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Prodigal Cable Son Kaitz Retires

9/19/2004 8:00 PM Eastern

Spencer Kaitz belongs to that breed of executive for whom the words “family” and “cable” are inextricably linked. Kaitz’s legendary father, Walter, built the California Cable & Telecommunications Association (CCTA) and launched the Western Show. Spencer Kaitz started out in the business as a young boy, when his father enlisted him as an office errand boy and gofer at industry gatherings.

“In the ’60s, my sisters and I used to participate in conventions, and we would help out with mailings,” Kaitz told the Cable Center in a recorded oral interview. “My sister and I were behind convention registration counters. It was a very personalized kind of service that was given to everybody.”

Four decades later, Kaitz is still delivering personalized service to the fledgling industry that his family embraced. He bequeathed the Walter Kaitz Foundation to cable after creating it as a tribute to his father in 1983 and then nurturing and running it for 20 years.

Upon his retirement from the foundation’s board of trustees in April, Kaitz handed over the reins to the National Cable & Telecommunications Association in Washington. The foundation stands as one of the media industry’s longest-running voluntary organizations devoted to fostering workforce diversity. It has trained and recruited more than 500 minority executives for the cable business over the past two decades. And it has spurred numerous diversity efforts by cable companies and other industry organizations through grants, workshops and community outreach programs.

In speaking of Kaitz, the new executive director of the foundation, Debbie Smith, says: “I think his legacy will be his dedication and commitment to diversity in the cable industry. He certainly could have gone off and done other things with the funds he received from his father. But he says it was the right thing to do.”

CHALLENGED TIMES

Friends and associates credit Kaitz with keeping the foundation going for two decades despite funding shortfalls, industry consolidation, strategic shifts, personnel switches, occasional criticism and other ebbs and flows.

“I think there are possibly times when without Spencer’s leadership and guidance, it could have potentially fallen apart,” says John Goddard, former CEO of Viacom Cable and former president of the CCTA and the Kaitz Foundation. “When we hit a speed bump or two, he was always there to keep it going.”

Although he no longer manages the Kaitz Foundation and has retired from his position as president and general counsel of the CCTA, Kaitz still uses the bully pulpit that he’s gained to push the cause of diversity and expand its range in the industry. Recently, for instance, he’s been calling for diversity efforts to cover gays, lesbians and the physically challenged, in addition to women and minorities.

“He’s now made it clear that those groups ought to be added to the mix,” says Dennis Mangers, an openly gay cable lobbyist and former California legislator who succeeded Kaitz as CCTA president in June after serving as his right-hand man for 23 years. “He’s added that to his already strong convictions about people of color and women.”

While best known for founding and running the Kaitz Foundation, Kaitz actually has a much deeper record of accomplishment in the cable industry. As general counsel and president of the CCTA for 24 years and an association attorney for eight years before that, Kaitz turned the state trade group into a lobbying powerhouse in Sacramento, Calif., scoring major legislative and regulatory victories for the growing industry.

In the process, he helped turn California into the bellwether state for cable and telecommunications policy.

“Spencer saw the industry as bigger than California,” says Jerry Yanowitz, the veteran vice president of federal affairs for CCTA, who worked with Kaitz for more than 20 years. “He was out there nationally talking to the industry.”

TELCO BATTLES

Specifically, after taking over the CCTA upon his father’s death in 1979, Kaitz guided the state association in pitched battles with AT&T Corp., Pacific Bell and GTE Corp. over such issues as pole attachment fees, cable’s expansion into high-speed data and telephony services and the deregulation of the phone companies. Despite the much greater resources of the phone giants, some stiff regulatory and legislative resistance and some rather tall odds, Kaitz pretty much got what he wanted each time.

“He absolutely refuses to give up on any problem or challenge no matter what the odds are,” Goddard says. “He’s extraordinarily tenacious. He just keeps going at problems from different directions and finds a solution.”

C. J. Hirschfield, former vice president of industry affairs for CCTA and now executive director of Oakland Children’s Fairyland, worked for Kaitz for 21 years. She particularly remembers the association’s skirmishes with the phone companies over their proposed entry into the video business. In the end, CCTA leaders succeeded in structuring the state rules so that the phone companies didn’t gain a competitive edge over cable operators.

“Spencer never shrank from a fight,” Hirschfield recalls. “It was an incredible experience to take on the phone companies. It was really a David vs. Goliath experience.”

In another memorable fight during the mid-1990s, Kaitz and the CCTA convinced California lawmakers to eliminate the state regulatory barriers blocking cable operators from entering the telephone business. As a result, California actually got rid of its restrictions before Congress dropped the national hurdles with its passage of the landmark 1996 Telecommunications Act.

“He had to beat the phone companies and remove the barriers, before most companies had plans to enter the telephone market,” says Carrington Phillip, vice president of regulatory affairs for Cox Communications Inc., who worked under Kaitz for three years as the CCTA’s assistant general counsel. “He was always able to demonstrate that cable companies in California were really good guys.”

