Backtalk: Rigas at the Righa

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The last time the New York Cable Club got together wasabout 10 years ago at Sardi's, a luncheon event that attracted about 40 people,according to Insight Communications president Michael Willner.

Others recall that the group met at Gallagher's. Butmost don't even remember that there ever was a New York Cable Club.

But Willner was on hand last week, 10 years later, as theNew York Cable Club reconvened thanks to the efforts of Dick Alteri, who heads up theCable Television & Telecommunications Association of New York Inc., and of our own,ever-energetic Larry Oliver, group publisher of the Cahners Television Group.

And Alteri and Oliver couldn't have picked a betterspeaker to jump-start this group, which is reinventing itself during a time of industryconsolidation, when many of the people who built the cable business have sold out and areoff enjoying the fruits of their labors.

But not John Rigas, chairman of Adelphia Communications,who has not and will not sell out, he told the crowd of nearly 200 people who were inattendance last week for the New York Cable's Club's launch at the Royal Righahotel in Manhattan.

Rigas -- who has resisted offers from potential suitors todate, and who has now amassed 6 million subscribers of his own -- enthralled attendees whoheard him recant stories about the launch of his first system in 1952.

It's a saga many of the old hands in this businessknow well, but to many of the younger, eager faces at this gathering, you just knew fromtheir faces that they were hearing it for the first time. And I'm glad they got tohear this bit of oral history of cable because it's so important to know how it allbegan, and frankly, it's a hoot.

Operating out of rural Coudersport, Pa., Rigas was dirtpoor, like many of the other cable pioneers of his day -- like Glenn Jones, whocouldn't even afford a roof over his head and slept in his car.

Rigas had the audience in stitches as he revealed hisbusiness model back then, which included charging his subscribers $150 for installationfor three broadcast channels.

He did that, he said, because he was afraid that the CATVventure, as it was then called, was so risky that he would rather collect the moneyupfront, in case it failed, then bolt. The fear then was the penetration of UHF stations.

But Rigas endured. When he launched his second system in1954, he was still worried this go-round that his franchise could be snatched away fromhim. Ever the dealmaker, he somehow secured a franchise that would not expire for 100years. What a guy.

Ever the entrepreneur, Rigas was worried about all of theTV antennas on roofs that were still abundant in the rural communities he served. Thesolution: He launched a marketing campaign themed, "Antennas are for the birds,"and he paid people $37.50 to remove them. He later sold them, and they eventually wound upin Florida.

On all fronts, last year was an interesting one for Rigas.His daughter got married. He survived a triple bypass. And his hockey franchise, theBuffalo Sabres, made it to the Stanley Cup Finals. And oh, by the way, his company doubledin size.

When you listen to Rigas speak off the cuff for an hour,you start to really believe and understand that he has not and probably won't sellout like others. After all, he is Coudersport.

He still owns the town theater, which isn't enjoyingthe same success as his cable systems. That's in large part because he gives freetickets to all of his employees. He enjoyed telling the story of how he was at the theaterone night and pleased to see a full house. He asked the ticket seller how much the boxoffice had pulled in that evening. The answer was $12.

Rigas acknowledged that it is difficult for him to watchhis friends exit the cable business. But his situation is very different. It's notjust about cable: It's about Coudersport, population 3,000. He put it back on the mapby employing its citizens and pumping up its economy. "Young families are stayinghere now," he told the luncheon attendees.

And that is not only a business accomplishment, but also asocial commitment to provide employment to an area that young people were bolting forgreener pastures.

Ever mindful of his audience -- which was comprised mostlyof programmers and hardware vendors -- he apologized for how long it was taking to rebuildhis systems and to buy their new services.

"Don't be discouraged," he told them. Andyou could tell that he meant it.

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