The Best of Through the Wire

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Dec. 12, 1994

There were some tense moments between TCI’s Peter Barton and cyberpunk magician Penn Jillette as the Western Show was closing. Before the convention’s final session, discussing content on the infohighway, Barton remarked that he expected to handle the issues while Jillette did his “shtick.” Jillette, the talking half of magic team Penn & Teller and a fairly serious student and commentator of the multimedia world, angrily advised Barton to perform a sex act still illegal in several states. But they kissed and made up during the free-wheeling session when Jillette — sporting a leather jacket plus a T-shirt marked “Team Satan 666” — berated the FCC, saying that the agency acts so slowly that it would become insignificant in 10 years. “Things will just be moving too fast for those retarded motherf---ers to get in our face,” Jillette said, leaving the crowd howling. Barton’s response: He jokingly offered Jillette a seat on TCI’s board.

May 1, 1995

He called, saying he wanted installation right away, and rushed down to the local Multimedia cable office to pay and sign up. He was very interested in CNN, but even on the day of the Oklahoma City bombing he said he knew nothing about it. That surprised the system’s Herington, Kan., office manager at the time, but it was even more startling when new subscriber Terry Nichols turned out to be the chief suspect in the massacre, which killed more than 100 people.

“He was very concerned about being installed that day,” said Roberta Erickson, who took Nichols’s order. She found Nichols very odd and was nervous as he lingered to watch CNN’s coverage on her TV. When the 1,600-subscriber system’s chief technician, Chad Albin, heard Erickson’s description, he half-jokingly wondered whether Nichols was one of the FBI’s “John Does.” Albin said he handled the install Friday without any snags and saw nothing unusual in Nichols’s home. “I turned on CNN and said, 'Now you can watch the bombing,’ ” Albin reported.

Feb. 21, 2000

Former Tele-Communications Inc. president Brendan Clouston has made a splash in England, his adopted home. Clouston — pushed out of TCI in 1997, about six months after Leo J. Hindery Jr. galloped onto the scene — left with millions of dollars in stock options. He apparently plowed some of his wealth into a home in London and a country-house hotel in the village of Chedington, Dorset (population 100), near the channel coast. Chedington Court, the hotel and estate, became the subject of a reported $9.5 million renovation. The problem was the lake. According to a local resident and reports in the local Western Gazette weekly paper, Clouston decided to dig a 15-foot-deep, 870,000-gallon lake, which required many truckloads of water to fill. Said one resident in a December account: “The situation has got worse since they filled the lake and we have had up to 12 lorries a day running through the village.” That followed a protest by what the Gazette dubbed “Eco-warriors” — villagers who took to the streets complaining that work on the unwanted lake began before planning approvals had been obtained. In December, the Gazette — which refers to Clouston as a “Canadian-born baron,” explaining that he has acquired the title Baron Dunure — reported that the lake sprung a leak, flooding nearby fields. Since then, a resident told The Wire by e-mail, Clouston has kept a low profile, “unlikely to be seen again except at great speed in his Aston Martin.”

July 3, 2000

Remember the 1996 National Show in Los Angeles, when Vice President Al Gore spoke and cable executives sweated the pending release of comic Jim Carrey’s new movie, The Cable Guy? Gore’s speech was April 29 — the same day he paid his ill-starred visit to the His Lai Buddhist Temple in Hacienda Heights, which turned out to be an illegal fund-raiser. Now Gore could be the subject of a new probe looking into whether he told the truth to prosecutors about the temple visit, and he may use his cable speech as a pseudo-alibi. Weeks ago, Gore’s office released a 123-page transcript of his April 18, 2000, testimony taken by Robert Conrad, chief of the Justice Department’s campaign-financing task force, in which Gore told Conrad the temple visit wasn’t foremost in his mind that day. “It was not the major event of the day. I gave a speech to [10,000] or 15,000 people at the National Cable Television Association,” Gore said. “And if you’ve ever spoken to [10,000] to 15,000 people, you know that you get kind of prepared for something like that.” That’s more than can be said for a lot of other cable-show presenters.

Nov. 13, 2000

Our readers come in all shapes, shades and stripes … and we do mean stripes. Last week an inmate from a prison in Lancaster, Calif. wrote us requesting information and addresses for the British Broadcasting Corp. (the wire guesses he was tired of watching Who Wants To Be A Millionaire). The inmate, who learned about Multichannel News through the local cable-television franchise authority, also wanted to know how the police department could obtain cable-televised documentary programs. It’s nice to know that people outside of the cable fraternity rely on us for industry news and information.

Jan. 21, 2002

Dangerous? No

It seemed innocent enough when Time Warner Cable marketing director of ad sales Karen Narciso checked in at the San Antonio airport for a short hop to Dallas.

Security went through her bags — nothing exciting in there. But they did discover some contraband: It seems that she had on her person a Court TV premium: a key chain that sported a tiny set of handcuffs, each no larger than an inch.

Apparently fearful the cable executive would use them to overpower and imprison a teeny, tiny pilot, airport security deemed them “dangerous” and had them confiscated. Narciso told the network that in the future, she plans to travel with a box of Court TV caps bearing the U.S. flag on the front.