Similarly, in 1980, Kaitz led the CCTA’s successful drive for state deregulation of cable rates despite strong opposition in the Democratic-controlled state legislature, several years before Congress deregulated rates nationally. The California law ended up becoming the model for the national law.

“It was not an easy sell at the time,” Yanowitz says. In fact, he recalled, the drive came at the same time that some legislators were seeking to regulate cable as a public utility. But, he notes, “Spencer had the vision and the tenacity to push both the members and the legislature.”

In yet another legislative clash in the late 1990s, Kaitz and the CCTA fended off a strong effort to slap a state sales tax on cable bills during one of California’s periodic budget crises. State association leaders carried the day once again by crafting TV spots to arouse cable subscribers and building coalitions with Silicon Valley executives and taxpayer groups.

“It was pretty high-stakes stuff at the time,” Phillip says. “It worked brilliantly. They backed down in the end.”

THE KAITZ STYLE

How did Kaitz achieve all this? Besides praising his tenacity and vision, friends, associates and former co-workers credit his ability to marshal and present clear, cogent, convincing arguments to public policy makers. Although not a back slapper, he won people over.

Yanowitz puts it this way: “Spencer’s not a charmer.” However, he’s quick to add: “Nobody thinks as quickly on his feet in the legislature. He also has an incredible institutional memory.”

Kaitz watchers also note that he is a strategic thinker who knows how to give policy makers what they want. In the rate deregulation drive, for instance, he gained then-Gov. Jerry Brown’s support by proposing an industry-supported foundation to fund community-service programming. The CCTA then kicked in some of its own money and staff support for the foundation when fewer cable companies than expected opted for deregulation.

“The governor wanted something for the public out of our deregulation,” Yanowitz notes. “He [Kaitz] often was a step ahead of others in seeing what needed to be done.”

Besides gaining such legislative and regulatory victories, Kaitz transformed the Western Show from a regional meeting into one of the industry’s two major national conventions until its demise last December. Under his watch, the Western Show grew from a relatively intimate gathering in the Disneyland Hotel to a glitzy tech extravaganza sprawling across several exhibit halls in the Anaheim Convention Center. Attendance soared from about 2,500 in 1980 to as high as 33,000 in 2000.

“Spencer really believed this show could be a driver for the industry,” says Yanowitz, who was originally hired by Kaitz to run the Western Show in 1980. “He saw it as a real opportunity to showcase the industry to public-policy makers.”

Even as the Western Show exploded in size, associates say, Kaitz kept it focused on its prime mission — educating and influencing elected officials, regulators and journalists. At every show, the CCTA staged legislative roundtable discussions and showed off the latest industry innovations to policy makers and reporters.

“The Western Show was just a big kind of teaching tool on one level,” Hirschfield says. “Spencer never let us lose sight of the fact that at the end of the day, CCTA was an advocacy organization. It’s no coincidence that cable stocks always went up at the end of the Western Show.”

Kaitz also continued his father’s tradition of treating the CCTA, and by extension the entire cable industry, as a family business. His wife, Roberta, interviewed association job candidates and helped out when she could. Like his father, Kaitz often brought his three kids to CCTA board meetings and other association events.

Current and former CCTA staffers say Kaitz’s family devotion extended to them as well. They talk about how he sent them home to take care of sick kids, set up job-sharing programs before they were common and always asked about spouses, children, school progress and summer vacations.

“This was really a family business for Spencer,” Hirschfield says. “Spencer really values family, not just his own. It’s no coincidence that so many of us worked for Spencer as long as we did.”

FOUNDATION’S FOUNDING

Kaitz’s emphasis on family values also shows in his establishment of the Kaitz Foundation. Ironically, when he first dreamed up the idea of the foundation 25 years ago, he didn’t think about boosting the diversity of the cable industry. Rather, he saw the venture as a way to keep his then-ailing father, Walter, involved in cable affairs.

“I was trying to think of something that would be interesting for him, knowing he could stay involved with the association but might need new interests,” Kaitz told the Cable Center. “I thought of the idea of the foundation initially, frankly thinking about it as something that might be done in relationship to cable legislation.”

When Walter Kaitz died, Spencer asked friends and cohorts to send money rather than flowers to honor his father’s memory. Such industry stalwarts as Bill Daniels and Times Mirror Cable then stunned him by sending sums as great as $25,000 and $30,000.

While Kaitz mulled over what to do with all the money, the California Assembly began debating a bill that would have required the cable industry to create job opportunities for minorities. Seizing the initiative, Kaitz decided to stave off the mandate by using his new foundation to develop a voluntary minority recruitment and training program.

The resulting foundation was an extension of Kaitz family values. Walter Kaitz emigrated to the United States from Russia as a young boy. “I don’t think [Walter] made much distinction between problems of immigrants and problems of minorities, ethnic issues,” Kaitz told the Cable Center. “For him, America was the promised land. It was a land where everybody should have an opportunity to prosper.”

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