Interview Date: February 1, 2019
Interview Location: The Cable Center, Denver, CO USA
Interviewer: Stewart Schley
Collection: Cable Center Oral History Program
Schley: Welcome to this iteration of the Cable Center’s Hauser Oral History Series. I'm Stewart Schley on a cold February in 2019. And I'm excited to be with Cynthia Carpenter, who, in a nutshell, whose career sort of tracks and traces a lot of important touchpoints in the modern evolution of the cable industry. So you can kind of take us on a guided tour, I think, of where cable has been. It’s great to be with you, and thanks for showing up.
Carpenter: Thank you for having me.
Schley: So, who are you? And I'll ask that question in this way. Tell me a little bit about where you grew up and your childhood, and touch on what was television for you when you were a kid.
Carpenter: I grew up in Connecticut. For me, my earliest set of memories of television are my brother was in charge of the remote. Or actually changing the channels on top of the TV.
Schley: I was going to say—
Carpenter: Making sure the antenna worked. So we watched what he liked, and I also remember it being an appointment. So growing up I was a figure skater, and figure skating happened after school, before dinner, when the TV was on. I remember feeling anxious to get home to see “Little House on the Prairie,” because it was only on at a specific time. I missed a lot of Saturday morning cartoons because I skated on Saturdays, too.
Schley: Are we talking black and white television…or the full color experience?
Carpenter: We had some black and white; we would see shows, but old reruns of it. And then in middle school, one of my best friend’s father was an attorney for ESPN. We lived pretty close to Bristol. And I remember trying to understand what is that? What does that mean, what does that stand for? But she was really excited about “this cable thing.”
Schley: Because when you were a kid, was it just over-the-air television coming into your home?
Carpenter: In my home, yes. Yes.
Schley: And then, how did cable find you? How did the cable industry find you? Or how did you find it?
Carpenter: I think it’s both. So a good friend of mine in business school started a job right after we both graduated from Boston University, and she worked for AMC networks. And my husband and I—we had just gotten married—I told her, “We’re moving to Denver. Do you have any ideas for me? What should I do?” She said, “Well, you love cable, and Denver is huge for cable.”
Schley: It was.
Carpenter: “So check it out. Go check out cable in Denver.” The first thing I did was I brought out my printed version of my alumni directory from my high school to see do I know anybody in Denver who has anything to do with cable. And one of the people in that alumni directory was Peter Barton. So I picked up the phone, called the number in the alumni directory and I got Peter’s secretary. And she said, “I will give him the message.” A few days go by. Six times I'm calling and calling, trying to get hold of Peter Barton. And I start getting frustrated, like why won’t he answer the phone? I had no idea he was pretty busy running Liberty Media. Finally, he picked up the phone and he said, “I don’t know you, but I know we went to the same high school, so if it’s between you and another candidate at some job, I'll give you a reference.”
Carpenter: A week later I got a job at Encore, which is a Liberty company. And I got to meet Peter in person a few days after that because we were having a celebration of our 100,000th customer.
Schley: And you’d never met him before.
Carpenter: I’d never met him. I'd only spoken to him on the phone. After that, we became friends. I helped him write a speech.
Schley: I knew Peter when his predecessor job was at TCI, Telecommunications Inc., which was, for a long time, the largest cable company. You mentioned Liberty Media. What was that all about?
Carpenter: So I think at the time Peter was working directly for John Malone. And what’s interesting about it, they were an owner of Encore. When I met him, it was ironic. Because he said, “Well, I'll give you a reference.” But I met him in person and there I was at one of his companies. So that was fun.
Schley: What was Encore? What was the role in theory behind Encore at the time?
Carpenter: So Encore was the bridge between where AMC left off, which was really movies from the Thirties, Forties and Fifties.
Schley: American Movie Classics.
Carpenter: Right. Classics. And bridging into current day movies. So it was Sixties, Seventies and Eighties. Our tagline was, “Hit Movies of the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties.” That was intended to bridge between where AMC was and going into the current day.
Schley: Because they felt there was sort of a gap there.
Carpenter: There was a gap, right. And there was a lot of content, really good content.
Schley: A lot of movies…
Carpenter: Exactly. So my role there was sales analyst. I spent a lot of time re-entering the titles of movies that were printed in the guide, the TV guide, and the movie guide—I can't remember if that was—
Schley: Typing them in?
Carpenter: Typing them into a database. And then de-duping. And seeing who’s playing the same movie over and over. What should we be playing? What should Encore be playing? How do we time—there was no time shifting at the time, but how do we schedule so that we’re competing with the other channels?
Schley: Encore was a premium service. You had to pay an extra fee for it. But was it a lower price premium or how did it work?
Carpenter: It was $1.00. Initially when it launched, it launched to TCI and it was a negative option and not super popular.
Schley: No, it was a controversial—and you were enmeshed in that, you were part of that. Explain negative option…
Carpenter: It wasn’t that I masterminded it.
Schley: How did it work?
Carpenter: So how it worked was for TCI customers, they would automatically have a dollar added to their bill for Encore. And it was sort of like we’re giving them this fabulous hit movies of the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties for only a dollar. Then I think people figured out, wait a second, I don’t even watch that channel and I don’t want to pay the dollar, so the negative option didn’t last all that long.
Schley: But Encore did survive and ultimately thrive and has become part of the Starz Media Group of multiplex pay TV channels. What did you learn? You were a young—starting your career. What did you learn, or what takeaways and impressions do you have about this industry, which is really in flux and sort of interesting at the time, right?
Carpenter: Well, at the time—so as we talked about, it was just Encore. While I was there, we launched Starz and the multiplex services. So it was nonstop, just energy and constant work. And it was very driven by John Sie and his personality and his drive. He’s so, so brilliant, and pushed you really hard to know the right answers and solve the problem and get to the bottom of it. So that was really foundational to what learning about how to be your best and how to continue to try for the answer and to become knowledgeable all the time.
Schley: I remember John Sie, S-I-E, born in China, came to the United States, became this force of nature in the cable industry. But you said “brilliant,” I think. He has this mind for mathematics that was—did you detect that…? I remember he would do these elaborate presentations about what was then a new concept. Tell me if I'm wrong. The notion that people would buy more than one premium channel was part of the business strategy.