May 13, 2002

If you were among the lucky few to start the National Show aboard Tatoosh, Paul Allen’s yacht for all seasons, for a round of New Orleans cuisine and pitches for Digeo Inc. — the interactive cable TV service he backs — you also could be among the last to board it for a function of any sort.

Allen, who was spotted at Techtv’s booth on the show floor, had his prized boat put in a surprise docking on Digeo’s behalf May 5, and it immediately became the show’s buzz-making locale. At the last minute, several hundred invitees to Digeo’s party, who were told the event was elsewhere in The Big Easy, were directed to a roped-off part of the Riverwalk piers to board Tatoosh.

For those wandering along the Riverwalk, Tatoosh was pretty easy to spot. It has a helicopter on one upper deck and a powerboat attached to each side. But those who hoped for a repeat the next morning found Tatoosh a no-show. In its mooring stood a cruise liner.

Oct. 27, 2003

Ralph Roberts is known as many things: patriarch, cable pioneer, company chairman, and now he’s an auction prize, too. The general public can bid on a chance to share dinner with the chairman of Comcast Corp. by going to an online fundraiser called “Time With Great Minds Celebrity Auction.” Roberts is one of 18 prominent individuals who have pledged their time as auction bait, in order to raise money for the Maryland-based Copper Ridge Institute, which is affiliated with The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. The institute researches Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis and treatment.

Roberts isn’t the only cable-related attraction at the site. Michael Deaver, creator of the HBO series K Street, will take four visitors on the set of that series during taping in Washington, D.C., to the winner of his auction item.

The winning bidder for the Roberts’ dinner will have to find his or her own way to Philadelphia during the next six months, but the evening will also include a Philadelphia 76ers game. Given the fact that Comcast owns the arena, one would surmise this would include REALLY great seats.

July 28, 2004

Well, Trio has found the answer: It takes 26 cable executives to stuff a DeLorean.

The arts network displayed the classically failed car in its booth at the National Show and vowed to donate $200 for every conventioneer who agreed to cram in.

Given this was for charity, the definition of “in” was quite liberal. The net even counted those caressing the stainless steel skin.

Among those piling into and onto the car were Dennis Mangers, senior vice president of the California Cable Telecommunications Association, and Steve Villano, president and CEO of Cable Positive, which benefited from the stunt.

The booth event ended up earning $5,200 for Cable Positive, the industry’s anti-AIDS initiative.

The car is not just a trade show decoration. As noted in a previous Wire, it has aftermarket value. Trio’s going to offer up the snappy wheels as the prize in a national consumer sweepstakes.

Dec. 15, 2004

Charter Communications Inc.’s Sheboygan, Wis., system ran the risk of “cheesehead” wrath on Oct. 24 — for a vital cause.

The system used the emergency alert system on all its channels, including one televising a Green Bay Packers football game, to try to find the parents of a child who had been critically injured in a bicycle accident on Oct. 24.

In the past, city officials had used the EAS system to notify the community of snow emergencies, but they’d never used it for such an individual crisis, said John Miller, Charter’s director of government affairs and public relations.

Because they figured the majority of the community would be watching the football game, the police called Charter directly and reached Matt Frakes, the system’s headend coordinator. After receiving approval from system management, Frakes put out the alert, which blacked out viewer’s screens across all channels and announced the description of the hurt boy.

“We’re quite proud of Matt — he showed real initiative,” said Miller, noting that Frakes revised the message four times, adding details, such as the description of the boy’s BMX bike, which jogged the memory of a family friend.

According to an account in the Sheboygan Press, the viewer called the boy’s sister. Once the sister confirmed that the boy and the bike were missing, she called police. The boy’s family apparently didn’t see the alert because they have satellite service, according to local reports.

June 6, 2005

When former FBI official W. Mark Felt came out of the shadows last week to reveal his identity as Deep Throat — the Washington Post’s Watergate source, kept secret for more than three decades — David Kinley wasn’t surprised.

“It fits a pattern of his behavior while he was there at the bureau,” Kinley recalled last week after Vanity Fair magazine exposed Felt with his cooperation, forcing Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein finally to confirm Felt as the man who helped drive President Nixon from office in 1974.

Today, Kinley runs Sun Country Cable, a small operator near San Francisco. Three decades ago, 31-year-old Kinley, with a degree from Harvard Law School and a promising political career, was chief of staff to acting FBI director L. Patrick Gray, who had been named to the position after the death of J. Edgar Hoover in 1972.

Kinley — who suspected Felt was Deep Throat all along — concluded that Felt cooperated with the Post because Nixon refused to name him as Hoover’s successor after nearly 30 years working his way up the FBI food chain.

“Felt was a 31-year career guy. He had been groomed by Hoover,” Kinley said. “He felt he was entitled to it and when he didn’t get it, he did everything he could, in feeding information to the press, to undermine Gray.”

Kinley took strong issue with those who would lionize Felt, now 91 and living with his daughter not far from Kinley’s Bay area office. “Felt — far from being a national hero, which is an absurd distortion of the truth — had his own political motives and this wasn’t the only thing that he was doing to undermine the administration.”

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