing. So Darrell Manley, who at that time I'm answering to, said, "Bill, why don't you go to New York." So it was set up that I was to go to New York and meet Reverend Parker to discuss what he was talking about and wanted to do.

The day of the meeting there was a big article in the New York Times in which Reverend Everett Parker is cited that if we don't do this they are going to do something against us up there. I told him, "Get it on. Let's go. We're going to build it. We're not giving this to anybody." He protested for the P.U.C. and everything on the basis that they, the United Church of Christ, could relate to the downtrodden through the utilization of the cable TV system. So that, again, was a part of what we would run into and absolutely got a tremendous amount of acceptance with the governing body. I even told them one time, "You folks are failing in spiritual leadership so you're trying to jump over here in the commercial realm," for crying out loud.

At any rate, we had run into that sort of deal and you do in dealing in the cities. We got to where ... Sammons to this day has really only two major cities--Fort Worth and Harrisburg. There's no way you could get Sammons to go for a major city operation.

ALLEN: And the Harrisburg thing came as part of the Jerrold acquisition?

STRANGE: Yes, and we continued to build, build, build. It was a well run showplace for us, really in a sense. It just grew with the whole industry growing. It was the first thing that Jerrold, I think, built and we took it over in October 1971 and continued to build it. We've had good relationships.

Now Easton, Pennsylvania, was a Sammons system bought from a Chinaman up there. It was a good system and we continued to build it. So from the standpoint of taking one over and going from scratch, we did Waterbury, we did Fort Worth, we did Turlock, California. There are others, I just can't recall.

ALLEN: Do you care to comment a little bit on the difference between the success in franchising Dallas and Fort Worth? What did you do differently in Fort Worth or what was the different environment in Fort Worth? You had one strike against you already because you were from Dallas and you still got Fort Worth having lost the Dallas franchise.

STRANGE: Well, it's very difficult to pin it all down but in the Fort Worth application, we took our Dallas application and smoothed it out, added to it. I made both presentations. Our politics was better in Fort Worth than it was in Dallas. And as history has shown .... Steve Ross, the head of Warner Brothers, came in and was the power behind the throne that got Dallas. It took me years to find out what happened. We were supposed to be ... we offered them everything and, in fact, we were second in the Cable Television Information Center's analysis. Somewhere along the line in the Dallas deal we did not do our politics correct. Number one, we didn't have any local investors with us. I don't know that it would necessarily have helped. Warner did ... no, Warner didn't. But Warner had some very influential citizens. They came in and tied up one of the major advertising agencies that the head of the cable operation subsequently became a vice president of. I'm not saying that there was anything that was done that was not kosher but they did their politics better.

ALLEN: You learned from the Dallas experience?

STRANGE: Well, not so much. It took a long time to even find out what happened. Fort Worth was down and done before then. We came in with the deal in Fort Worth ... a pretty fresh deal of what they were looking for. Of course there was some learning process but I think that our particular application made a lot of sense. We were recommended by the CTIC on the Fort Worth deal. I've always wondered where they saw the error of their previous ways. I don't know. It was big city politics ... that's about the best way I know how to describe it. What works in one town may or may not work in another town.

ALLEN: How long did it take to build Fort Worth?

STRANGE: Nearly two years ... a little over a year.

ALLEN: Any idea how many miles of cable that involved?

STRANGE: I did know and have forgotten. I would say it's probably ... hundreds of miles.

ALLEN: You just weren't involved at all in that end of the business?

STRANGE: No, not at all.

ALLEN: Did Sammons have a number of presidents in the cable operation?

STRANGE: No. I can pretty well name every one of them. Way back in the real early days with Mr. Sammons, a fellow named Frank Valentine who was an attorney. They were very small. Following Frank Valentine, I think, was Doug Jarvis. Following Doug was Bill Karnes. Following Bill Karnes was Jim Whitson.

ALLEN: When did Whitson succeed Karnes?

STRANGE: September 15, 1973. Whitson was a bottom-line man. He was the inside of the whole company. He put me in the outside of the ... backed me 100 percent.

ALLEN: Was he someone who came up from the inside of the company?

STRANGE: No. He was a former financial plans man with Jim Lane who was a entrepreneur here in Dallas. Jim Whitson was very heavily accounting oriented and Sammons' operations are one of the finest financial operations in the country.

I never will forget the first day he came in. He said, "Well, how much money do we make around here?" And the fellows started putting their hands in the air saying, "Well, you see you don't understand the cable business." So he says, "Well, how much money are you losing around here?" "Well, you don't judge a cable company by what it makes or loses. You judge it by how many homes you've got behind the cable," and so forth. And he said, "Well, I go by how much money we make." And he introduced a new dimension. He was later held a high ....

Bob Hughes, incidentally, runs a good company. Prime cable is a very good operator. And Bob Hughes pointed to Whitson many times on the way that we would operate.

Well, we would have ... a headquarters for a company our size ... most companies would have eighty or ninety people. We'd have forty. We shared secretaries. I shared a secretary with the president of the company because I was an extension of his office. I didn't have to have a secretary. He never dictated a lot of letters. I'd dictate a few. It was that kind of an attitude. We ran that kind of an operation. We never used private planes. Once, in the latter stages, we began to use a car and driver if we were in a hurry but we refused to take a limo. It had to be a sedan and a driver, not a limo.

ALLEN: So this whole concept of Sammons that every dollar was important ...

STRANGE: Carried right on through the company, yes sir. We flew tourist on every ... if we couldn't go tourist we'd wait for the next plane. Now, I will tell you, I've been in some nearly all night meetings and on the way home, it was a Friday night ... I had authority because I had the credit card to do it with. I'd go first class coming home particularly if I was coming in after hours and I was worn out. But we went tourist. We watched the dollars.

ALLEN: How long was Whitson president?

STRANGE: Well, up until about two years ago and he's now the executive vice president of the total operation.

ALLEN: So he's still with them?

STRANGE: Still identified. Mark Weber, the original manager of Harrisburg, is the president today. He became president about three years ago. He's certainly a veteran cable man and a good man. He's done a good job. He's running it like they want it run.

ALLEN: We're just about to the end of this tape, so I think we'll stop at this point.

End of Tape 1, Side B

ALLEN: This is Tape 2, Side A of the interview with Bill Strange in Plano, Texas. Today is January 17, 1991. Bill what was the rest of the acquisition policy or history as far as Sammons was concerned?

STRANGE: Well, we would keep a running contact if you please with the brokers and with the industry as to properties that were available. We would do a brief analysis of what was being offered. We turned down probably 90 percent of what was offered if we didn't think that it was a good buy for us now. We weren't going to buy on the future potential. We were going on what we could do today. So over that period of time we looked at a lot of potential acquisitions.

ALLEN: The criteria that you used was potential profitability, the condition of the company. What kinds of things were you looking for?

STRANGE: Well, you pretty well hit it on the head. We used a criteria for the most part of trailing cash flow. All of the brokers, the majority of the sellers, always wanted to tell you about potential cash flow, first year cash flow, second year cash flow, and then some would get into all kinds of criteria to use. But basically we wanted to be somewhere at a decent cash flow which you could then always equate to a dollar per subscriber. We never paid any attention to the dollar per subscriber because you could have a five dollar subscriber, a seven dollar subscriber, or a ten dollar subscriber. Your dollars per subscriber will vary, but if you go on a cash flow multiple which we did, then we would know where we were. Well, they would present stuff to us, or we would have presented to us systems that they would asked for twelve or thirteen times first year cash flow. They would project in there rate increases and all of that sort of thing. In many cases it was unrealistic because some would only have two or three or four years on it and then they would project a rate increase and two years later a rate increase. Politically speaking that just ain't going to work. They made up beautiful presentations. All of that took time and that is where I spent an awful lot of my time. We did do acquisitions anytime anything was near us, close to us, we would do it, as did other companies.

ALLEN: So you concentrated a lot of your acquisitions in Texas and Oklahoma.

STRANGE: No. We had very few systems in Texas. We were heaviest in Pennsylvania.

ALLEN: Okay. Then closest you mean closest to where you were at the time.

STRANGE: Closest to operating system, yes.

ALLEN: Okay.

STRANGE: Yes. We had almost no systems in Texas. We had two old systems in Oklahoma. Huh, I can't think of a system we had in Texas.

ALLEN: Until Fort Worth and the ....

STRANGE: That's right. Exactly right.

ALLEN: What did you consider a good cash flow price?

STRANGE: Well, at that time we would not give over ten times cash flow, and of course you had to look at what constituted cash flow. If the system was really run down, you would give less than ten times because you would have to go in there with a rebuild, and then you got to be able to recover, that's an additional investment of the system.

ALLEN: You said you would give more than ten times, you would give less than ten times, if you had to rebuild.

STRANGE: We would end up giving more because of the rebuilds. That was added on up. We were not known as the highest buyers. In retrospect, we made a mistake, because inflation took care of people that went ahead and paid more. As time went on, those that did it in between '80 and '84 just made out like a bandit from the value standpoint. It was before the prices had gotten into the astronomical heights of what they got to. When I heard of some of the prices. Oh we made a major acquisition, I had forgotten about the Atlantic City deal, because it was in New Jersey. We were heavy in New Jersey, about the second largest. Frankly, I went from disliking New Jersey to loving New Jersey. They went from a horrible governmental climate to an understanding governmental climate and they took it out of the cities. The city would select the franchise operator but from then on the regulation came out of the state office. That's the best of all of the worlds.

ALLEN: What state office? Did they set up a special state office?

STRANGE: A division of the Public Utilities, known as the cable office, I have forgotten the exact name, but it was the Division of Public Utilities. In the state of Connecticut the cities have nothing to say about the franchising. It is all done by the PUC. In the state of Massachusetts, it is a combination. In the state of New York, it is the local, then the state. It is a maze of regulations.

Also running concurrently with all of the other things that we were doing, we were working with the various associations to get active in relating to the state legislators. In New York I spent lots of time in Albany working with the state association to relate to the New York Cable Commission. Oh, I debated a lot of guys, a lot of state regulators. I have articles on the cities and that type of thing because I don't care what the government's level was--municipal, state, or federal. They all wanted to be involved in cable. They went from anti‑business to pro business in New Jersey. New York is still horrible. Connecticut is good, Massachusetts is good.

ALLEN: Pennsylvania?

STRANGE: Excellent. Vermont is not worth a damn. New Hampshire is not worth a damn. California, pretty good. It is heavy local, but it is pretty good. I say pretty good. You have got your hands full, but that's California. Doing business in the various states, forgetting that a cable business is a world all of its own, because they have their own eccentricities. A Californian is a Californian is a Californian.

ALLEN: How long did Sammons remain active in business, right up until his death?

STRANGE: Yes. Almost. Well the last six or eight months he was not very active, but then nothing was done, because he had his fingers in everything, particularly in the cable industry. Cable was his love. He liked the insurance business, but the cable and the hotel business were his real loves, because he actually began them. Way back in the early days when the association would meet, they would use his hotel out in California. He would put them all in one meeting room, and the same over in the Grand Bahamas. That was long before I got there. He was back there in the earliest of early days, back there in the days of Marty Malarkey and those folks, way back in the '60s. He was just as active as you could imagine.

ALLEN: So he was an active member of the NCTA as well as ...