Carpenter: Those presentations, that was my job. So I was the analyst that put together those presentations on PowerPoint, way back—the early Nineties version of PowerPoint. And I remember one night—so we didn’t have email then. Think about that. We started at work, we didn’t use email as a tool. So anything you did, you had to be in the office. So I was in the office a lot. But John had a presentation at Continental Cable.
Schley: Big cable company.
Carpenter: Big cable in Boston. So East Coast, we’re here in Denver. I remember it was Friday morning. I completely clearly remember this. It was Friday morning, he calls me at home. He carried around everybody’s phone number on a little tiny business card-size in his pocket. He probably didn’t even need to have it printed because he remembered it. He called very, very early in the morning. He was up early in Boston. And he saw one of the slides—it wasn’t a slide, it was a piece of paper I created. I didn’t carry it out to two decimal points, and he wanted me to fix it, and then FAX him that one page because there was no email. So I had to go into the office to do this.
Schley: To get to the FAX machine.
Carpenter: I always tell this story. I was in the office before Mark Bauman, which, I don’t know if you remember Mark Bauman. He was our CFO, and he was known for getting there before—
Schley: He was a hard-charging, driven guy.
Carpenter: I was there before him. I remember his face. “Somebody is here before me? What are you doing here?”
Schley: But you did it, you finished it, you fixed it. You know, today you would make a quick change on a presentation and just pop it over.
Carpenter: At home, in my pajamas.
Schley: Correct, but not then. I had heard John demanded a lot from his employees, right? So was it a hard job, or what was rewarding about that job?
Carpenter: Usually in any job that’s hard, the rewarding part of it is the people you get to work with. And that’s been constant throughout my career. That is what held me up. We were all working hard and as a team. We were all producing, and all creating, and all driving results, and that’s what made it really fun. And I'm learning. You're an absolute sponge at that time. I remember hearing John talk about broadcast, DBS, Direct Broadcast Satellite. That was my next job. I went to work for Primestar right after that. I remember him describing it, and I couldn’t believe it was possible to do what he was describing.
Schley: To beam television down to individual households from a satellite?
Carpenter: Right. From a big satellite.
Schley: One thing, I think, is interesting about your career as we’ll go through it, is that—you just talked about satellite television now. You have been at the center of all these sort of seminal transformations of the industry. Take us through—explain what Primestar was, if you please.
Carpenter: So Primestar was a joint venture, if you will, between the major cable operators. So TCI at the time, Time Warner, Cox, Comcast, MediaOne was another participant in it. The idea was to create somewhat of a coalition in advance of, and to defend the cable industry from what was on the horizon in the form of DirecTV.
Schley: We knew it was coming.
Carpenter: And then later, DISH. We knew it was coming. We thought, you know, cable can do that. We know how to do that. So the idea was to offer this service outside of in areas where the cable plant touched, but still within the franchise area.
Schley: You wouldn’t be cannibalizing necessarily your own subscriber base. That was the theory.
Carpenter: Right. That was the theory. Exactly. And it was really successful, particularly in areas where there was a lot of rural customers or rural potential customers. I traveled—my job, when I was with Primestar, was field marketing. So that role was, I was based at our headquarters which was in Stamford. But I would travel to our field offices, our regional offices, and help them market the service to their more rural customers.
Schley: OK, so the cable system or the cable company did play a role.
Schley: It wasn’t totally direct to consumer from Stamford, Connecticut, to the end, to that new customer.
Carpenter: Each of the participants, each of the MSOs who participated in Primestar had a similar structure.
Schley: I think DirecTV was launched by a company called Hughes Aircraft in 1994, so this predated that. When were you present in the market with Primestar?
Carpenter: I was with Primestar starting in 1995, but it had launched prior. And the fun part of it was, I got to—so there are only five states in the US that I have not yet visited. A lot of it is thanks to my job with Primestar. That’s on my bucket list. But the idea was to go and make sure we were flanking our cable plants, right? And to defend that kind of holding the communities and make sure we were providing however our customers wanted to consume, we had an option for them.
Schley: You had an answer for them.
Schley: Was Primestar sold under the Primestar brand name, or was it sold under the cable company or mix of the two?
Carpenter: It was a mix. So with Time Warner, it was Time Warner Satellite Services. Then we started saying, Primestar By Time Warner Satellite Services. Then in a few years into the process, we all rolled up into one company. So we became Primestar.
Schley: And then what you describe seems really sound from a strategy standpoint. What happened to Primestar?
Carpenter: Well, the government.
Schley: The government happened to Primestar. All right.
Carpenter: The government decided it was too dominant and that we were not allowing competition. So Primestar ended up selling to DirecTV.
Schley: It's interesting because you and I were talking off-camera before about today, 2019, we are seeing this real severe deterioration of what we call DBS, Direct Broadcast Satellite. And for a long time, though, it bedeviled the cable industry. It was a very serious competitive force. And it's interesting you sort of saw both sides of the picture—how the satellite television infrastructure worked with and around the cable industry.
What did you learn about the medium, and the yin and yang of the two?
Carpenter: I think that the way people consume video really drives how we deliver it. Now you look at what’s happening in satellite; that’s not the way people are consuming video now. We were talking about watching on a small screen. My kids, who are now 20 and 22, watch on their phones. That actually is almost their first choice. And if they then decide maybe to watch it on their laptops, they don’t have TVs where they live in their houses.
Schley: I saw some statistics from Nielsen just recently about the growing millions of homes or customers fall into that category.
So what was your evolution following Primestar? Were you there for the demise, when it went away?
Schley: So what did you do? Suddenly you're without a company, right?
Carpenter: I had a baby. Right after I left, I had my second child. It was perfect timing. I met Jana Henthorn.
Schley: Jana Henthorn is currently the president of the Cable Center.
Carpenter: I met her 22 years ago now because my daughter, well, 20 years because she is about to turn 20. And I met Ron Rizzuto. So I was in sort of a maternity leave pause between Primestar being purchased by DirecTV and then starting up with High Speed Access. So I worked with Jana and Ron to write a case study for the WICT leadership conference.
