A Pioneer for Cable and Women10/06/2006 8:00 PM Eastern
In 1972, Carolyn Chambers made a decision to join the cable industry by adding a cable-TV system to her successful broadcast station, KEZI-TV in Eugene, Ore. It would be a decision that shaped a lifetime — and that deeply affected not only Chambers, but the entire industry.
For Chambers, the launching of KEZI-TV in 1959 would eventually morph into Liberty Communications, which at one point was the 19th-largest cable multiple-system operator in the country. It would also make her the only woman to own a system in a male-dominated industry.
“I joined cable instead of fighting it when GTE had to divest their cable holdings early on,” Chambers said. “But I really got involved in cable at that time. It was a dynamic industry and I really enjoyed it.
“I was the only woman owner and I knew as much as the men about the business, so I continued working with them. But at the time, it was a big effort to get the men in the industry to acknowledge that women had lots to offer the business. And I was the only woman owner.”
There were male supporters, however. “Leonard Tow and others were very helpful early on. At first, I’d hear some men ask what the bleep I was doing at a board meeting in Oregon. But eventually, I was accepted,” she recalled with a laugh.
Accepted or not, as the owner of a successful broadcast station, Chambers clearly saw the early promise of cable. Already an astute businesswoman with a CPA’s background, she saw cable as more than just a fascinating trend. For her, it was a business. “It wasn’t just a few over-the-air broadcast signals, but real choice. I’ve always enjoyed the entertainment business and the wide choice of channels really changed the industry and took on a very different complexion,” Chambers said.
Cable’s complexion began to change for Chambers through her financial engineering of Liberty Communications, which would eventually be sold to Tele-Communications Inc. She retained KEZI-TV and four cable systems in Washington State and California that would evolve into Chambers Communications.
“We often compare her to an Oregon Trail pioneer, which is appropriate since cable was arguably born in Astoria, Oregon,” said Chambers’ son Scott, who is president of Chambers Communications and will present his mother with her Hall of Fame honor. “It clearly took drive, determination and paying attention to a guide. She saw an opportunity to extend a broadcast signal and grow share in her TV holdings. She was the cornerstone of the financial engineering that allowed the company to grow. It’s a fascinating story of growing a company.”
By 1980, Liberty Communications had expanded into 20 states. Enter TCI three years later, which acquired much of the cable side of Liberty Communications. “She dealt directly with John Malone (the head of TCI at the time) and the deal was done in a week,” he said. “She’s very smart when it comes to deal-making and could put together the financials, but wasn’t afraid to walk away. I think she earned the respect of the industry leaders and has always been one of the leading women in the industry.”
She also earned a place on the board of the National Cable Television Association and as national president of Women In Cable (now Women In Cable & Telecommunications).
Aside from her work in the cable industry, Chambers is the president of Chambers Construction, a company started by her husband, and since 1986 has overseen more than a half-billion dollars in construction. She also owns Hinman Vineyards; Panther Creek Cellars and McKenzie River Motors, a real-estate holding company.
In 2001, she purchased the screenplay for Puerto Vallarta Squeeze, a novel by Robert Walker (The Bridges of Madison County) and was the movie’s producer in 2002. She directed a second movie, The Sisters, from a screenplay by Richard Alfieri, which was filmed at the sound stages at Chambers Media Center in Eugene. The film was released in April of 2006 and has won eight awards.
In addition, Chambers has directed several civic plays in Eugene. “I love the excitement, and with my CPA background I can carefully watch the financials,” she said.
Her contributions to the cable industry have been far greater. She has served on the NCTA; state cable organizations for Oregon, Washington and California; the Pacific Northwest Cable Television Association; Cable TV Pioneers; C-SPAN Board of Directors; and was a charter member of Women in Cable, serving as its third national president.
“Her term as president of WIC, I think, was the prime example of Carolyn’s drive, determination and the respect she has gained in the industry,” Scott Chambers said. “She showed a lot of men in the industry that women could make huge contributions. I think that was her defining moment. It really started a change in the industry early on for women.”
She has also served on the board of directors of two Fortune 500 companies, as well as with the Federal Reserve Bank and numerous other corporations. And, in 1994, she was awarded Eugene’s Philanthropist of the Year Award.
In 2000, Chambers sold all of her cable holdings, except one, to AT&T. Today, Chambers Communications consists of three broadcast television stations operating as ABC affiliates; one cable system; a television, movie and video production company; and an Internet service provider.
Her roots in cable are permanent, however. “There’s lots of consolidation and that will continue with phone, data and special services. We have the technology to do it. Cable continues to be a dynamic industry,” she said.
And now, the industry will acknowledge her many contributions with her entry into cable’s Hall of Fame. “It’s a real honor to see her recognized after a remarkable career, even beyond the cable industry,” her son said. “She’s now compared to the great names that started the industry. I can understand why she was chosen.”