STRANGE: Well, the NCTA wasn't too active then. It was a social group. They would meet annually and share their experiences, etc., but then it became ... the NCTA. I got heavily involved because the NCTA's role until the '80s was that of a fireman. They would take issue against the things and fight fires, etc. I never will forget, I said I am tired of fighting fire, why don't we come with our bill. Let's do our bill. And there were quite a few other guys involved in that, too. I certainly was not the only one. I was active because I popped off a lot. But we came with our own bill. We tried several of them.

ALLEN: And when did NCTA turn to the proactive rather than the reactive stage?

STRANGE: Well it was, and that certainly is a good way to put it because they were reactive until they became proactive and that was, I would say it was in the '81 or '82 range that they began to become proactive. It came with the Senate Bill 666. I will never forget that one, because of its similarity to the Book of Revelations, which was accepted by the Senate Committee and then the House took issue with it. Along with the development in the industry and the publicity and the franchise hearings you began to see a need for legislation and so we finally came, which was passed in '84, with the Cable Act and we almost failed to get that passed. Metzenbaum just almost had it killed. In fact, it passed on the last day. I got particularly upset. I was at markup. You are familiar with markup.


STRANGE: I was in markup and I had a dear friend of mine who later got beat by Treadroot for senator. I will think of his name in a minute. He was a congressman from Macomb, Mississippi where we have a system, an old Sammons system. Tim Worth chaired the committee. This was a subcommittee on House and Energy. And in markup, there was something, I have forgotten now the details on it. They got those fellows all completely turned around and I took issue with Worth's assistant because of what they had done, and this is a significant point. I have forgotten about it until now. We had in the Cable Bill, in our proposed part of the Cable Bill, the right of the cable operator, if an apartment tenant called them for cable, they would just deliver them cable. We had that in the bill. Congressman Jack Field of Texas represented the real estate interests and they cut off the Cable Bill a right of entry to multi-family dwellings. Fifty percent of America lives in multi-family dwellings, duplexes, apartments, etc. And, as a result, a tenant in an apartment became a second class citizen. They could call up and they could get telephone, they could get electricity, but they could not order and get cable because it had to come from the landlord. I got so mad over that, and when they voted, I was realizing what was happening. Markup as you know is a tense period of the day. And I am back up from the audience, back around there talking to a congressman. I said, "You all lost your minds. You are keeping us out of serving the apartment dweller." Well, he didn't understand that. So then I took in and really locked horns with a guy named Aworth who was one of the worst staff assistants, either he was AA or he was a legislative man, and I wasn't the only one that had ever locked horns with him. He was operating under the strength and privilege of the congressman's office. To this day, the cable industry has had to go in the various states and get the right of entry because we were precluded by the real estate lobby under the Cable Act of 1984. They gutted us on that. We had it in and they cut it out. That was one sad feature because from then on it created a horrible monster called "SMATV" Satellite Master Antenna Television. It caused legislation and lawsuits because when Dallas was being built, as when Fort Worth was being built, the apartment people were wanting it, and so the apartment owner would put up the dish and get the programming to sell to the people. The poor cable operator in Dallas had to give their subscribers the full litany of services whereas the apartment owner was not required to do so because it was private property. Once again, sitting there trying to play God, the regulators were absolutely screwing up an industry. But, we were facing the political facts of life and it is difficult when you try to explain this to the man on the street; however, when you get the whole story out, he understands and agrees, but to stand up there in markup and try to get it across is impossible.

ALLEN: Did you have any occasion in your early days of working in Washington, of working with Lyndon Johnson?

STRANGE: Not up there. I had known Lyndon in Texas, but not in Washington. He had pretty well gone by that time. Let's see yeah. He had left there in, well Kennedy was slain in '63, '64 he was elected, '68, yeah I didn't come up. I knew him.

ALLEN: You served as an officer at NCTA?

STRANGE: Yes sir. I was vice chairman one time. I was on the board for ten or twelve years and was very active in bringing about reorganization of the board.

ALLEN: Would you like to talk about that a little bit?

STRANGE: Well, there is not a whole lot to say about it other than the fact that it took me quite a number of years to get across that there should be a larger representation, various size systems and at the same time we wanted to keep in the big investment companies. Yet we wanted the voice of the small ones because every time you turn around, the congressman wants to hear from somebody from Hickory Bend or Skunk Hollow. They are not so interested in somebody coming down from Boston or New York, and yet they have allegiance to the support of the companies from Connecticut, New York or California. Congress wants folks from home coming up there, so the cable association had long utilized calling up the small operators. It is amazing how many of them are close to the Congress. Joe Gans is a good example. So, at that time, I felt like we needed to have a structure at which we had geographical directors, and they needed to have geographic districts. One of the major changes that was brought about was that anyone who paid "X" numbers of dollars of dues ought to have representation or not have to run for office. So we had set up that the top ten dues payers could name a representative on the board. Well, that kept the big monies together on our board. We didn't want to do what the National Association of Broadcasters had done. They got a super board and a junior board. We kept all one board. What actually runs an association is the executive committee. Historically on the executive committee are the officers of the association, but in this new plan that I got in, they had to pick two little ones, two small operators, for the executive committee so that we kept an input of the small operator coming in which in a sense is good politics. Some of the major cable operators are wonderful guys, very intelligent, bottom line oriented, just as fine a group of people that you ever want to be with. But sometimes they get isolated in a tier of executives and they really don't get the full feel from the vox pop so to speak. The only thing about it is that I don't care what the size of the company, your company is composed of some little systems, and so you do have a way of finding that out. Then we wanted to have representatives from other interested commitments, so we would have diversity. We ended up having a board of about thirty-eight or thirty-nine versus a board of about thirty or thirty-one. It took us about six or seven years to get that across.

ALLEN: And how big was the executive committee when you finished?

STRANGE: It went, I think, to a total of eight or nine from about seven which I felt was right. I got it sold and I felt it was right that we recognize the little guy and there are seats on that board right now you cannot have over a few thousand cable customers. That seat is reserved. We had a seat reserved for the independent operator, and from that standpoint it took a lot of time. It took a lot of bargaining and a lot of cajoling and kidding, and they kidded me a lot about it, but I didn't care. If I thought it was right, I did it. I think to this very day the success of the cable TV industry owes much to the association.

ALLEN: Who have been some of the leaders of the association that you feel have made the biggest contributions?

STRANGE: Oh, I would probably lead off with Ed Allen of California and Trygve Myhren of Denver. Without a doubt they made tremendous contributions. There is a man in the forefront now that I think makes a tremendous contribution--Jim Robbins, President of Cox. Then we had, oh there is, I really am amiss, probably the greatest leader we had is our biggest operator. I have the greatest respect for John Malone. I think that John Malone, well without reservation, has made the greatest contribution. He came out of Jerrold. He was former president of Jerrold and he went out and joined with Magness at TCI. John could have thrown his weight around and could have done things and caused things to be done that would have personally benefitted him and not the industry and he chose not to do it. So I have to put Malone way up there.

ALLEN: Any of the paid executives staff?

STRANGE: Oh, no question about it. I would put Bill Arnold up pretty high. Very high. I put the Kaitz in California very high. No question about Jim Mooney. I think he did and has done an admirable job. They spend too much, I think. You know I am coming out of my Sammons days now. They could run that thing a whole lot cheaper, but what the hell, they get the job done. People don't do things. I used to raise Cain about the way they would spend money, and they all laughed at me and said, "Damn, you must have gotten off the tourist section of the airplane." I said I did. That kind of thing. Mooney, I have got to give him all the kudos. There is another outfit that I have got to give a lot of credit to, more so than any individual and that is the group of Washington attorneys. Probably little enough credit is given to them. You see they got paid alright, but they ate and slept this industry. Guys like Steve Matthews, Jack Cole, and the old guy with Midwest Video, George Shapiro, the fellow that has just gone in the industry, quit a great practice, I'll think of his name in a minute. But as a group the Washington Communications legal group much kudos are due them.

ALLEN: You have received a number of awards. I can see as I am sitting here the John Mankin for the award from the Texas Association, the Polly Dunn Award. Do you want to talk about these?

STRANGE: I am very, very grateful. I received the Larry Boggs Award in the National Association which is the highest award they give and I am very, very appreciative. I guess maybe we, as an industry, are a convention-going, award-making outfit. We do too much of. I am very thankful and happen to be the type that when I get involved in anything I give it all I've got and make a lot of noise with it and that gets you a lot of recognition--some earned, some not earned. I have applied myself and I have been very, very grateful for the recognition that I received. There are others that have done just as much, if not more.

ALLEN: Were you pretty active with the Texas Association?

STRANGE: Not as active as I wanted to be, but anytime that Bill Arnold called me I would go down there. He didn't call often, but I went down there and cornered a senator or two and worked with that. I was active behind the scenes. We would get them involved with the National and that type thing.

ALLEN: Was that same true with Southern?

STRANGE: Yes. I was involved in the southern. My involvement in the southern was in getting their recognition as players. You see initially if you are outside of Washington or outside of being a big operator, you didn't get that recognition. The southern association and various other state associations were tending to their business of relating to the state or states. Soon there developed a relationship that Washington (NCTA) would want something done and vice versa and there was not this relationship that existed that needed to be. This was to me a glaring example of a need that needed to be filled and subsequently we got the various directors of the NCTA to go to all of the state associations that were meeting and all the state associations had a director that was responsible back to the state association. It was in that arena that I related to Texas and to Oklahoma, to the Midwest and to the Southern Association. I didn't do too much in California. California was so heavily represented. They had such good representation working with them, and that is where my time and my involvement was working with the associations.

ALLEN: So if Sammons had properties in the area, you would become identified with it?

STRANGE: Most generally it was done that way. We had some properties in California, but we had a Sammons man out there to do it, but by and large that is correct.

ALLEN: We talked a lot about acquisitions of Sammons. Did you divest in any properties during the time?

STRANGE: Very few. Once in awhile we had one that wouldn't work or fit in. I can remember one that we sold in Jasper, Texas, a little bitty system by itself out of the way. We disposed of that. One little system over in Mississippi that we had bought and it didn't fit in. We didn't sell very many. Mr. Sammons never did want to sell any. To him, it was just like selling one of his children. He would not. So we did not dispose of properties. Now we did get him to acknowledge the need to dispose of old downtown hotels. That was something whose time had come and we did that. He never liked to sell anything.

ALLEN: What was the corporate structure that Sammons used at that time? Every local manager didn't report directly to the president of the cable company.

STRANGE: He did. He sure did.

ALLEN: He did?

STRANGE: They didn't have any regional managers per se. In the early days they would report right to the president. They never did have. Well, I will correct. In about '74, Mitson began to set up two regional areas. It was half of the United States and the managers reported to them. They would report to the operation vice president. But Sammons has always been lean. I think I referred to that earlier in the organizational structure.

ALLEN: But it just seemed that you were responsible for a lot of individual cable operations and to have the president dealing with every one of them individually.