Schley: OK, so this brings your worlds together. Ron is sort of a well-known professor at Denver University and has been associated with the Cable Center for a long time. What was Jana doing at the time?
Carpenter: At the time, I think, Jana was with Jones. We’ll double-check, match up the resumes…
Schley: She was in the cable industry.
Carpenter: Yes. In the cable industry. And she became a really wonderful mentor to me. She has two daughters as well who are a little bit older than mine. But she was always such a good voice for me as a working mom, and leader, and somebody who understood sort of that balance—integration of your life and your work.
Schley: That’s been a theme, I think, throughout your professional life. You mentioned it earlier. Relationships, the team aspects of business, and career. But also this industry was early on dominated by men. Pole climbers, pioneers, technical people, engineers. A lot of the people you mentioned earlier as influences—John Sie, Peter Barton—obviously were men. Can you just talk about how you found—was the industry inviting toward women from an early point, and how did you deal with some of the, just sort of the gender issues that are unmistakably present in business?
Carpenter: John also has a daughter, Michele, who is my age. So he recognized—she’s a fantastic leader and super-smart. So there was absolutely in his mind no difference between men and women. He didn’t see us as one or the other. It was, can you do the work for me? Are you smart enough to keep up with me? His wife Anna is very strong and I think he’s been surrounded by tremendous women, too. He was a terrific force for me. He was the first person who said, “Join WICT and go to the management conference.” That was very early on in my career. So I very early connected with such a terrific network of women but powered by men, who said, “Go do this.” Then when I went to Time Warner Satellite Services, Dan O’Brien was the president of that division within Time Warner, and he encouraged me to apply for the Betsy Magness Leadership Program. So I was in Class 2. Jana was in Class 1. And that was another way I connected with these tremendous leaders and realized that I’m not the only one. I'm not the only one doing this. I was lucky enough to meet Ann Carlsen when I was in the Betsy Magness program, and she’s still just a wonderful friend and advisor and guide.
Schley: How do we explain Ann Carlsen to the world? She’s maybe responsible for populating 80% of the executive positions, an executive search specialist, right?
Carpenter: Ann has a company that places terrific people throughout not only cable, but now technology, and her business has evolved too, as has cable.
Schley: So it's hard to crystallize in a soundbite, but what has been the influence and value and purpose for you of WICT over the duration of your career?
Carpenter: WICT has really been the fabric that is underlying everything that I've done. It’s given me confidence and strength by meeting all these people, as I said. I mean, our stories intersect in so many ways. A lot of the women that I've met through WICT have a similar kind of home life to mine where their husbands are the primary caregivers for their children, as was mine, until our kids grew up and left. They are solving the same problems. What are the expectations of me as a woman at home and a caregiver, and at work? I want to be a strong leader and I want to advance. So it helped me recognize that it's not just women doing this by ourselves, but needing men to help us to recognize it, too. So I've been really lucky to be surrounded by open-minded, wise men who get that.
Schley: It sounds like part of it with WICT and perhaps other professional organizations is just that feeling that, oh, I'm not alone in this situation, right?
Schley: And shared circumstances are important. So Cynthia, you’ve talked about WICT at large and the role that organization has played in your career, in your life. You’ve been president of the Rocky Mountain chapter of WICT and continue to be engaged and vital to that organization. What are you sort of proud of regarding those accomplishments, and what have you tried to do at that organization?
Carpenter: It's been a really gratifying ride with WICT Rocky Mountain. When I first joined the cable industry and joined WICT, we did not have a chapter here, in fact. The chapter kind of construct didn’t start until probably the mid-Nineties, where we, Rocky Mountain, formed a chapter. We’re one of 23 now, I believe. We are about the third largest. So about 1,000 members, which is just fantastic. And 20% of our members are men.
Schley: I saw that.
Carpenter: And what’s important about that is I believe to my core that no change will ever happen for any group of people unless everyone is involved in that change. It's been a really terrific organization that cares very much about advancing leaders through the—really, we activate WICT’s global mission, which is to empower women leaders. So we take that and we make that happen at the local level.
Schley: I like that activate verb. One of the ways you do it, I know there are many, but Tech It Out is a program you’ve alluded to. What is Tech It Out? And what happens there?
Carpenter: So Tech It Out, we started it here in Rocky Mountain Chapter…
Schley: That’s what I thought.
Carpenter: It's sort of the brainchild of Leslie Ellis and a group of incredible women. And Leslie is still really involved, thankfully. So we started this program that became a full day conference. In fact, when we first did it, we did it here at the Cable Center. And we outgrew it pretty quickly because it became this place that everybody needed to be. It's a daylong of keynote speech, speeches, we also have little segments that we call “Tech Talks,” riffing on Ted Talks. We have panels, we have demos of various new technologies and what maybe has been shown at CES, for example. But the important thing about it, it's meant to inspire people to really appreciate how technology drives our industry, and the key role that diverse populations can play in making that change happen. So we’re really committed to this ambassador program we have. We invite 30 to 40 students every year who are focused on STEM to come and spend the day. They don’t have to pay. We fund that, and then we pair them with an ambassador for the day so they can learn and ask questions of that person and get a good understanding of our industry.
Schley: I love that description. You're trying to expose people to how innovation is powered by humans, by people…?
Schley: So Tech It Out is not for die-hard engineers necessarily…
Carpenter: No, not necessarily.
Schley: Anybody who’s interested. Great, thank you.
Carpenter: You're welcome.
Schley: Before we talk about your career progression, note that with Charter Communications today, one of your roles, perhaps your main role, is something called “employee experience.” Really interesting title. Right when we first started talking, you talked about the influence of co-workers and camaraderie and team. We have to mention you were a competitive hockey player for most of your youth as well. But what is employee experience, and why does it matter in a cable industry context?
Carpenter: Well, having started my career in analytics and marketing and product management, what I've learned most of all is that nothing gets done without a tremendous high-performing team. So the common team that I've been able to build on and recognize throughout my career is that as a leader, my job is to evoke the best and the highest potential out of everyone. Everybody has something to bring. You can't have a one-person team.
Schley: It’s a great way to put it.
Carpenter: So what was a tremendous opportunity for me was after we merged, after Charter merged with Time Warner and Bright House in 2016. I had the opportunity, thanks to my current boss, Rich DiGeronimo, to sort of solve for the problem of how do you empower and create this strong culture that is going to evoke the best talent out of everybody?
