For the past year, cable executives have been going back to college. Not to study, but to prompt the best and brightest young minds in business, journalism and engineering programs across the country into considering careers in the cable industry.
At the same time, they've been doing some valuable personal market research into how people in the “echo boomer” age group (15 to 25) interact with media in general and with cable companies in particular.
The executives in question have participated in the Cable Center's “Mavericks” lecture series, which solicits participation from colleges and arranges the logistics for an executive's full day visit to a campus.
ESSER WOWED THEM
“Normally, we get a lot of TV-station people every semester. Cable really is not on [students'] radar,” said Sylvia Chan-Olmstead, professor and assistant dean of research at the University of Florida in Gainesville's journalism college.
“Then Pat came in and, wow, it was really exciting,” she said of Cox Communications president and chief operating officer Patrick Esser.
Faculty members “want a closer relationship with the cable industry,” Chan-Olmstead said. “We met the Cox Communications people locally, so not only did we meet a lecturer but his associates, too.”
Esser's lecture was considered so compelling, the department streams it on its Web site. (The link is http://www.jou.ufl.edu/news/index.php?in=67)
Before he trekked to Gainesville, Esser polled 100 participating students at the school on their use and perception of media. He then crunched the numbers and used the research in his lecture.
The longtime Cox executive joked he had “selfish reasons” for participating in the lecture series. He called it a great opportunity for one-on-one market research.
There are 70 million echo-boomers in this country who have a profound impact on 80 million “baby boomer” parents and the latter's use of media, Esser said. The connection between the generations is unlike any other, he said, and cable providers need to better understand that dynamic.
Esser offered himself as an example. His children communicate by “texting,” or sending text messages via cell phone — a habit Esser picked up and now uses as a primary means of communicating with his wife.
He said his poll elicited “major push-back” on one topic. Students were asked how they interacted with their media providers. Their responses indicated they wanted one-on-one, person-to-person problem resolution.
Playing the provocateur, Esser called that response “BS.” Research shows that this age group relies more on 24/7 Web-based self-help, without human interaction.
“They took me apart,” Esser said of the reaction to his response. “They said, 'If my high-speed data connection isn't working, a Web option is fine. But I want a warm body.'”
Cox already provides a live customer-service option. But Esser said “I just wanted to see their passion” on the topic.
College students, by virtue of their extensive use of new communications technologies, have demonstrated they'd be “an incredible group of employees to come to our companies. Challenge and excitement are important to them.”
Gerry Laybourne, founder and CEO of Oxygen Media, found “20th-century best practices” embraced at the institution where she lectured, UCLA's Anderson School of Management.
Collaboration is fostered among business grads there, a mindset that's different from the more competitive, top-down mentality Laybourne has found at East Coast colleges.
She advised students that their brains would never be better than they are today. “Don't wait around,” she counseled.
AWARE OF CABLE CAREERS
Laybourne also found business students are well aware they have opportunities in cable. That's a tale of evolution, too.
“I started in cable when it was so unattractive, people would look at me with sad eyes … [The students] were never in an era of cable as a second-class citizen,” she said.
One MBA candidate was worried he'd be branded a “numbers guy” when approaching employers, so Laybourne advised him to talk up his creative side, not just business acumen.
“Those who use two sides of their brains get to be the heads of networks,” she recalled remarking.
Tony Fox, executive vice president of communications for Comedy Central, Spike TV and TV Land, found a similar fan base for cable across town when he addressed marketing students at the University of Southern California earlier this year.
“They had a lot of questions about how I got into the business,” Fox said. “They found out how much fun I have at my job. Working in a professional world doesn't have to be a drag.”
Given his marketing-oriented audience, Fox discussed the overlap between marketing and public relations and discussed the challenge early on at Comedy Central of getting press coverage before there was a strong story to tell.
If Fox had any doubts he was talking to his network's core viewers, they disappeared after he delivered a quick quiz designed to demonstrate the impact of promotional taglines that are created in collaboration between marketing and public-relations staffers.
The students correctly identified 90% of the copy lines. (Example: “Don't Let the Badge Fool You,” Reno 911.)
Fox told the students he's a big proponent of internships, and said Comedy Central hires its best ones.
Unsurprisingly, he's already gotten follow-up contacts from students interested in joining the network.
“I think I fired some students up,” Fox said.
SCRIPPS EXECS WENT FIRST
The lecture series began a year ago, when a group of executives from Scripps Networks spent the day at Fordham University in New York, according to Jana Henthorne, vice president of programs and education for the Cable Center.
The Cable Center solicits the universities, and then either Henthorne or Dolly Bonner, director of programs and education, visits the campus to assess the university's needs. The center then schedules an appropriate cable executive.
No university yet has turned down a cable speaker, center officials said.
Broadcasters in general make more of a point of bonding with universities, officials said, but schools are eager for greater contact with cable companies.
In addition to building bonds with potential talent, the Cable Center has been recording the university sessions to bolster its archive of educational footage about the cable industry.
Lectures are now scheduled through 2008 and will start targeting smaller schools as well.
Esser, for one, will be back for more. The Center has scheduled him to address his alma mater, the University of North Iowa.
He'll also initiate another executive into the program when he brings Jessica Heacock, MTV Networks senior vice president of affiliate marketing, along as a co-presenter.