STRANGE: But in a way, it was not bad because they sent right now today, particularly, they have the computers which everything goes into them and we used to have. They did have and do have today a very fine operator down in (this is an old Sammons system) Lynette, Alabama. He would just raise Cain to get somebody to come down to their system. Well, they wouldn't go down there because it was a money maker, it was so totally decentralized; that manager ran that system. And of course, I have always said that in a corporation the finest compliment that you can pay a local operating manager is never go around them, because you are paying them the finest compliment in the world. But you let something go wrong and you will see somebody show up, and so it was that sense of operation. Now it rapidly got away from that in the mid to late '70s. They began to have regional, just so many things‑‑beginning to have additional builds, buying vehicles, and all of that that they then began to set more budgets and all of that that led to more of a central organization.

ALLEN: Did Mr. Sammon's conservation of funding include compensation or did he keep his managers a long time?

STRANGE: I will tell you how he governed compensation. It was really funny the first time. Nearly every year he would get a list of everybody and all of his companies that made above a certain dollar. It was interesting to me. I began to watch how that level would increase. He wanted a list of everybody that made over $25,000. When I was hired by him, I was making ... this was 1970, in 1968 or '69, I had made $100,000. I don't remember the exact figures, but in order to go to work for Charles Sammons he okayed my salary of $20,000. He had to okay it.

ALLEN: What in the world motivated you to go to work?

STRANGE: Well, I had made money in the brokerage business, buying and selling stocks, but I saw a great opportunity to get in on the ground floor of what I thought would be a great company. That was just the salary. I was to get certain other fringe benefits. The only point I am making is that of not being any hero taking any big cut, but it was the fact that the old man okayed any salary above $20,000 at that time. That was salary, and subsequently established an ESOP and that type of thing. He had his hands on everything, yes.

ALLEN: Back to the original question, did the managers in the systems stay for an extended period of time?

STRANGE: Yes, believe it or not. Because they were left alone.

ALLEN: And they were compensated fairly.

STRANGE: They were not highly paid. Most of them could go anywhere for more money, but the fact that they had a direct line into the president of the company, the fact that it ran a pretty good company, nobody got on them about anything.

ALLEN: Would he bring the managers together?

STRANGE: Yes, they did. Fairly reasonably so, at least once a year.

ALLEN: Into one of his hotels?

STRANGE: That is correct. Later on it wasn't one of the hotels. Most everyone that I can remember now was at one of his hotels, or he brought them to Dallas. We put them up in one of his apartments, apartment buildings, several times. Then we finally got to where we were taking motel rooms around where our building was. He wouldn't know all of that. We did a lot of things that he didn't know. We had to.

ALLEN: It didn't hurt him if he didn't know.

STRANGE: That is right. Oh, he was a great guy. He really was.

ALLEN: And when did he die?

STRANGE: He died in November 1985--Thanksgiving time.

ALLEN: And you were still with him at that time?


ALLEN: And how much longer did you stay with Sammons?

STRANGE: Just about a year. Just finished up and took retirement. I retired in '86.

ALLEN: Retired from Sammons, but not from the business world.

STRANGE: That is right. Well, yes, although even from time to time I would do some work for Sammon's people, but I had my own little cable systems in for a couple of years and ...

ALLEN: Where do you have cable systems?

STRANGE: I do not now. I did then. I sold out. Now I am in the paging business.

ALLEN: Did you buy cable systems after you left Sammons or while you were still there?

STRANGE: While I was there. I got approval to do so. I bought them with my nephew, and I bought little bitty ones. We would never buy one with 1,000 subscribers.

ALLEN: Where were you buying?

STRANGE: Well, I bought up in Lake Texahoma, built it from scratch, Tahoka where I had been in the city council and the Ford business. We got that franchise. We got about 300 subscribers, that kind of thing. And in Midland County, we had about 400 subscribers. In Roby, Texas we had 200 subscribers. Then I got Rockwell, about the time I was to retire which had a thousand subscribers. We built it to 3,000, that type thing.

ALLEN: Is your nephew still involved?

STRANGE: Well he was with me as partners and we sold out. Now we are both partners in the paging business, headquartered in Tyler. We bought Centel Telephone's Texas paging operations. We would do about three-quarters of east Texas. Once again, I don't want in a major market. It is too cutthroat. It is very, very difficult to make money. Big corporations think that it is worth having the numbers, that they just will do anything to get the numbers.

ALLEN: Do you have any continuing relationships with the cable industry at all now, Bill?

STRANGE: No. I have a great interest. In fact, I got incensed the other night looking at the Ace Awards that were given. I was telling Ben Conroy about it yesterday or the day before ... I was embarrassed. I got embarrassed first, then I got mad. I am going to Washington to visit with them about it. Everybody was a big comedian and everybody is talking off color. And they were all saying, well we're cable, we can say and do these sorts of things referring to Dick Cavett as "little dick." And then James Woods, the great actor, he gets up there and tries to be a comedian and talks about Brian Dennehy, the big guy and the little and then making a big to-do over Jerry Lewis as a Golden Ace Award. What the hell did he have to do with cable? And they are trying to outdo Hollywood. Hollywood is what it is. But in direct answer to your question I do not at this time have any businesses in cable. I am hopeful. In fact, I went to New York last week to see about buying into a cable operation.

ALLEN: Now you showed me earlier a transcript of a debate you had with Jack Valenti. That was in 1988 and you were out of Sammons by then.

STRANGE: That was '88?

ALLEN: I think that's what that said.

STRANGE: Well, if that was '88, I was still with Sammons, so I didn't leave Sammons then until '88. I thought I did.

ALLEN: Let me check that. Hold on. What we need to do now is to go back and update those dates, so the death of Charles Sammons was?

STRANGE: November 12, 1988.

ALLEN: Of 1988 and then you retired?

STRANGE: That December.

ALLEN: Had you planned to retire at that time?

STRANGE: Yeah, the death had nothing to do with it.

ALLEN: It was an unrelated incident. And you said that he had been active up until the last six or eight months before his death.

STRANGE: Well I think I retired in '88. Yes, I retired in '88, that's right. I think.

ALLEN: One of the things which I gather you continue to have an active role in conjunction with the Women in Cable is the Dru Strange Scholarship Fund. Do you want to talk about that for just a moment?

STRANGE: I'll be glad to comment on it. I don't want to dwell on it. Our daughter Dru came from the theater into cable as a representative of Showtime, calling on cable operators. She was killed on January 30, 1980 in an automobile accident in Kansas. And the cable industry was very wonderful in remembering Dru and so we set up the Dru Strange Memorial which created a scholarship fund in her name with Women in Cable. And Marjorie and I have made contributions to that scholarship fund over the years. There have been several fund raisers for it and it has gotten fairly big. If you have never seen applications for a scholarship fund, it is pretty interesting to look at. Women in Cable now have two or three funds. They are getting very strong in their foundations and I don't know today the status on their scholarship fund because it has kind of changed a little bit. But, I haven't looked at it this year for what we do, but we have every year contributed, so that is the extent of it. She was very active and the industry was very wonderful in remembering Dru and making contributions to her fund.

ALLEN: Have you met any of the people who have benefited from the scholarship?

STRANGE: No, I talked to one, but I haven't met her.

ALLEN: So your activity is primarily continuing to build the principal of the fund.

STRANGE: Yes. As a contributor.

ALLEN: Bill, I would like to end the interview by asking you for any observations you may have about the future. One of the issues that is facing cable right now is the likelihood of some additional regulation coming from Congress and you alluded to this earlier because of some of the practices of some of the people in the industry have again drawn the attention of Congress to the industry. What do you see as happening in this next legislative session as far as regulation is concerned?

STRANGE: From a national standpoint, I think it is probably going to end up as a standoff. I think there is going to be a lot of flurrying, etc. And I base it on two or three bases. Number one, there is not the resentment and antagonism coming from the public. It is not a big issue with the various representatives, and that has been developed primarily by the urging, and incidentally I would like to give a good tribute to Bob Miron who has taken a big leadership role in that, former Chairman of the NCTA, encouraging a responsible service attitude. This has reduced the complaints and the bitches which again a congressman goes by. You know everything can be fine, and then two or three people start raising Cain, it becomes an issue, so with that cry reduced, the effort number one is put back. You have got two or three people who keep this as a continuing thing and I think it is running its course with them ... the Gores and the Metzenbaums and that group. They are not drawing a lot of additional support. Now the Washington press immediately seizes upon it. Coming along almost parallel to it is the new strength of the FCC. Now the problems of the cities as well as the problems of our country are more concerned with a lot of other things other than regulating cable right now. The national picture with the Arab situation, but more important the recession, the concerns that weigh on the national scene. Then on the local levels you have got the FCC coming along and defining the number one thing that has always been rates. Such astute guys as a new operator in Tennessee that go in there and raise the rates before they even take over. And they did it in Ohio with Metzenbaum's background of all places. So I think, in my opinion, what is going to happen is that you are going to continue to have more conversation. It will be picked up in the press because it is saying something. Gore surprised the dickens out of me when he voted for President Bush. That told me he was a pretty astute politician because he doesn't want to have it back on him later on that he wasn't in favor of supporting the boys. Now that may be a harsh accusation, but I feel it. But at any rate, Mooney and others are still calling in their chits, the cable industry itself is cleaning itself up, and frankly I don't think anything will be done.

ALLEN: Would you comment a little bit more on what you see as the emerging role of the FCC. You see it becoming a stronger and stronger agency?

STRANGE: Yes. I do. It is coming from two sources, number one you have got a different type of leadership in the FCC, but number two the Congress is looking to it to be an umpire so to speak. They are giving it the strength and are paying attention to it, and the FCC is feeling its leadership. One other thing that I think that is because of the developments you may or may not be aware of. The administration was not so much for spanking cable. When they got down to where this legislation was passed in the House by a voice vote. It got delayed in the Senate by some parliamentary procedures, but the word came from the Hill that the president wasn't going to sign it. So you have got the administration opposed to it, you have business practices opposed to it, the advent and the promise of the FCC and it is asserting itself constantly. You have got something that politicians can point to and say that they are going to take care of it. Calm down I am not getting too much hell from home, so that is the reason I think that with knowing that nobody likes to be a part of legislation and finally the president vetoed it. See, it is just not good politics.

ALLEN: You don't see cable becoming more and more regulated as a public utility, rather than continuing to be regulated in the communications side?

STRANGE: Correct. Now there will be a little bit of utility regulation by the FCC. I have always maintained that I didn't have any problem with it if you have 100 percent saturation. It then becomes somewhat of a necessity. But if you are going to regulate me then you are going to guarantee me making a profit. But they don't want to do that in the other regulation. You asked any city that is regulating rates, they will not at all endorse the idea of taking care of you making a profit, and you should regulate only when you serve the 100 percent in my opinion, or 90 or percent whatever the case might be.

ALLEN: What do you see the telephone companies' role in communications or particularly in cable related activities over the next few years, changing?

STRANGE: Oh a small amount, not a great deal. They are playing so much with the optical fiber. I think that they have so much to do on their own phone deal. I think there will be some experimental deals in some places. John Malone once again, there is a guy, if you haven't interviewed, by all means a must. John Malone has got some very good and definite ideas, and I would be anxious to read about them. The telephone company has about all it can handle and a lot of this is smoke screen to get the people off the telephone company where they come in and let us have the other. I think we have got one of the greatest telephone systems in the world. If you don't think so, go outside the United States and make a telephone call. But, I don't know, with the development and advent of cellular and all that has to be done with that and the part that the telephone company is playing, there will be some of those operating entities that stick their foot in the water and will get in. I don't look for them to come in to the Congress and be done by the federal level.