Schley: A big charge.
Carpenter: Huge charge.
Schley: How do you do it?
Carpenter: How do you do it? And what I drew on was what I know how to do is build teams. I know how to evoke that strength from each person. And I also know marketing and I know product management. So I think of the employee experience similar to the way I think of the customer experience. So you need to attract the employee to what you're trying to do to your mission, to your value proposition.
Schley: It’s sort of sell, right? I mean, you sell the argument?
Carpenter: Sort of sell. I think of it as marketing. It’s a mutual decision; we’re all deciding we’re going to come here and then, once they're on board, you need to really induct them into your culture. So you can't market or sell them something that isn’t actually true when they walk in the door. So inducting into the culture means making sure your values are aligned, making sure that you're building trust very quickly, because that’s the only way you're going to try and create results. And then, constantly investing in people. So there’s this dynamic circle of training and development and feedback that’s ongoing throughout someone’s career. And integrated with what they're doing and what their job is. So that’s another part of the life cycle. And as importantly, when somebody leaves, you want to make sure that they had a good experience there and maybe they’re leaving for a reason to advance their career or move or do something different. But you want them to think positively of their experience.
Schley: That’s interesting because I think a harsher approach is to say, “OK, lost that one. He/she is out the door. Let’s move on.” But you put more emphasis and intent around that, sounds like.
The mergers and acquisitions have been a constant part of the cable industry’s evolution, and you guys were at the center of one of the big ones of all time. Can you just talk about—I think some people think the cable industry is kind of monolithic. Every company operates in the same way because they're in the same business. Is that true or not, culturally, is that not true?
Carpenter: I think each cable operator has a different culture, and each programmer and device provider has a different culture. And even within the company, there are different cultures. Whether it's departmental or geographic, there are definitely different cultures. But I think what defines Charter, where I am now at least, is this idea of operational excellence in the name of customer delight. So the idea is if your customer is happy with your product because they're having a really frictionless experience, then you're doing a good job. And you're keeping that customer from needing to call you, frankly. And if your products are great, they shouldn’t have a reason to call you. But if they do, you should have different ways for them to reach you.
Schley: I think it's a great way to put it. I mean, I don’t think you want people to take your services for granted. But at the same time, right, you just want them to work and do what they're supposed to do. I love the “delight” word in that mission statement.
Schley: But it's hard.
Carpenter: It is hard.
Schley: It’s a hard business.
Carpenter: Oh, yes, there's a lot going on in the background to make sure that it's seamless.
Schley: Do you think—I always wondered, you know, there's this world of over-the-top video. And one of the elements of that world, I think—unfair is not the right word—but is it an advantage, is the customer care burden is not really on companies like Netflix or YouTube. So the phrase “over-the-top” really is sort of true. They're using an infrastructure that someone else has provided. Is there like resentment in the cable industry over the fact that you’ve empowered this new beast, or do you see partnerships evolving over time? What’s the culture around competitive Internet video?
Carpenter: I think initially yes. I sat in audiences and listened to panels of executives saying, “Oh, we should never have let Netflix happen.”
Schley: Totally. I heard it, too.
Carpenter: Right. That was several years ago. Now I think there’s an understanding, a realization, that yes, it is over-the-top. It is leveraging our infrastructure, but you're welcome. We have an amazing infrastructure. So now let's partner. Let's make sure we’re all benefiting from the fact that Netflix or Hulu are developing fabulous content. And let's make sure that we are the choice for how customers get that content.
Schley: Make it convenient. Make it affordable. Do a good job. I do think there is still very much a role for an aggregator who does bring delight to that process. To jury-rig your own video infrastructure in your home is challenging.
Schley: I'm sure it is for everybody.
Speaking of infrastructure, though, after Primestar, you became involved in what would become maybe the seminal transformation of the cable industry, which was the move into broadband Internet delivery. I would just like you to kind of tell us what your role was, what the company you worked for did, and what you saw happening right in front of your eyes at that time, right?
Carpenter: So I went to work for High Speed Access. Dan O’Brien was the CEO there and as I mentioned earlier, he was the president of the division for Time Warner. He brought me over. That’s another thing that’s so great about this industry is you meet people and they know your work and then they bring you to the next thing. It's so great.
High Speed Access was sort of the outsourced partner to the smaller cable operators to develop, deliver and market their high-speed data product. So at the time there was another similar company called @Home, which was serving the larger cable operators—Comcast, Time Warner, etc.
Schley: Doing something similar.
Carpenter: Something very similar. And I think ultimately Charter bought High Speed Access in 2001. They sort of went to school on us. It was how do we make sure we can operationalize this within our infrastructure—
Schley: This broadband product.
Carpenter: This broadband thing, whatever it is. So I learned so much about what that was that it actually positioned me well for an opportunity with AMC networks. Interestingly, I think, just having a deep understanding of where the industry was going. One thing about when I was at HSA was 9/11 happened when I was there. I think probably everybody you talk to will remember exactly where they were, what they were doing. So I was at work at HSA, and I was lucky and happy enough to be among people who really cared, and were really supportive of each other through that. It was just so traumatic for all of us. I think it was one of those moments that you remember to be part of your career.
Schley: Well, so that puts us kind of in the timeframe. Why did the cable industry, why was there a need for sort of a third party entity like HSA, or like @Home, to help segue the industry into this new world of Internet delivery?
Carpenter: I think it was a way to mitigate risk. We didn’t know how to do it yet. We—kind of by separating it out and parsing it out to people who were going to be very busy figuring out and working through all the challenges—
Schley: All the intricacies.
Carpenter: Exactly. It was a probably a smart strategy to keep the risk contained. And then once it was determined that, oh, OK, this actually isn’t something that we need to be afraid of, it works, customers like it—
Schley: That’s the real reason.
Carpenter: It's proven, it's a proven business strategy.
Schley: Do you remember using what we would call dial-up Internet in your life?
Schley: Prior to the broadband evolution? So when you guys started enabling broadband high-speed Internet—I mean, your company literally was named High Speed Access, what did you see unfolding? Did you realize you were on the cusp of something, you know, amazing?
Carpenter: One of the first things that made me feel that way was the notion of being able to send a picture.
Schley: Yes. That’s a great story.
Carpenter: It was shocking and amazing—
Schley: Because heretofore, what did you send? Email messages, text, right?
Carpenter: Email. And I felt like I had just started doing that. We didn’t even use email at work when I first started. And so the ability to send a file or a thing attached to words was fascinating to me.
Schley: Get it to appear on the other end. Then you know the rest is history. Now cable is now the dominant provider in the US and many international markets for broadband Internet. I'm looking at some data points today; I think you will appreciate this, given your history, that probably this year or the next year in the US, we’ll have more broadband Internet connections than traditional pay TV connections. Because one is sort of eroding a little bit and the other is rising. So what you wrought is pretty amazing, right?
You talked about AMC and I was curious about that segue because you're in kind of the trenches of enabling high-speed Internet and now you're going over to the programming work. What happened?
Carpenter: Well, recession, right? After 9/11, there was a recession. And opportunity to be part of a brand that I had admired for a really long time and seen how it works. They also had just launched WE TV. It was called Romance Classics and they rebranded to WE…
Schley: I do not remember that…better name.
Carpenter: Better name. So WE was “Women’s Entertainment” was what WE stood for. And the AMC Networks had also just purchased MuchMusic from Canada. So the opportunity was to be the VP of affiliate marketing again for those three networks, working for just a tremendous woman who I admire very much, Kim Martin, who was the head of that division. And it was a really just a great opportunity to be associated with a brand that I hadn’t really had the opportunity to deal with. And the biggest budget I'd ever had for marketing…
Schley: Cynthia, what was MuchMusic?
Carpenter: MuchMusic was, it was actually one of the first channels that was starting to take advantage of social media. So they had a crawl going across the bottom of the screens usually when they were playing music saying—
Schley: A music video or whatever?
Carpenter: A music video and it would be, “What are your comments about this?” It was really cool to be in kind of that cutting edge. What I brought to AMC Networks was my knowledge and understanding of high-speed data and also an appreciation that, from a cable operator point of view, don’t just tell me to tell my customers to watch your channel. That’s not doing anything for me.
Schley: Right. For you as a cable operator.
Carpenter: Exactly. As a cable operator. I don’t really care how often you watch their channel. What I care about is selling high-speed data so how are we going to do that?
Schley: OK. Using programming to help as a lever?
Schley: How did you do that?
Carpenter: So we created campaigns that were kind of paired with going online and entering a sweepstakes or answering trivia questions, and then, watching the movie. So it was really kind of a way to pair and help our operators sell high-speed Internet with the programming as leverage.
Schley: For those watching who aren’t part and parcel of the cable industry, there was a time when cable companies—exaggerating a little bit—would put on any programming you could deliver because they needed content, right? They needed that 35th channel or that 75th channel to be populated. By this time, that was not necessarily the case, is what you're saying.
Carpenter: By this time must-carry had started. So you had to have a set of channels in your market and then the idea that some of the channels were related to each other, so we’ll give you this channel and we’ll throw in this other channel to go with it. The other thing that started when I was with AMC and WE is we started offering local ad sales. So up until then, those channels had been completely commercial-free.
Schley: That’s right. And then you introduced advertising. Why was it in the selfish interests of the cable operator to have an ad sales possibility?
Carpenter: Well, you can make money off it in ten minutes an hour.
Schley: You give them time per hour to sell?
Schley: And that became a big business over time.
Carpenter: Definitely, especially with politics in the way they advertise.
Schley: But what I think is interesting about that is you really have—as a programmer you had to change the argument, right, the economic argument of why—you're an affiliate relations executive, why people should carry your stuff? How did you go about sort of plying the waters, or hearing the voice of your affiliates in terms of what they wanted?
Carpenter: We created an advisory board. And tapped into the brilliant minds of marketing from the operator side to say, how do we partner to make our programming help propel your business forward. So we had quarterly meetings with our advisors who were the heads of marketing from Cox and Comcast and MediaCom.
Schley: The brain trust.
Carpenter: The brain trust. Right. And they really helped us. And so realized that it's not programmers every time you come knock on my door, it's about negotiating your new rate, it's actually about your coming to help me solve a problem.
Schley: Then where are we today with the yin and yang of programmers and cable distributors? What does one want from the other, would you say?
Carpenter: The programmers want the pipes—
Schley: They want carriage, they want distribution.
Carpenter: Yes. And the operators need the content. And they need to keep it interesting and exciting and dynamic. So it is yin/yang. And you constantly see, oh, this station is being dropped or blacked out. It's part of the dance.
Schley: We’ve seen it at a high level recently with some of the satellite negotiations. But programmers today also—because you and your group at Charter deal with product innovation a lot. So the forms in which we consume television have changed so much. You talked about your kids watching on small digital devices. So the world seems a lot more complicated than it used to when we were in a 35-channel—that’s probably an obvious statement. But it is challenging, right, to figure out how to satisfy demand in a really competitive environment?
Carpenter: Yes, and it is becoming more software-driven. So by becoming more software-driven, you need to attract a different type of person.
Schley: I'm glad you mentioned that. Right. And how are you doing it at Charter? Let me ask you, the prelude question is: is the cable industry considered cool if you're a 21-year-old programmer today? I mean, where do you stand on that?
Carpenter: We’re working on that. I think cable is kind of an interesting word, right? Thinking about what is cable—?
Schley: A loaded word.
Carpenter: It's a loaded word, yes. But it is our lifeblood literally. It's what we’re based on. It's how we got here and how we’re going to keep developing and innovating. And maybe it's not literally cable—it's fiber, it's much more advanced than when we first started. But making it cool, I think what we offer is this unique and very attractive blend of being fully funded, having a deep infrastructure, having very smart people and kind of not having some of the baggage that some of the Silicon Valley companies might have around bias and around—
Carpenter: Culture. Exactly. So I think we offer this really nice blend of a safe environment from a funding standpoint, from an opportunity standpoint, from a deep history standpoint, to be more intrapreneurial, to use a word that the Cable Center has been leveraging, within a bigger infrastructure.