ALLEN: You don't think the telephone company will put cable out of business.

STRANGE: No sir. I sure don't. I think that the more that they go into cable you are liable to have some cable companies going into the phone business. You see, there are two major things that we have failed to sell. I say we because I feel a part of it regardless of whether I am in it now or not. We have failed to tell our story of what we have brought and are bringing to the public. All you've got to do is to look at The Discovery Channel, look at CNN, look at C‑SPAN, and see what we have done to contribute to the information and education of this country. CNN got three reporters over there sending messages back that nobody could get back.

ALLEN: You mean in Baghdad.

STRANGE: That's right. In fact, the business is, Tom Brokaw asked Bernard Shaw how are you all getting out and none of our people can? Now, I am not necessarily trying to overly applaud CNN, but through the advent of cable TV we made contributions that we don't get credit for. That is number one. Number two, the second area that we have a real problem in is getting the story about the regulation and the fact that we are overly regulated and always have been, but we are a business. We are an entrepreneur, we are not an institutional type business. We are not a utility. You don't have to have us. Now if we are bringing you something that you don't have to have, then it is a new venture. It is a business for crying out loud. But we can't seem to get that across to people. Everybody wants to control a new entity. There are other thoughts that I have that will come to me on that, but in particular, one of the biggest exposures, we haven't emphasized what we brought to America. How about the Weather Channel? You couldn't have had a weather channel without cable. You wouldn't have had satellites bringing this stuff if we didn't have cable subscribers and commit to pay for that to bring it to them. We wouldn't have done it.

ALLEN: The marriage of cable and satellite has been probably the most important technical change.

STRANGE: No question about it.

ALLEN: Do you see anything else upon the horizon in terms of a technical change of that magnitude?

STRANGE: Well, maybe not of that magnitude. I think you are going to see some additional utilizations of cable with the computers. I think you will be able to add a computerized access through the utilization of cable. I think you are going to see cable perhaps be combined with computers. We are becoming, and the biggest reason that I stay in the communications industry, I am in it in a country cousin sort of way with paging. Every individual is going to be a walking communications center. We are now selling, and I don't have one, but we are selling a wristwatch pager, where we have got it down where it doesn't beep. They used to call them "beepers." That is bull. They are not "beepers" they are pagers. Mine vibrates and lets me know when I need to go make a call. So the field of communications is in its infancy. My mother is in a rest home. She is getting hard of hearing. She is 92, and she runs her television too loud. I have just ordered her a wireless set that fits on her ears that nobody can hear but her, but it comes across the hospital room as wireless communications. You see, our whole future, there is no telling what is going to occur and cable will be in the forefront because those guys have got the wiring into every home in America or access to have it into every home in America. A lot of people say, well you got wires to every home in America, well it's a two pair wire, it's the telephone wire coming in, and once again about the telephone. You have got to remember the telephone company is a utility and they have a guaranteed rate of return, okay. They get, and if you don't believe this, you visit with telephone people. You ought to do it. You are going to find that they've got a utility mentality. They don't know a damn thing about having to make a payroll, when to have to cut down, any of those kinds of things because they are a guaranteed business. Now, they have done an excellent job in delivering telephone service. I don't consider them a threat in getting in some of the others. They got so damn much money that they could buy their way into some of these businesses and are doing it. When it gets down to running them, they are going to have to be run in an entrepreneurial manner and that is the thing about cable. If you want to kill cable, you just get it fully regulated. The government can run a war and that is about all they can do.

ALLEN: How about programming? Anything happening in the world programming? You mentioned some of the unique programming that is available on cable. Have we run the gamut?

STRANGE: Of course that is one of the big problems facing not only cable but take a look at your networks. My God, every year they have a fight for programming and then they go by some rating system. I understood that the "Cosby" show didn't make the rating systems. No, I was in New York and it wasn't the "Cosby" show, it was Tony Randall. He said for five years "The Odd Couple" didn't even make the ratings, but the guy in charge of their network kept them on, and then finally they hit the ratings. Programming, because of the very nature of the beast, is always going to be a problem ... will be well rewarded when you can. Look at the "Cosby" show. Here is a guy who was an ordinary comedian, an ordinary motion picture player, an ordinary television actor became a multi‑multi‑multi millionaire because he hit the right niche on programming, a very fine healthy show, but his timing was there. I think the premium is going to be paid on programming. I think cable will be in pretty much because it is able to do it.

Now you are going to have to get away from the censorship. I am so violently opposed to censorship. Censorship should be executed by the home. You know I don't want them to come and show Triple X for anybody who wants to sit down and look at it, but I think it should not be denied. I think there should be some form if there are people that want to see that crap. They ought to be able to see it. I think you can put the restriction on it, like Boston did the "combat zone" or something, but the educational media possibility in cable is just absolutely fantastic. Entertainment is always going to be the thing that's the problem, getting new programming.

ALLEN: But you don't see any new initiatives, things that we are not doing now coming down the road, like the Weather Channel or other kinds of services?

STRANGE: Yes, I do. I think it is going to be led by C‑SPAN. Have you ever seen the House of Commons in operation? I have. I saw it on C‑SPAN. Do you know they said that they cannot seat all of their members? Do you know that a member of Parliament has only one assistant? Do you know that they sit there and holler at that prime minister and argue and everything else? It is the most fascinating show on TV to watch the House of Commons. Now I have said that in order to say that you are going to see a lot more things take place. It's going to come out of Discovery, it is going to come out of C‑SPAN, it is going to come out of this. When you start seeing the Australian animals, animals are a great show, very informative. When you start seeing the way some people ... I cannot understand the Islam religion of bowing down on a prayer rug five times a day and expect them to fight a war. But we are going to see programming come out of what is now being created by cable, I think.

ALLEN: So the opportunity to understand other cultures.

STRANGE: Yes and the need to do so.

ALLEN: That is correct.

STRANGE: Yes, you sure are going to see that. Right now, can you think what has happened in the last two years? Have we had anything more dramatic than the freedom in Europe? Just fabulous. Now we are having people tell us about it. This guy Hedrick that is on "Washington Week in Review" that writes The New Russians and the others. His whole life is Russia. When you start seeing some things about Russia, they talk about a famine over there, bullcorn. They had the greatest agriculture year they ever had, but what happens, a certain amount of it goes to state stores. They take it off and funnel it and people line up to get it because they get it at way below the market. They are not lined up at those stores because that is the only place they can get the food. They are lined up because they get an artificial price. Well, now they are introducing the American free enterprise system of entrepreneurial way of doing things. It is just changed. The change is so traumatic. The pathetic thing in this country is the fact that there are people who quit reading. We don't read. So, if we can use this instrument to educate them, people don't read magazines. Hell they don't read newspapers, editorial page, I laugh. Who reads the editorial page. Certainly not the masses.

ALLEN: I gather from your enthusiasm that if you were to give advice to a young person that came to you and said, "Bill, should I go into the cable business or not?" you wouldn't hesitate.

STRANGE: No, I wouldn't hesitate. I would say, I would broaden it a little. I would say any facet of the communications industry. That is the industry-- communications. You could even count IBM in it. I would absolutely go to work for IBM. Go to work for one of the telephone companies, because if you've got something on the ball, you could shoot up like nobody's business. That's the key to the whole thing. I will tell you something that is really needed is leadership in the municipalities-- in police work, in government. But, hell, they rank along like a used car salesman, so why go through all of that? You have got to change the image. You haven't got time to change an image, so go on and get where you have the acceptance. I would stay out of the fast buck fields, the real estates, the brokerage businesses--the fast buck stuff. I would get where I liked what I did.

ALLEN: Probably stay out of the car business.

STRANGE: Greatest training in the world. I wouldn't take anything for the training it gave me. It lets me walk out this door and lets me say that if I didn't have another nickel I could get a job and make a living, because I don't fear anything along that line. But absolutely stay out of the car business. Go to something that you really like. If you like what you are doing, you are going to be a success. You define the terms of success, whether it is acquisition of money or whether it is happiness in what you are doing. What the hell, I got a lot of friends that have tons of money. I wouldn't change places with them. They are sick to the world.

ALLEN: On behalf of the Cable Television Center and Museum thank you for this morning and we appreciate it.

STRANGE: Well, I enjoyed visiting with you and you let any politician talk and they enjoy visiting, see and if a fellow lets them talk, they like the fellow.

ALLEN: Thank you very much.

STRANGE: Well, you are welcome.

End of Tape 2, Side A

Save to PDF

Claude Stevanus

Claude Stevanus

Interview Date: Friday October 19, 2012
Interviewer: Kathleen Pavelko
Collection: Penn State Collection
Note: Audio Only

PAVELKO: All right, here we are for real. The beginning of the interview. Could you start with your full name including your middle name and where and when you were born.

STEVANUS: I'm Claude Miller Stevanus. I was born in the vicinity of Sugarcreek, Ohio on July 31, 1913.

PAVELKO: Were you educated in the Sugarcreek schools? Tell me a bit about your education.

STEVANUS: I attended Sugarcreek-Shanesville High School. They were two little towns adjacent. Graduated from that high school in 1931 and then I attended a two-year business college in Canton, Ohio and have a two-year degree in business administration.

PAVELKO: Did you have service in the war?

STEVANUS: No, I did not.

PAVELKO: You graduated from high school in 1931. Did you go immediately to work or did you go straight on to your two-year degree?

STEVANUS: I went to work the following spring and in the fall of '31 I went to the business school.

PAVELKO: And why did you go on to business school?

STEVANUS: As you know, I'm sure, that was in the heart of the great Hoover Depression and we lived on a farm. There wasn't a lot of money for continuing education and business school was within our financial means so I selected that rather than a four-year college.

PAVELKO: Perhaps your family was better off than some to be able to send you even to a two-year institution.

STEVANUS: That's right. Farming was the pits at that point, but my father--all through our farm life--was a rural mail carrier, so he fared better than a lot of people that either didn't have jobs or good paying jobs, so he agreed. Tuition at the business school was $1 a day. I lived on between five and ten dollars a week for board and room and we could afford that.

PAVELKO: Tell me about the family farm.

STEVANUS: The family farm was in an area--in the part of Ohio--where there were a lot of small-sized farms. We had a dairy farm. Our farm was about 125 acres, which would be a relatively small farm operation compared to farms of today, but we made a decent living even from the farm, along with the income from the mail route. I think we milked about 30 cows and hauled milk to the Swiss cheese factory, of which there were a number in that area. It was a Swiss community and there were a lot of Swiss descent families.

PAVELKO: Is your family Swiss by descent?

STEVANUS: No, it's actually German descent and Pennsylvania Dutch background on both sides of the family. My father was from Somerset County, Pennsylvania and my mother was from Ohio.

PAVELKO: At what point was the farm established near Springcreek?

STEVANUS: Sugarcreek.

PAVELKO: Sugarcreek.

STEVANUS: We lived on several farms and the one where we lived the longest, we moved to when I was a freshman in high school, in 1927.

PAVELKO: Does your family still farm?

STEVANUS: No, my parents are both gone. Because of the bitter days on the farm during the Depression I wanted no part of farming. I have one brother and he didn't want to farm either. We had rented the farm so we had a sale and moved to town.