Schley: But I think that not all coders or digitally-minded people realize until they're in, what cool stuff, what cool apps are being produced in the cable industry context. So it takes a while to get the message through.
Carpenter: It does, and I think a lot of the operators are doing a very good job of creating internship programs, making those exciting and enticing people to the industry. Women in Cable and Telecomm, particularly in our Rocky Mountain chapter, we have a daylong program called “Tech It Out.” And the intent behind that is to attract STEM students to the industry. So we have an ambassador program where we bring—last year, I think, we had 35 or 40 people, young people from high school, sitting for a day and hearing from people like Leslie Ellis and hearing about what’s cool about technology and talking to others who might be coding or doing—data science is a huge one, understanding the data. So that’s one way. It's definitely a full-court press. All of us are in on that effort.
Schley: What’s the selfish interest from the standpoint of a company like Charter, for instance?
Carpenter: Absolutely. You need to create that pipeline. A pipeline of talent who’s thinking of things you haven’t thought of yet. And I think we've done a fantastic job of that historically. So we need to keep involving, not just innovating from a product perspective, but who is going to power that next generation.
Schley: Was your move from AMC to Charter, or what was that progression
Carpenter: So my move was from AMC to Level 3.
Schley: That’s right.
Carpenter: That’s from back to Denver.
Schley: With AMC, were you on the East Coast?
Schley: Level 3—it's a pretty well-known company, but I think of big fat fiber pipes. Is that kind of what Level 3 does?
Carpenter: That’s accurate. And Level 3 is now CenturyLink. CenturyLink just bought them. But exactly, it's underlying big fat fiber pipes that they sell to the cable industry.
Schley: What made you a good fit for Level 3 and vice-versa, at the time?
Carpenter: At the time, they were interested in getting into allying themselves with the cable industry. Recognizing that cable was growing this big thing called high-speed data. They were going to need a way to transport all that information.
Schley: Kind of in the background, the public Internet sort of distribution array?
Carpenter: At the same time, Voice Over IP was starting to become a force. So what I was hired for was my knowledge of the cable industry and my ability to understand how do we intersect what Level 3 offers with what cable operators need.
Schley: What part of the cable industry were you interfacing with? Was it the engineering team, was it the business development team or a combination?
Carpenter: It was a combination, but it was decision makers who are making big strategic decisions about their infrastructure. Nomi Bergman was working with people at Bright House, who was a customer, an early-on customer. That was just a really fun time to grow that segment within Level 3 and become kind of a force that helped power a lot of what happened in the cable industry.
Schley: This is what I always wonder, if people, when you're in it on a daily basis, you're a busy, busy person, do you realize kind of the revolution that’s taking place out there…?
Carpenter: It’s amazing, isn’t it? It's been fun, too, because. I'm looking back and thinking, wow, I guess I was there.
Schley: Are you kidding me? But I think sort of you look back on it and in your career, for instance, a tremendous amount of change has occurred over let's say, a 20-year period. And I think sometimes you only get appreciation for it when you do this. You look back on it.
So Level 3 brought you to the doorstep of Charter, or how did that happen?
Carpenter: With a couple hops in between…but at Level 3, I worked with Rich DiGeronimo. The two of us were tasked with huge business development on the cable segment, and I was the product marketer. And I also knew the industry so we traveled around, introduced him to several of those decision makers, and I think he got the cable bug from that job and went directly to Charter from there. So now he’s an executive vice-president with Charter for product and strategy. So soon after I left Level 3, I did a couple of small startups. I think Level 3, having that experience of a very large company, I was ready to kind of do some more similar nimble startup things.
Schley: Agile work stuff. When you talk about the cable bug, what is the attraction, what is the cable bug? What are the elements that go into creating that “I want to work here”?
Carpenter: Results. I mean you just kind of get so addicted to that notion of constantly driving change and delivering and producing new innovations. So that’s one part of it. And the other part is absolutely the people that I get to work with. It feels like a family, it's people that you know you can turn to and you constantly go to events and you see the same people and their friends.
Schley: I've always wondered, and I've said this before, but I've always been involved in and around as a writer of the cable industry. So I haven’t seen other industries up close and personal. So maybe the exact same dynamic occurs. Do you think it does, or does cable have structurally an interesting arrangement that does lend itself to maybe more personal kinships…?
Carpenter: I was thinking about that, too. What is it that makes cable such a family and such a great kind of an organism to be part of? I think we do a lot of things—we love to celebrate…
Schley: Cable is good at partying.
Carpenter: We are really good at that, right? So part of that is you get to interact with people not only who you’ve been working with and for, and around, but then you get to see them in a different kind of perspective.
Schley: As a human being or an individual? Your friend, Jana, once told me that she thought cable was a place—was, still is perhaps—where you could sort of raise your hand and say, “I kind of want to try that” or “Put me on this team.” Do you still see some fluidity in terms of what employees can do to kind of exert their influence on the organization?
Carpenter: I am a perfect example of that, right? I've gotten to do so many different things within this tremendous bubble that we call cable.
Schley: You have.
Carpenter: And even just within Charter. When I first started, I was overseeing product management for our commercial services and our enterprise services. So from there, after the merger, I think I created a brand around myself as being a problem solver, so after the merger one of the problems was, oh, now we have a home security product. What do we do with that? Well, first let’s look at the team. So Cynthia, can you take care of that…?
Schley: So how do you form a team? How do you know who’s supposed to be on the team and who’s on the sidelines?
Carpenter: Talk to everyone.
Carpenter: Learn. Yes. Then talk to people who aren’t necessarily on the team, but who are experts in that thing, to learn a little bit more about home security and then Internet of Things. So again, the network. That’s what’s such a help when you're going through any transition like that. You can turn to the people you’ve met throughout your career, and say, “Hey, I don’t know this.” And it's nice and safe because you can be vulnerable that way and say, “I am new at this thing. And I need to start over and I don’t know.”
Schley: That’s OK.
One of the daunting aspects, I think, of cable, modern cable today, is just the sheer scale. These are big companies. I don’t know what your video subscriber count is at Charter, but it's in many, many, many millions, I know that. So can you talk about what cable companies have to contend with in terms of being really, really sure a product is going to work before you roll it out? It's got to be hard, right?