PAVELKO: Tell me about your brother and what he did and does now.

STEVANUS: My brother is six years younger than I.

PAVELKO: His name is?

STEVANUS: His name is Edgar. He got married right out of school, had three children and then was drafted into the Navy because of his age. He had no exemption. He spent three or four years in the Navy. When he got out of there he had various jobs and then got the postmaster job at Sugarcreek which he had for twenty-five years, and then retired from there.

PAVELKO: And still lives in Sugarcreek?

STEVANUS: Still lives in Sugarcreek.

PAVELKO: Does your brother have children and do you have children?

STEVANUS: My brother had three children before he went to the Navy, had another one while he was in the Navy and I have two grown, married children and four grandchildren.

PAVELKO: Your children's names are?

STEVANUS: My children's names are Claudia and Timothy. A girl and a boy, of course.

PAVELKO: Do your children continue to live in the Sugarcreek area?

STEVANUS: I might tell you that nobody ever leaves the Sugarcreek area unless they leave right out of college or whatever. Many people that do leave come back to Sugarcreek to spend their declining days. Yes, they both live in the Sugarcreek area. I don't know if you want to know at this point but the way that I got into cable was that we had a hardware store where I went to work during the Depression, after business school, for my father-in-law. That hardware store has always been in the family. We got into cable because of selling television. My son-in-law now runs that hardware store. My son runs another hardware store in a town twelve miles away and they both live within easy driving distance of me. What I do in retirement is do the accounting for these two stores on my personal computer.

But to expound on this Sugarcreek area, my son graduated from Ohio University with a degree in radio and television broadcasting. One of our cable systems had a rather complete local origination studio. He came to work for us and was in charge of that studio. He's a very good sports announcer. But as time went on he got disenchanted with management after I retired and he did not want to leave that area. There were two small radio stations in the area, so he decided if I can't be in broadcasting I'd like to go into business. So we bought this hardware store and he has run it for the last ten years. He doesn't live in Sugarcreek but very near.

PAVELKO: Let's go back then to your first connections with cable. Tell me about your wife and your father-in-law and that hardware business.

STEVANUS: When I got out of business school I had one job for a short time in a local flour manufacturing plant. That job fizzled out because of somebody who had the job before me who was in ownership and came back in. So there were no jobs. I always like to elaborate on this by saying that Milt Shapp, whom you know very well, when he graduated from Case-Western Tech with a degree in electrical engineering, told me several times that he drove a coal truck hauling coal from New Philadelphia to Cleveland. This gives everybody an idea of how work was at that point because here was a man who was an electrical engineer. I married my wife soon after high school and in desperation I took a job in her father's hardware store which was a small, dirty, dinky, country hardware store. I went to work for him and I had a pretty miserable five or six years there until I was able to prevail on him to enlarge the hardware store. From there on I sort of ran the store. In the late '40s we started selling television sets.

In those early days, the television stations had been limited to very low power, even the VHF stations. We were sixty-five miles from the transmitters at Cleveland. We were in the hills and as the signals were very weak in those days, we struggled putting up the large antennas on top of rooftops and so on. Naturally, when I found out about the concept of cable television--when we would install a television antenna somewhere in a high area, there would be pretty good signals--we knew that the signals were there. As everybody that started cable here in Pennsylvania around these towns knew, if you could bring that signal down, why you had something to sell. I investigated that and even though we lived in a town with only about four or five hundred homes, we decided that we could make a viable situation out of it by spreading the risk among several people. So I got ten other people and we each put in a thousand dollars and built this little cable system.

PAVELKO: And it was called?

STEVANUS: This is interesting probably because it was called Tower Antennas Incorporated. The way it got its name was that we put our antennas up on a city water standpipe, therefore, "Tower Antennas Incorporated." That was the name of the company for many years.

PAVELKO: In what year was it created?

STEVANUS: In 1952.

PAVELKO: What was your father-in-law's name and your wife's name?

STEVANUS: My father-in-law was R.D. Burger and my wife's name was Mary. Of course, I married into the job.

PAVELKO: Well, you married into the hardware business. The cable business was your own idea, I gather.

STEVANUS: The cable business was my own idea. After we started the cable in Sugarcreek--the technician that we had was one of our investors, a man by the name of Carl Tucker--we decided that this was a very interesting business. We saw, even back in those years, money was being made in the business. We decided we wanted to find larger markets, which there were some around, and I got to be a good friend of Lee Zemnick, a Jerrold Electronics distributor.

STEVANUS: Lee Zemnick ran our Jerrold distributorship in Cleveland and that's where we bought our equipment. So I went to Lee and said find us a place to start up a cable system in a bigger community. They came down to do signal tests in Coshocton, Ohio, which was about twenty-five miles from Sugarcreek. We participated in the signal survey and we had a really good record with Jerrold so far, as we followed their operating advice. You probably have known about the engineering agreements that they had in those early days, which I have always felt was a wonderful thing for somebody wanting to start in the cable business because you rubbed elbows with their field engineers. They took you into Philadelphia, where they had schools which we attended and you got off on the right foot.

PAVELKO: In addition to providing engineering services, did Jerrold also provide funding to get systems started?

STEVANUS: As you probably know, they had some joint ventures in places like Williamsport, Pennsylvania and so on. That so far as I know was what they did. Of course, Ben Conroy's system in Uvalde was one of these. I don't think they provided funding there, but they found Uvalde for the Conroys. They found places where people could invest money and sold them on the idea that money could be made. Certainly, I always had a very warm spot in my heart for Jerrold.

PAVELKO: When you decided to expand to the system beyond Sugarcreek, what were the first additional systems that you added?

STEVANUS: Coshocton was the first one. I'm sure you also know about the $125 to hook on. I don't know if anybody has related to you the fact that somebody came up with the idea that you don't pay income tax on this $125. Have you ever heard this?

PAVELKO: No, tell me about it.

STEVANUS: Okay. I think maybe some accountant at NCTA came up with the idea. Through the years--and I think this is still true--the electric companies would build lines through the country to serve a few people. They were allowed to list the line charges as a contribution in aid of construction. And when the people would pay them an excessive amount of money to get their electricity, they would treat it as a contribution in aid of construction; therefore, the money for the plant was not depreciable because they had already had their deduction for it. But if you sold one hundred cable connections for $125 a piece, that gave you a nice chunk of working capital. So in the cable industry, a lot of us used that for enough years that by the time it went through the tax courts and everything, they decided that, no that doesn't apply to cable. By that time we had had the advantage of it in those early years. Now they were beyond the statute of limitations. So we were able to build, in those early years, a lot of plant without a lot of contributed capital. In Coshocton, which now has about 7,000 subscribers--2,500 or 3,000 subscribers at $125 a piece had no income tax, so that provided a nice chunk of working capital.

PAVELKO: Do you remember when you first heard about this thing called cable television, or master antenna, or whatever it was called in your area at the time in the late '40s?

STEVANUS: As a Philco television dealer back there in probably 1950, a couple of us attended a dealer meeting in Akron, Ohio. I got to talking to a man who had the story about how you do this. You string this cable. I knew about signals being good on the hills. You erect these antennas, run cable down, charge people $125--you charge them $3.50 a month or whatever you want to charge--and this liquidates itself in a year or two. It sounded good to me. So it happened that a man I knew who was a parts distributor, took a job with Jerrold. When I knew him and I knew he had hooked up with Jerrold--I called him and he came down and gave us the story. I had a little trouble convincing people to invest money but Paul Snyder--who is with me this week and who came to work for us for about twelve years--with the Tower Company, TCPI--his father is the one that I always quote because he said, "Gee, I like television." We gave free service, which at that time was $42 a year. He says, "I'll invest $1,000 to get good television."

Anyway, that's how I learned about it and because we were struggling with the rooftop antennas and it was an opportunity to sell more televisions and have more satisfied customers, we decided that we wanted to do this. It didn't seem to be an opportunity to make a lot of money in that small a town, but we went into it. An interesting thing, we had only about seven miles of plant to wire this little town. We had one of our investors who worked for the electric company and a young boy who lived in town--I suppose he was no more than 21, and worked also for the telephone company--do all the line construction. But this young boy, and I don't remember what we paid him, but we wanted him to take stock. Stock would do him no good, he wanted money. Twenty years later I would run into him maybe at a bar, and he had been drinking a beer, and then he would start in about how dumb he was, how we offered him stock in that company, and how well the company had done and I was too damn dumb, but I didn't want any stock. I always remembered that.

PAVELKO: What kind of people did you get to take a chance on investing in that young company?

STEVANUS: There was one other TV dealer in town and he went along. There were several other people that we knew had money to invest, like Paul Snyder's father, who was a Ford dealer. He was one of them that readily went along just because he wanted good service for himself. I don't think any of them really invested because they figured it was something that would pan out to make a lot of money. The Ohio Power man, Bill Ray, who helped construct the system, had a man walk by one evening while he was up on the pole. By that time people in this small town all knew what we were doing. They didn't understand it, but they knew what we were doing. This guy walked by and he said, "Who do you think is going to hook onto that after you get it done?" This Bill Ray said, "I don't know but there's about ten of us who are going to have damn good television." So little things like that... The investors were kind of a diversified group. A lot of people turned us down. We didn't get the first ten people we asked. But we got the $10,000.

PAVELKO: The two investors who were also employed by Ohio Power and by the telephone company, did they get permission, work with their companies, in order to get them to agree to carry the cable on their poles?

STEVANUS: No, I worked all that out. We were not the first one in Ohio for this particular electric company. We did not use telephone company poles. The electric company owned most of the poles in town. I knew the man at the power company, which was a division of American Electric Power Company out of New York, and I knew the man that had negotiated the first contract. I had quite a chat with him. He said when they got the first application they went to the phone company that they always had a working agreement with, Ohio Bell Telephone, and said "Is this something you should be doing? We've had experience with wired radio and we want no part of it." You remember how they got interested in the ensuing years. They had a chance. The power company probably never would have given any pole agreements if the phone company had said, "Yes, we are interested. We should be doing that." Later they got interested. Anyway we had the pole contract.

It was very difficult to get a pole contract because you needed a performance bond. Insurance companies did not want to grant performance bonds based on a strictly cash guarantee. They felt that okay, so we'll put $50,000 in some stuff that's up on our poles. If you fold up, there's nothing there you can sell except maybe some scrap copper and so on. So it was very difficult. Usually your directors had to personally go on these performance bonds, so it was very difficult. Just like the banks were so hard to deal with in the early years, and that was the reason. You didn't really have assets that anybody could reclaim if you folded up. It looked like a hair brained scheme.

PAVELKO: How did you then get it done if that was the case?

STEVANUS: To get the bonding, we personally went on bonds in the early years. We finally found a bonding company after about the third system that we built. We went to the home office of the insurance company and sat down and really explained what this was all about and that it was really just a contribution to the insurance company, we felt, because we weren't going to fail. We were confident and we were able to convince them. So we found an insurance company that would write these bonds, but I think they still tried to get us on them personally. Some cities and some utilities required a million dollar bond. I think ours were usually $50,000 bonds, or something like that, in the smaller locations.

PAVELKO: Has Tower Antenna's relationship with the power company continued to be a positive one over the years?

STEVANUS: Yes, the relationship was always very good. We had some relationships with the phone companies in the bigger places that weren't so good because of the fact that they kept raising the pole rental rates. At the time it was resolved, maybe you have caught up with the fact, the FCC finally stepped in and worked out a formula of what they could charge. Actually, our pole rental rates had started out at let's say, $2.50 and went to $4 and $5 dollars. Those were cranked back in recent years to $2 or $3 dollars. We had trouble with the phone company because of that. At one point, we refused to sign a new agreement that raised the rate--I think this was Ohio Bell--to raise the rate to $4.50 or $5. They were at a point where we had received a final letter telling us to sign this by a certain date or we will cut you off the poles. They never did, of course. They had enough problems of their own with the public not to participate in one that they would create by cutting us off the poles.

PAVELKO: And no doubt they were depending upon the revenue as well.

STEVANUS: That's right. We always claimed that this was windfall revenue. We figured that the number of poles that we were using at $4 a pole was not too bad. It may have been windfall but it was just revenue from the little space we used on the poles. Nobody wanted another set of poles. We could not set poles. We never had permission to set poles in the city. The city did not want another set of poles, so you deal with these people, which they did. But they were arrogant.

PAVELKO: Was the four dollar fee an annual fee or for the life of a contract?

STEVANUS: Four dollars a year per pole.

PAVELKO: Very dear.

STEVANUS: Yes, well that was one of the big pieces of overhead in those days.

PAVELKO: Let's pick up the history of Tower Antennas again. It started in Sugarcreek and went to Coshocton. Where else did it go and give me some idea of when this is happening.

STEVANUS: Coshocton, then was 1953, the year after we started in '52. From then on until 1956 we did no expansion. We always had Jerrold telling us where there were possibilities. They came in with Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania. We went over there and conducted signal tests. Now, Beaver Falls was only a couple stones throw from Pittsburgh and they were getting pretty good signals. But Beaver Falls is down in a hollow and there were people there that, even with the proximity to Pittsburgh and Steubenville, Ohio which on the hill provided excellent signals, we took the risk and built the system in Beaver Falls. It was the first place that we had some trepidation about risk because of the local signal and it was very slow growing there. I'm not sure that we were the first people to try to distribute more than five channels. We used a jerry-rigged system that we had talked about with the engineers and so we used a five-channel, low-band amplifier for channels 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 and then we used a strip amplifier that Jerrold had developed. By using non-adjacent channels we were able to distribute channels 7, 9, 11, and 13. Lo and behold we had a nine channel system, which helped to sell it.

It still went very slowly. That system required a lot of maintenance because of these high band strip amplifiers, I think each strip had seven or nine tubes, and so you had all of the maintenance that you had in the early three-channel systems that also had many tubes in them. We operated that, I suppose, for four or five years before an all- channel amplifier became available. We were pioneers in that respect in Beaver Falls. Then from Beaver Falls we came back to Ohio. About eight miles up the road in one direction and twenty miles down the road in another direction another man had built a couple of cable systems and we bought those two systems. It was in Cambridge, Ohio and Newcomerstown, Ohio. I think the next system we built probably was down in the southeast corner of Ohio in Ironton, Ohio, which was in the extreme southeast corner.

PAVELKO: And in what year?

STEVANUS: That would have been in the early '60s, probably about '63. Meanwhile, we did all of this just out of our cash flow. We may have borrowed a little money when we built Beaver Falls, but other than that...

The partners that I had, the early investors, were very conservative individuals. I think it was when we built Beaver Falls we borrowed maybe $15,000 or $20,000. The worst one was the local banker who was one of our original investors and he kept bugging me, when are we going to get this loan paid off. Leveraged financing was just not in his vocabulary. So I was very conservative to try to find places that we could handle out of our cash flow.

Up to probably '63 or '64, I'm not sure of the year, we had done it all with our own cash flow. At that point we approached, somebody from the Ohio Company, which was an investment banking firm in Columbus, Ohio, and we did a small public financing. I had attended conventions from '53 on and I picked a lot of brains and talked to a lot of people including always the Jerrold people. Going public was the thing, or "who do you know" to get more financing. The banks were still very lukewarm on financing such a wild thing as cable. So we had a small public offering, as I recall, it was $200,000 worth of stock we sold and $200,000 in debentures. So we had $400,000. That's when we built the systems in southeastern Ohio, right after that. I guess that would have been '64, '65 along there. That was our growth up to the time that we were still Tower Antennas. You want me to continue with the growth?

PAVELKO: Yes. Tell me more about what happened to Tower Antennas.

STEVANUS: Okay. When we built Beaver Falls we had a Jerrold sales engineer by the name of Raymond Leporati who got interested in our company. In talking with him he was interested in leaving Jerrold and getting into cable, so we hired him. He had become very knowledgeable about cable while he was with Jerrold so we hired him as our manager in Beaver Falls. He spent about two years there building the system in Beaver Falls. After he was there for a couple more years--he lived in Cleveland--he did not want to leave Cleveland so he talked us into letting him start a sales business in Cleveland, selling closed circuit equipment. At that time schools were being wired for educational television. In the business you're in you must have known or know now that there was such a thing as MPATI.

PAVELKO: I don't know that.

STEVANUS: The airplane studios flying over Indiana, broadcasting educational television, you never heard of that?

PAVELKO: I never heard of it.

STEVANUS: That was in the air before there were stations. This was a DC-6, I think, that went up every day for so many hours and broadcast. I forget what their altitude was but it was over Indianapolis I believe. Back in Ohio on the rooftops of schools you could get a really good signal. Two channels, they broadcast on two frequencies. MPATI--Midwest Program for Airborne Television Instruction. We wired a lot of schools. Even down in our area that was one of the things that we did to make a little more profit. Ray set up a business in Cleveland selling this equipment. So we put in a translator to rebroadcast the MPATI signals to one large school system up there. We put in a, I don't know what the gigahertz was at that time. We broadcast and each school would pick up these signals.

PAVELKO: Real time broadcast.


PAVELKO: When you say wire the schools do you mean wire the schools internally?

STEVANUS: Wire the schools for classroom receivers.

PAVELKO: So lots of individual classrooms within each school would have been wired.

STEVANUS: That's right. Instead of one receiver in certain classrooms. In the meantime some of them started videotaping some of the programs so they could distribute to the classrooms. In Coshocton, Ohio they built a new high school in our early years there in the '60s we equipped the studio. This was a wonderful public service and all we paid for was the studio. From the headend we broadcast the educational stations of Columbus and they put in a bank of videotape recorders. It must have not been in the '60s because of the videotape recorder ... it must have been in the early '70s, I suppose.

Yes, we did a lot of work with ETV for the schools at that time. Of course, Pennsylvania was already doing quite a bit at that point too. I remember I was on an NCTA educational television committee with George Barco and so on. I think that, as you probably found out, the cable industry has always shown a lot of interest in ETV.

But anyway with the sales business that was part of our expansion, we generated some more cash and with this public offering we built some more systems. Then we had a man from the investment banking firm on our board of directors. He was quite a gung ho guy and because with that small a public offering, as you might know, your stock doesn't perform all that well because the market is too small. He left the investment banking firm and joined a diversified financial services group in Cleveland called Citizens Financial Corporation. They had a savings and loan, they had a full service bank in Newark, Ohio. They had a couple other things. So he talked us into the idea that it would be a great thing for us to merge with them, a stock exchange, and they were on AMEX. So against the better judgment of my cohorts, I talked them into the fact that now that we've gone public, of course we split our stock down about 60-1 because the book value of our stock before we went public was much too high to sell in public, so we split it down to $10 share. Then I think the stock exchange was we got four of their shares for three of ours. The stock went on the market for $10 and by the time we merged with them their stock was like $20, which made our stock worth $20 also or more and just going along great. Anyway, they helped us then because we had access to financing. We made a number of acquisitions.

You asked about the name. While we had the sales business in Cleveland, we had always thought as time went on, that antennas was a dirty word as far as a cable company was concerned. Antennas were all right for the cable company but we wanted that out of there, so we got our name changed to Tower Communications Inc. and it was that way up until the end--till the time that we threw in with CPI. In the meantime with mergers and so on, we acquired a lot of subscribers, a lot of other systems. There was one in our county, the county seat in Tuscarawas County where Sugarcreek is, called New Philadelphia. New Philadelphia and Dover together had one system and they had about 14,000 subscribers so when we merged with them that kicked us up pretty good. We were one of the early systems. We never used coupon billing. We always billed with a monthly postcard. We did this with an addressograph and so on. When we got about 10 or 12,000 subscribers this became quite cumbersome.

So we went to IBM, what can you give us for about $500 a month? So they worked out in the early days of data processing, you remember the punch cards? They fitted us up with a tab card system, one of their oldest forms of automation, and we billed with these cards and they said that this would be good until we reach 10 or 12,000 subscribers. I think we had about eight or nine at the time. Well, when we merged with New Philadelphia, bingo - we had 15,000 subscribers. Our tab card system got to be pretty cumbersome. It took three cards per month that they wanted to mail out for people to send back to process the payment and so on. So we upgraded the computer at that point. That merger with New Philadelphia was a big increase for us.

PAVELKO: How many subs did you have at the time that Tower Antenna became Tower Communications?

STEVANUS: That was before New Philadelphia--I think it was-- so we would have had in the vicinity of 8-10,000 probably.

PAVELKO: When did Tower Antenna become Tower Communications?

STEVANUS: It would have been probably in the mid '60s.

PAVELKO: Looking ahead just for a moment, but we'll go back, in what year was Tower Communications sold to CPI?

STEVANUS: That was in '71. See, we merged with the Citizens Financial Corporation and...

PAVELKO: In what year?

STEVANUS: That was '67, I think. I knew Ben Conroy and Jack Crosby from my associations with NCTA and so on, and once they formed CPI and they were looking for acquisitions--I recommended to Citizens Financial and Dick Johnston, who is the guy that came from the investment banking firm--I recommended to them that if they wanted to expand our cable operations I would introduce them to the CPI people. At the San Francisco convention in 1970 or '71, I got them together and they worked out a deal where they would trade Telecommunications stock, I guess, for CPI stock, or whatever, I forgot just what the ramifications were. But, I was real happy because as far as I was concerned these were some of the best people in the cable industry--the CPI people.

PAVELKO: What was your position with Tower Communications at the time of the stock trade with CPI?

STEVANUS: Well, we had about five corporations and I was president. When we'd start a new system, there was always a new corporation. I was president of Tower Communications, always had been. When we merged with Citizens Financial I continued to be president of Tower, which then was a wholly owned sub of...

PAVELKO: Citizens Financial.

STEVANUS: Citizens Financial. I was on the CFC Board and when they did the deal with CPI, Paul and I were on the CPI board. Austin, Texas had a region of cable systems. About the time they made the merger with us they also acquired TeleSystems which I'm sure is in somebody else's oral history. So they had a region in Philadelphia, Al Bloom was the regional manager there. I was the regional manager of all of our systems, I think by that time we had thirteen or fourteen systems, two in Pennsylvania and so on. I was a regional manager. The regional office was in Coshocton. Even after we were with CPI, the regional office was in Coshocton. They looked at us for a lot of things that we were doing much better and much more efficiently than they were, such as, they were coupon billing. I don't know if you've run into coupon billing or not. You send out coupon books and people tear out coupons, it's kind of like a finance company payment. At one point they told me we're all going to coupon billing. They tried to show me how much money we would save and I went to some of their bigger systems that were coupon billing and I checked out the number of delinquents they had. They said, we want to keep our monthly billing. We never could sell them on letting us do their computer billing, but eventually they had a computer and they started monthly billing.