Carpenter: It is hard and I think each company does it a little bit differently. We talked about that experimenting off to the side with high-speed data, for example. That was one way. And I think some companies have full R&D kind of setups within. The idea of fast failure, I think, is one that is helpful for cable operators or companies to say, OK, what experiment do we want to run? And how are we going to know very quickly that it's not working or it's working? I think within my organization, within Charter, we’re really thoughtful, we’re very data-driven, we’re always thinking about how do we make sure that when we do launch this thing, that it's going to provide a seamless experience? So you make sure that you have that sort of minimum viable product that’s going to get you to as seamless an experience as you can and then make sure it goes. I mean, think about how fast we launched mobile. We just launched our mobile product last year.
Schley: That’s true.
Carpenter: And that was based on a lot of very smart people doing a lot of very hard work to make sure it was seamless when it launched.
Schley: But it has to be rewarding, maybe unnerving, when you finally do begin a rollout. And now, with stuff you’ve been talking about internally for months, it's out there, right? And what does that feel like?
Carpenter: It's so exciting. It's why I keep doing this. It's awesome.
Schley: All along the way, from the days of 30-channel linear video distribution to—I don’t know what we call what we have today, but it's a lot of different ways to consume a lot of different products. What do you think has happened with the consumer’s psyche in terms of expectations for the role of a third-party provider? Do we want to do it all ourselves? Or do we want to hand over the confusion to a company like Charter? How does the consumer evolve? How has the consumer evolved over the years?
Carpenter: I think consumers have become more demanding of their experience. They also, if they're not happy with it, they can tell thousands of people in one fell swoop—
Schley: Through social media.
Carpenter: Through social media, exactly. So there's definitely that. It's good because it raises the bar. It makes us know that we have to deliver quality. So I think that’s the next evolution of the theme, that the experience needs to be high quality. And how do you measure quality? Well, data. Data is going to tell you how long did it take that person after they pushed the button on that remote or said into their remote—
Schley: You can look into it.
Carpenter: Oh, yes. We’ve got all that data. Data going all the way down to when we configure a screen in a certain way, do we get more hits than if we configure it another way?
Schley: That’s fascinating. Almost like an A/B test of what works—
Schley: OK. So data is a big part of it. Instinct? I mean, is there room for sort of a hunch, you know, about how people will respond or react?
Carpenter: Part of it is instinct, but instinct is generally based on your experience, right? So if you’ve had experience up until now and you can rely on your instinct or your intuition to say, let’s go in this direction. If you're surrounded by smart people who know their craft, well, then your instinct is really something that you can feel a little bit more comfortable taking a risk around.
Schley: But it does require a certain amount of experience over time, immersion over time.
There are two areas I wanted to talk to you about before our time is up. One is you talked a bit about employee engagement and I want you to talk particularly about the customer-facing side of your business. So these are technicians who come into my home and hook up my modem and then there are people on the phone or the other end of a chat conversation. I always thought those were some of the hardest jobs in cable. What makes a great customer contact employee for you guys?
Carpenter: So I didn’t tell you this, but my very first job out of college was a customer service rep.
Schley: Beautiful. For who?
Carpenter: For Putnam Investor Services in Boston.
Schley: No kidding.
Carpenter: My very first day on the phones was Black Monday, 1987. I was supposed to be on the phone. They didn’t let us get on the phones because it was that much of a disaster. What I learned from that experience of being on the phone and interfacing with customers is that I think everybody in their career should do something customer-facing. Whether it is waiting tables or driving an Uber or being on the phone and having to interact with a customer and answer their hard questions about your product, it is so important. So I believe—in our organization, Charter absolutely recognizes that that front line person is absolutely critical to that customer relationship. I'm really proud that Charter now pays no less than $15 an hour for any of those front line employees. We were really on the forefront of that; now it's starting to happen.
Schley: I did not know that.
Carpenter: So that’s been something I'm very proud of just to be part of Charter for that.
Schley: Right. And what is the expectation for longevity? Can someone spend a career doing customer-facing work if they choose to, or is it rare that you see that? Is it transient?
Carpenter: I have in my role in HR and employee experience actually interviewed some people who are in the customer care world. So certainly, depending on the individual, they might want to go somewhere else, learn something else.
Schley: It's a jumping-off point for some.
Carpenter: But I do think you have a terrific opportunity to work up through the ranks within a front line to manage a region. Become an operations person.
Schley: What does it take in terms of constitution or human makeup to be good at that job, at one of those jobs?
Carpenter: Empathy and patience, definitely.
Schley: I think empathy is huge, right. But I just always thought, you know, there are going to be some bad days when you're now on call number 8 in a succession of really upset people. That’s not easy.
Carpenter: You have to understand what’s upsetting them. One of the things I've learned since we've launched our accessibility team, our team that’s focused on universal design for people with whatever abilities you might have, is that if you're talking on the phone to somebody, you don’t know whether they are in a wheelchair, you don’t know whether they can see, they might be using adaptive technologies in order to look up your account or you know, help you. So having some empathy for where people are, and where they're coming from, is definitely a key to it.
Schley: The technician side, though, these are people who you actually see, right? So have you spent time and attention thinking about that interface point and how it affects perceptions of Charter?
Carpenter: In my current role, no. We have an amazing operations team and field operations team.
Schley: Those are field ops.
Carpenter: Oh, yes, exactly, led by Tom Adams, who is another cable pioneer. I have though had experience training the field technicians. So when I was on the programmer side, particularly when we launched Starz, I got to go to the garage right before the techs took off to go do their work for the day.
Schley: Why did a programming company need to talk to technicians?
Carpenter: We needed to talk to them because at the time, technicians—and it depends on the cable company—were encouraged to sell or upsell channels, right? So they would actually get commissions for adding services. “Oh, while we’re at it…”
Schley: Because you’ve already got the face time with me as the customer. OK. So that’s interesting.
Carpenter: That was one of the tactics that we used was to inform and educate the field techs to get them really excited about Starz so that they would mention it when they were in a customer’s home.
Schley: Then I want to talk about hockey a little bit. What brought you—I think as a young girl, into the world of skating and hockey?