PAVELKO: Your argument was that you got a greater return despite the cost of the monthly billing.

STEVANUS: People got a bill, and postcards at that time, what were postcards twenty years ago?

PAVELKO: Seven cents, perhaps?

STEVANUS: Something like that. We had a good follow-up system and our delinquency was just very small. The other thing that we had it was about the time that direct selling was just sort of coming into being. Up to that time in the early years you just advertised on the radio and the newspaper and so on, "Come and get it, this is great." I probably should bring in a lot of our direct mail pieces and so on.

End Tape 1, Side A

PAVELKO: Where were we before we stopped the machine?

STEVANUS: We had covered selling the company and where we went next, you had asked about CPI, I told you about our being on their board.

PAVELKO: We were talking about dates, actually. The transfer of stock from Tower Communications to CPI occurred in the early '70s, 1971.

STEVANUS: That's right.

PAVELKO: You were telling me that at the time of that transfer you were put on the CPI board and were president of some of the wholly owned subsidiaries.

STEVANUS: I was regional manager of the division that included the Ohio Systems; Weirton, West Virginia; Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania. After we were with CPI, I guess we made additional acquisitions. We acquired Ashland, Kentucky; Hopkinsville, Kentucky; Washington, Pennsylvania, then. Those were all in my region. Lafayette, Indiana was in my region for whatever reason. We had a good chief technician in our division, John McDowell, who is still with Times Mirror. They moved the regional office after I retired in '77. They moved the regional office to Newark, Ohio, which is a bigger city. That was the last system we built. We worked for about ten years on the franchise in Newark and had it three times and for various reasons, if you are interested, I'll relate them. It's kind of an interesting story. But my last accomplishment was finally getting that franchise and building Newark. It was maybe one-third built when I retired. But after I retired, they hired--through a head-hunting organization--an MBA to replace me. He lasted a little over a year. They moved the regional office to Newark. They couldn't ask this guy to move to Coshocton, Ohio. I might want to scratch that one when I go through.

Anyway, that was the end of my career. Up to that time I was the regional manager for our region. This may not appear in anybody's oral history, but CPI had a rather tough time financially for a while. My region was providing the funds out of our cash flow for operations because they were building some large market systems that had not become mature enough to supply cash. They had a microwave company that was a disaster. Up to the time that I left, we were sending them a lot of money from our division, which they appreciated. We had mature systems, anywhere from 60-80 percent penetration, you know, no longer selling service for $3.50 a month. It was mostly from $5 to $7.50.

PAVELKO: I'd like to pick up a little bit with exactly what your role in Tower Antennas, Tower Communications and CPI was as the president of those subsidiaries early on, and as a board member. What were the management, accounting, or other specialties that you pursued?

STEVANUS: Okay, I wore a lot of hats. I was always very active. I had an accounting background from business school and I was reasonably intelligent. I grasped and I kept up with the cable operations through my association with NCTA and picked a lot of brains when I had the occasion, particularly at NCTA and I would know somebody who was doing something. I was pretty much involved in all phases of our operations. Obviously I couldn't visit these systems regularly and keep track of them, but I had people that did. I pretty much laid out the advertising program. I designed a lot of our mail pieces and I required daily reports to come in from all the systems. We did all the billing for all the systems. So I was able to pretty much keep a finger on everything that was happening. I was given credit for just running good operations and the CPI people recognized that even before we merged. Do you know Greg Liptak?


STEVANUS: Okay, Greg was with CPI and he visited up there quite a bit. He was interested in our advertising program. I had reports of our mailings and the results therefrom and so on. As I say they respected our expertise in operating cable systems. I really felt that at that time and I may scratch this that they were rather primitive in some of their operations. Certainly Ben had had successful operations and Jack in Del Rio and so on but for the most part before we got in bed with them we got in Jack's plane and toured the Texas systems. Texas is big, as you know, and so for a day and a half we flew around Texas. We stopped and visited their cable systems. While a lot of them had done a good job, penetration-wise, they just didn't compare to our operations. Lafayette, Indiana, as an example, and that was the Leiberman system, Al Bloom was in charge of it, when we took that over they had 22,000 subscribers and they had six, seven girls in that office. We operated systems with 3,000 subscribers with one girl in the office. Larger than that, I think we cut two girls out of that office after we took over partly because of the billing that we did as they were using a computer service out of somewhere. But we operated very efficiently.

PAVELKO: I'm going to ask you to back up and tell me about the Lafayette system again.

STEVANUS: Okay. The Lafayette system which serves Lafayette and West Lafayette--Purdue University--doesn't really serve... Purdue has their own system. Anyway, they were operating that and they had a gal who was an ex-Marine sergeant and she was supposed to be in charge of this office. The manager was a guy who retired after we had it about a year and he was probably age 65. He was a scratch golfer and spent a lot of time on the golf course and not that much time managing his system. So they had good technical help and everything. Al Bloom would probably never admit this, but we upgraded that system operational-wise quite a bit after we took over. We made it much more efficient. The young manager that we put in there, who happened to be from Uvalde--Ben came up with him--fired the Marine sergeant and after he fired her, he found so many things that never got done that were on her desk. She wasn't capable or qualified to handle these bills. That was then the biggest system that we had under our management. We sent our technician in there and upgraded their billing system and everything and we really felt that we had made a vast improvement in that system. Like I say, CPI people--Ben, Bill and so on--recognized that in acquiring us, they had acquired some pretty good expertise in operating cable systems.

PAVELKO: I'm very interested in the direct mail efforts that you undertook early on, when direct mail was still a primitive science, if you will. What I'd like to know is why you did direct mail as opposed to or in addition to other forms of advertising and also how your marketing approach changed over time. What worked with customers when you started and what worked with customers later on?

STEVANUS: Okay, example. When you were getting $125 for a connection and once you didn't have to depend on that for capital, we'd offer $100 for an antenna. We'd make a mailing. Very early, we made an addressograph plate list of everybody in the system. As they became subscribers, we'd take their plate out of this file and out of the potential file and put them over here in a customer file. We always had a file that was pretty active of non-subscribers. That's when we started the direct mail. We had the capability of running labels and we were doing this for all the systems, always.

PAVELKO: The potential subscriber list then reflected all of the homes passed by your cable.

STEVANUS: That's right.

PAVELKO: This strikes me as a very innovative notion. Not many cable operators were doing this I would guess.

STEVANUS: I would think they didn't have the capability. One of the things we did, as soon as we'd go into a town, whether we went in to wire it or whether we acquired it, we would make up this mailing list. We would take the city directory and the maps to know where we were and we would make the address file. We had the capability because of our addressograph, which was very early. We had the capability of addressing that many. I suppose we were mailing--the most that I can remember that we were mailing to non-subscribers while we were still direct mailing--was probably a mailing of, and these were all small communities, a mailing of a five, six thousand pieces of mail. I had a printer that I worked very closely with. You're familiar with the digital printing capabilities. They didn't have that in those days so I'd find things to paste up and they'd set the type for me and so on. I designed a lot of these mail pieces. We'd come with gimmicks like George Washington. We'd make a mailing you know, "Celebrate Washington's Birthday. Cable hook-up for twenty-two cents." It was a $10 hook-up, you know, because we found out very early that there was going to be a limit of the people that would pay $125, even though to put up a tower in Coshocton, Ohio and buy a booster, and so on, they might spend $200 and still not get good reception. They would still make do with that antenna if they had to pay $125. So we started a rental plan. Now you can choose. You can pay $10 and $5.50 a month. Or you can pay $125 and $3.50 a month. For a while, it was about 50-50. We were very happy if they took the $10 thing because it was $24 a year more income. That went on and on. That caused a problem later on when we decided that you have had ten years of this $3.50 a month, that's it. We're raising your rate to $5.50 a month. They said, "Hey we helped you get started. We put you in business." They would sign an agreement and it never said in there that they would have that forever. But they went to city council. We thought eventually these people would die off, but they didn't die off fast enough. So we finally decided to raise their rates, especially when we went to the city.

Some of the other things that were interesting, when we went into a town. Usually in those days, you were welcome with open arms. A very interesting thing, to me, is the fact that all of the systems we built, we never paid the city a nickel. We never went in and told the city, we'll give you five percent of the gross or anything like that. To this day, I think that those systems still are not paying the cities because we had good enough relations, locally, and we normally didn't have trouble with franchise renewals until recent years when it came to rate increases. But some of the cities that we acquired like Lafayette, Indiana were paying the cities. So we had some that did. Now a part of getting a franchise was offering the city a rake-off. There was usually no problem on up through the '50s. People were anxious to get cable service. In Ironton, Ohio, I remember the night that the franchise was granted. We had a lady in there that was affiliated with a parochial school and she wanted educational television and she wanted the cable. These councilmen deliberated and they finally went into Executive Session and they called me in and discussed it a little more. She got up in front of that council--they were trying to decide how much they were going to charge us--and she said, "You gentlemen ought to be ashamed of yourself. There are a lot of people that would like cable television and we need it here and you want to charge them for coming in here."

After this Executive Session, they came up and granted us a franchise at no fee. But later, as you probably have heard, it was a battle to get franchises in some places because they were usually contested. It was in the early days that they were not contested. The thing I'd like to tell you about Newark before we get done is that it was never fun to go before City Council, either for a rate increase or for franchise, originally. It was not a part of the work that I enjoyed. But I did about everything else. Our chief technician would always discuss things with me. I'd ask him, can we do this. Fortunately, we always had very capable technical help. We went from--in the older systems--the original three channels to five channels and then twelve channels and then all- band. Today, most of them have been rebuilt. We went through the evolution as you might know, in 1952 to present day. They're still rebuilding systems and upgrading.

This, again, I'll scratch if it's on the tape, but the Times Mirror, having taken over, the public relations thing in my opinion, is just terrible. They have taken the New Philadelphia - Dover System, which has around 18,000 - 20,000 subscribers and a population of almost the whole county, there are some other little towns also connected, they've taken that, they've taken Coshocton, and they've taken Cambridge. They've taken those three cities, they call them a cluster now instead of a district or region, they've put one manager who lives in Newark, Ohio, he has an office in Coshocton, no manager in Dover and Philadelphia and so on. No manager in Cambridge. They sent them all packing. The cities resent this. There is nobody they can go to. It's terrible.

PAVELKO: Tell me about Newark, Ohio.

STEVANUS: Newark, Ohio, okay. Probably, early '60s, Newark, Ohio, we felt was the one city left in Ohio where we could bring in good signals, including ETV. Nothing else gets in there really good. We knew that you could bring in better signals. We went in. There was a powerful group locally that owned the radio, television station, and the newspaper. We went in and went to council. We sold them on the idea of cable. Had it through two meetings of council. The local group stepped in and said, we don't want this. So we didn't get it. About five or six years later, we were now with Citizens Financial, and a guy by the name of Dick Johnston, the guy that had been with the investment banking group, lived in Granville, which is adjacent to Newark. He said, I know these fellows real well. We can get a franchise but we have to allow these local people to participate. He made a deal with them that they would own eighty percent of the system and we'd own twenty percent and we'd furnish all the money.

The CPI people just screamed when they found this out because, in the meantime, they became involved and they knew about this. Well, we held off building this system because we didn't want to build it until distant signals could be used because it was a tough sell. Meanwhile, I don't remember what the number of years were, but the franchise expired because we didn't build it. So, politics had changed in the town. We went into the local council with our local buddies and tried to get an extension. The council didn't want them involved so they refused to extend it. We were very happy about it. City council said, "You come back as Tower and we'll give you a franchise. So we went back in and made up a proposal with a rate of $4.95 a month. There was another local group, at that time, quite prominent people, who went in and bid $4.50. They gave the franchise to us. The local group screamed and told the people, the council gave this to the highest bidder. They got it on the ballot in the fall and they got it voted out. What do we do now? I went to Archer Taylor, I knew Malarkey-Taylor through the years, and asked him for advice. Why don't you get the city to get a consulting firm to write a franchise and then we'll write it so that there will be no shenanigans. It won't be based on what the monthly fee is. It will be based on this and this and this. So we did that. There was no other bidder. We were it. However, on the day that this was due, at 4:00 p.m. one weekday afternoon, we were about thirty miles from Newark, we worked all day. We had everybody in the office typing to finish this up to get it to Newark. We got to Newark at 4:10 p.m. in the afternoon and the city solicitor and the newspaper was there. We were the only applicant. But we were ten minutes late. The city solicitor said, "As far as I'm concerned, that would be alright, but the newspaper is here. We don't want to give these local people a chance to say, hey you didn't go by the rules." So they rejected it. We went back several weeks later, they set a new deadline. We finally got the Newark franchise. We started to build it in '76. It's been very successful. We've wired Newark, Granville, and a couple of other adjacent communities. I think they have 23,000 - 24,000 subs at this point. That was my last achievement. I was so happy about that.

PAVELKO: You've mentioned several times, the value that you felt from your relationship and membership in NCTA. Did you, over the years, hold office in NCTA or the Ohio Association?

STEVANUS: I was a part of helping to start the Ohio Association. Two of my people were presidents, Paul Snyder was one through the years. At NCTA, I finished an unexpired term, part of a year, in Ben's year. I finished an unexpired term.

PAVELKO: As? The position was?

STEVANUS: As director of NCTA. Then I served a full three- year term. Then I served another term as treasurer, which was pretty much of a figurehead, honorary position, so that I could stay in there the extra year. So I was in there four and a partial year. At that time the board was twenty-five people. We turned over a third of them every year. In those four years, I rubbed elbows with a lot of people. I did have a lot of discussions over dinner and drinks and this kind of thing.

PAVELKO: You retired in 1977. What have you been doing since your retirement?

STEVANUS: We have, as I mentioned, these two hardware stores. I bought a personal computer. I do some writing. I'm a tremendous basketball nut. I have written a basketball history from the time it started in our school in the early 1900's, 1912 I believe. So, I use my word processor quite a bit. I bought some general ledger programs and I do the accounting for both stores, payroll, and so on. I've always been pretty heavily involved in photography. I spend some time with my photography and just plain enjoying things. I still get a couple of trade magazines and I keep, roughly, in touch with the cable industry. But, I have nothing to do with it any more. It's Times Mirror. They have let a lot of my people go because of their consolidating offices. There are still some people that worked with us in the systems that are still there. I go around occasionally and touch base. I have enjoyed those twenty-five years. It's such a great business. Interesting business. I was glad to have been a part of it.

PAVELKO: I can imagine that when you came out of a two-year business school and went into the hardware business, that you could not have imagined where you would end up.

STEVANUS: No. I was telling Paul when we were riding in here, that I have often wondered, I know I would not have been content to sit there in that hardware store the rest of my life. Had I not got sidetracked into cable, what kind of a turn my life might have taken. But after, I got into that, it was just fascinating. My business school background certainly came in good stead. In the early years, I hired one girl in Coshocton. Other than the tax returns at the end of the year, I taught her the bookkeeping, and we did everything. I finally hired an accountant a couple of years later and then a house accountant. I'm sure that the hardware business didn't hurt me, except I was pretty miserable for a while in that little one- room hardware store. My talents were wasted.

PAVELKO: Let me take this opportunity to ask if there are some stories or anecdotes that you'd like to relate or if there are areas that I haven't asked you about that you would like to talk about.

STEVANUS: Well there were some interesting things. Coshocton has always been an example of a town that really wanted a cable system. There wasn't much problem with the city but there was a problem with a couple of local TV dealers. We experienced this different places. They were selling antennas and they had all the reasons in the world why cable should not come to Coshocton. But after we were in there, there were some council meetings where I was called in to face some disgruntled antenna users. One guy came in one night and said he had good reception. There was no good reception in Coshocton, really. He had good reception until we put those big antennas on the hill. Now we were sucking all of the signals out of the air and now he had lousy reception!

In those days, our signal levels were similar, maybe a little higher than they run between amplifiers now. As I recall, a million microvolts were a volt. So this guy said, how much signal do you have in those lines. He wanted me to say a hundred thousand microvolts. Then he was going to say, well you're hurting my reception. So I said we have a tenth of a volt, we had a hundred thousand microvolts. A tenth of a volt. That sounded like a minimal amount of signal. But we did radiate a lot in those days with the conductors and things that they had. There was a lot more leakage. I don't know if you're familiar with the fact that the FCC right now has made great restrictions. Everybody has to check with probe antennas for leakage in their cable and certify that they're clean. Sometimes the FCC comes in and checks. Those were the kinds of opposition we had. There were some amusing incidents like that. Another one that I always recall was that people were always looking to get free service.

One time there was a self-made minister of some off-breed religion. He worked in a double house. We were serving one side of the house. This fellow went around the side of the house and stuck a pin through the jacket of the cable and ran a piece of twin lead around into the other side of the house. The boys came in and they were bound that they were going to put a sign on there, "Thou shalt not steal." Naturally, I didn't allow them to do that. Another time, we always went into the basements when we could ground on a water pipe instead of driving a ground rod outside. Well in going into this basement, the other side of the house basement they had access to a terminal block that we had in the basement. So a technician went in and he found this piece of twin lead hooked to this terminal and up through the floor. He didn't go up to see where it went but he grabbed this twin lead and pulled it down, and BOOM. Apparently he had pulled the television set off the stand. It fell on the floor. He said everything was quiet up there. He doesn't know, but he put him out of business.

As I say, particularly in apartment buildings and so on, they'd stick pins in the jacket. It still goes on today to some degree. But they'd try to steal signals. We expected that. If we neglected to disconnect them, they'd never come in and the next guy would move in and he'd have free service. I had a guy one time, in Sugarcreek of all places, came in and said, "I moved into this house two years ago and I've been getting free service because it was never disconnected. Now I don't think you should charge me for that but I'm willing to start paying from now on." But he didn't want to pay our $10 connection charge. He wanted to be paid for being honest and coming in and telling us.

PAVELKO: Well you get to deal with the public.

STEVANUS: A part of the enjoyment of the whole business is dealing with the public. I always said that if everybody was like a small handful of customers, you couldn't stand it. But on the other hand, if everybody was like the majority it wouldn't be interesting because it would get dull. So I always enjoyed the variety of customers, which you have in any business, even in the retail business or anything.

PAVELKO: That small handful, that's the source of all the good stories.

STEVANUS: That's right. The good stories and the interesting things that happen. I used to have a considerable temper. If I was unjustly accused to something, I couldn't handle that very well. One time Ohio Bell was right across the street from us in Coshocton. The manager was in there and I asked him to come back and we sat down. I said, "What do you do?" and I told him about my problem. The guy comes in and he's irate and blah, blah, blah. He says, "The first thing I do is get him to sit down. It's much more difficult to be angry and to pop off if you make a guy sit down." I did that and I found that it did help. But usually if a guy came in and ranted and raved about something that was either not our fault or that I felt he was unjustly accusing us of, I'd come right back at him. I'd cool down after a bit, but it was not a good thing to do, public relations wise.

PAVELKO: Another technique that I have found useful is that when someone is speaking very loudly at you because they're upset, the thing to do is to speak very, very softly, slowly, and placidly, and they eventually come down to your level. It's hard to be angry when you're speaking softly.

STEVANUS: But, you have to specifically think about that before you take off on him. That was my problem early on. I learned a lot through the years. I had irate customers, and employees, too. I never had much employee trouble, but you're bound to have it with the number of employees we had.

I told you about Lafayette, Indiana. I had this young guy that came from Uvalde. CPI had trained him. They were going to use him in some franchises they had in the St. Louis area. When the older man was ready to retire in Lafayette, Ben called up and said, "We have this guy, Dave Spangler, that we think is going to be an excellent man. I'd like to send him to you. You talk with him and see if you might want him to fill that place out there." Well, it was our biggest system and I certainly wanted a good man. I said, "Well, I'll talk to this guy."

He impressed me right away and we put him in Lafayette. The men out there were union. The first system that we ever had that was union. But a pretty good contingent of workers and they were union, but the girls were not. I told you we got it down to, I think, four girls. One night Dave Spangler called me at about 6:00 p.m. and said, "I think I'm in trouble." He said, "One of the girls in the office had been pressured by the men that they ought to be union and tried to tell them all the advantages. After work--there was a coffee shop--they went over there and they had a union meeting. So when they came back, the two that were responsible, I fired them." I said, "Yeah, you're in trouble, Dave." These girls were off four or five months. CPI had a New York attorney that was a labor specialist. We called him in and conferred and he confirmed the fact that Dave was in the wrong. But, by the time it all got straightened out, we had to take the two girls back and we had to pay them for that length of time and so on.

Jim Loker in Washington, Pennsylvania, had a policy that everybody had to live in town, or at least every man had to take his turn, not only the chief technician and so on. They decided this was unjust and a couple of them lived in Uniontown, which is twenty-five miles from Washington. So they went to the Teamsters in Pittsburgh and said they wanted to join. We called the guy in from New York and he came in and negotiated with the Teamsters. I think there were five men only, involved in the group. But we informed them immediately that one of the things that was not negotiable was whether they didn't had to live in town. They had to live in town if they wanted to work there. So they didn't get that. And the rate that they got was maybe just a little bit higher, but with their union dues and everything...

In the meantime, during this year, the manager got rid of the two guys. Well, the one guy went to work for the Uniontown cable company and the other guy quit. So, at the end of the year, they voted the union out. I've always been very anti-union, and I'll squash that too, probably. But it's the truth. We always treated the men well. CPI established good pension plans and insurance policies and everything. We never had any real labor trouble. All the phone companies and electrical people were union and they knew we weren't union but they worked alongside of us and treated us well.

PAVELKO: Tell me about New Philadelphia.

STEVANUS: In New Philadelphia, which is the county seat of the county in which we started in Sugarcreek. Just about the time we started, they decided to have cable television. I don't remember what their connection was in finding out about it. They decided that anybody that bought $500 worth of stock would get a free $125 hook-up and free service for life. Instead of trying to educate themselves by going to Jerrold's school, which almost everybody did that started because it w