Carpenter: As a young girl, growing up—my early childhood was in the late Sixties and Seventies—there weren’t a lot of teams or girls’ sports. So girls could do gymnastics, skate, maybe swim. But there weren’t a lot of organized sports for girls.
Schley: This is pre-soccer revolution.
Carpenter: Yes. So the sport I chose was skating. I would just go recreationally and then I started to really fall in love with it. Then my mom bought me a skating dress for Christmas.
Schley: I’ve heard the dress is a big deal.
Carpenter: The dress is a big deal. I mean, a twirly dress that does things when you spin is so cool. So that skating dress really launched me into, oh, I've got to earn this dress. I've got to look good in it. I've got to be able to do really good spins so it does its thing. So I became really involved in figure skating. I started competing. I loved ice dance. It's fairly technical. You have to really have a lot of discipline around your edges. You dance with a partner so I did ice dancing for quite a while until I got to high school. And in high school, I realized there was a girls’ hockey team.
Schley: At the school?
Carpenter: At my high school in Connecticut. So I thought, OK, I can skate, but I really want to be on a team. I'm going to try out. So I tried out and I think the thing the coach was impressed with was that I could go backward really fast. I was a good skater.
Schley: Because you were an ice dancer and a figure skater.
Carpenter: If you look at ice dancers—next time you watch, notice. The women spend more time backward than the men.
Schley: I can sort of see it when I think about it.
Carpenter: There's a lot of really good backward skating and that’s what you have to do as a defense person in hockey; you get backward and you have to got to go fast.
Schley: So your coach had you pegged as a defense person.
Carpenter: Pegged as a defense person. So yes, I played ice hockey for four years in high school. My best friends were my hockey teammates. What I loved about hockey—and I stopped figure skating because they were both messing with each other. When I tried to figure skate as a hockey player, it was a mess.
Schley: Golf and baseball.
Carpenter: So I chose. I chose hockey because to really advance in figure skating you have to invest your entire life. It's kind of lonely. It's not really one where you're on a team. And that was something that was important to me. So I was lucky enough to be on the girls’ hockey team. I was captain my senior year and we traveled around and played. But the best part of it was practice. I loved it. I loved practice. A lot of what you do when you practice hockey is fall down. Literally. You are falling down.
Schley: There is a great analogy to business somewhere here.
Carpenter: Absolutely. So it's fall down and get up. And how fast can you do that? And so that’s something that’s taught me a lot of sort of mental toughness around—well, I know that I have fallen and I know that I have gotten back up again and I've done that over and over so I know that I can do it. I loved it. I loved hockey. In the summers I would go to hockey camps and really invest in that, and then ended up going to Cornell for college and tried out. Walked on, tried out for the team and said, “I play defense. Do you need one?” And so, there I was. Made the women’s varsity Division 1 hockey team at Cornell as a defense person.
Schley: A defense woman, a defense person.
Carpenter: A defense woman.
Schley: You’ve sort of already answered this but how does that relate to your professional life and particularly for you, it seems like team is a really big theme that’s been an undercurrent of your career, right?
Schley: I mean, what are the relationships between the two?
Carpenter: So I would say part of it is the physical part of discipline so mentally you have to be tough. Whether you're doing something physical—anything you do over and over and practice, you have to have a mental toughness and commitment to it. So that was really part of the discipline that I've carried through in my life. Now I'm a yogi and a runner so I still kind of carry that mental discipline and toughness with me. The other part of it was the team part. So you realize yes, I played defense, so I'm not the person that’s always going to be scoring the goals. I've got to link up with the person who can take the puck and drive it into the net.
Schley: Great analogy.
Carpenter: So I can't win a hockey game all by myself. And that part of it was really important to understand. You rely on your teammates and they’re the ones who are going to prop you up, and if you're having a bad game, they're going to come in for you, they're going to push you, and make you be your best.
Schley: I mean, it's almost like sort of, I don’t know, giving something of yourself up to the broader cause, I guess?
Carpenter: Exactly. And then winning. So great to win.
Schley: How do you guys score winning? What’s winning? Take mobile for instance. It seems like that’s a really hot takeoff for a product. That’s my version of winning, I guess.
Schley: Taking away customers from the other guys is winning, OK. Competitive spirit is part of that.
You mentioned a handful of people that seem to have risen up as influences in your career. Is there anybody else you’d care to cite or kind of comes up as someone who’s been, wow, my life would have been different without meeting this person?
Carpenter: The most recent example of that is Rich DiGeronimo. So having met him in 2004 at Level 3 and worked together and grown the cable segment and then having him have sort of the confidence in me to challenge me with so many different roles within Charter, that’s been huge. So my latest change into the human resources and employee experience discipline would never have happened unless he said, “I trust you to do that because I’ve seen you solve big problems in other places.”
Schley: I was going to ask about that because you had a real product focus earlier in your career. Now I think you have more of an organizational or a human resources focus.
Schley: But same concepts carry over from each?
Carpenter: They do.
Schley: From one to the other?
Carpenter: It's recognizing what potential people have. Being able to apply that potential to a place where you need to drive results. Organizing the teams so that people are working together to produce those extraordinary results. And nourishing that and feeding that and building the community around that has been a really tremendous challenge.
Schley: This is also the impossible question to encapsulate, but I'm going to throw it out there anyway. What’s been, besides the paycheck, what’s been rewarding, satisfying, what are you glad about that you didn’t go work in footwear or grocery or banking? What sort of has been the center of your love for this industry?
Carpenter: The center of it has been the opportunity to be at the intersection of where people drive innovation. And that’s been so gratifying. My career has enabled me to really take care of my family. My husband, as I mentioned, was full-time at home with our kids, and that wouldn’t have happened unless I had a really full career. He knows all my cable friends. So again, it's that notion of the family that has really been the constant throughout my career.
Schley: I think that it has been fascinating to talk to you both because of what you bring from a personal and from a human standpoint, but also this Zelig-like quality that you have that’s put you at the epicenter of all these interesting—from programming to technology to product and now to organizational. Thank you for taking some time to visit with us. I totally appreciate it.
Carpenter: It's been a pleasure, thank you.
Schley: With Cynthia Carpenter, for the Cable Center’s Hauser Oral History Series, I'm Stewart Schley. Thanks for tuning in.
END OF INTERVIEW