One score and four years ago, cable television's fathers
brought forth the notion of a center devoted to preserving the story of cable's birth and
ascent. The idea, recalls its originator, Ben Conroy, promptly died.
"The response was not enthusiastic enough to put
together a fund-raising effort," recalled Conroy, who was one of the Cable TV
Pioneers, a group of cable executives established in 1968 as a social and networking
But like cable itself, the Pioneers never gave up,
eventually securing a small library and museum at Pennsylvania State University, State
And like cable, the National Cable Television Center and
Museum has suddenly burst onto the fast track. After years of languishing in small-budget,
out-of-the-way obscurity, the center has been relocated to Denver, where it has been the
beneficiary of a wildly successful fund-raising campaign that will produce a lavish,
state-of-the-art facility in the year 2000.
The cable center, which will break ground next spring and
open late the following year, will be more than just a research library and museum
celebrating the dramatic changes in technology and programming. The 41,925-square-foot
building on University of Denver property will also feature a Hall of Fame Pavilion, an
indoor theater and outdoor amphitheater, and training, research and service programs.
"I think it's going to be quite extraordinary,"
said Gail Sermersheim, vice-president, general manager for Home Box Office and a member of
the center's board of directors. "It's something in which the industry can be very,
Conroy, who, as head of the NCTA's "pole line"
committee, had helped stave off the telephone companies' attempts to access people's
television sets via phone lines, enabling cable to survive its infancy, agreed, adding,
"It is way beyond what I would have conceived."
Conroy's original inspiration came from an NCTA meeting
where a guest speaker mentioned a 1915 David Sarnoff oral history in broadcast
The library Conroy subsequently proposed in 1974 would have
contained personal papers and magazines. After that idea failed to catch fire, he left the
project on the back burner until the early 1980s, when he was inspired by a Navy oral
history project that brought back his own Navy days.
This time around he teamed up with attorney and former NCTA
chairman George Barco, who had played an instrumental role in defending the industry early
on. When both men realized that cable's pioneers were starting to die off, they attacked
the idea of a library with greater urgency.
Barco had connections at Penn State, and there, beginning
in 1983, he teamed up with Marlowe Froke, now the center's president, to bring the library
The center began collecting material in 1985, signed papers
making the Pioneers an ad hoc advisory board in 1986, and -- after raising $2 million --
opened in 1988. The library, Froke recalled, consisted mainly of early trade publications
and contemporary subscriptions. Personal papers and oral histories were added gradually.
The museum featured a small exhibit focusing mostly on cable technology.
But when the museum opened, it also reconstituted the board
to include some contemporary cable leaders. Bill Bresnan, president of MSO Bresnan
Communications and chairman of the center, recollected that they went to the pioneers and
said, "We need to be authorized to represent the cable industry; they gave us that
And that, Froke said, changed everything. The newcomers,
many of whom were not based in the Northeast as the Pioneers had largely been, began
pushing for changes.
The main controversy focused on the center's the location.
Penn State -- close to the northeastern Pennsylvania hills where some believe cable was
born -- was viewed by the newcomers as too remote to provide proper access or gain
attention for The Cable Center.
Additionally, the library and museum were stuck down in a
subbasement, and the university, not the cable executives, ultimately controlled the
decision-making and even the group's nonprofit status.
Bresnan said, "I do remember pleading with Penn
State" to be allowed to pursue the newcomers' vision; he argued that the paltry $3
million raised to date to fund the center showed that the cable industry did not support
the status quo at Penn State.
So, in 1991, the center was reconfigured, and the governing
body was formalized as a board of directors, with the newcomers at the helm. One of the
new committees formed by board chairman Bresnan was a site and affiliations committee. Its
efforts were met with utter indifference by Atlanta, Boston, Philadelphia, New York and
But then Bill Daniels stepped in. Daniels is often
considered the one of the fathers of cable television for his roles in bringing cable to
the western states, establishing the industry's leading brokerage and investment banks and
founding the NCTA. Now he played godfather to the cable center, offering to find it a home
Daniels hosted a breakfast, bringing out the mayor, the
lieutenant governor of Colorado, local business and cable people, and representatives from
the University of Denver. The meeting, Bresnan remembered, was a huge success.
"There were a lot of things that made it right,"
he said. Perhaps most important was that "we have a very good relationship with the
One major issue was that the university, which provided a
99-year lease for a dollar per year, would allow the center to be a freestanding
organization with its own 501C3 nonprofit status and its own self-governing board of
directors. (At Penn State, the center's board of advisers had only been allowed to make
suggestions to the school.)
And, Froke said, Daniels continued helping, putting up $1
million and providing administrative personnel to help with the transition. Eventually,
the results even changed the minds of the old-timers who had fought to keep the center at
Conroy was one of those who were unhappy with the new
direction being taken, and he resigned from the board. But while he originally disagreed
with the efforts to move the center from Penn State, the subsequent success in Denver has
changed his mind.
"My initial skepticism has evaporated," he says
now. "I commend them on a doing a marvelous job."
A Big Job
That job began in 1995, Froke said, with several years of
planning. Thanks to Daniels' aid, the group commissioned a study for a strategic master
plan, spending two years identifying worthwhile programming ideas and developing an
Denver-based RNL Design was hired as architect, while Ralph
Appelbaum & Associates of New York (which had worked on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial
Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Newseum) was brought in to create the programs and
The center also commissioned a fund-raising analysis, which
proposed an initial goal of $48 million: $3 million to continue overseeing the transition;
$15 million for the building; $20 million for an endowment for programs; and $10 million
for equipment. (This plan called for 35 full-time staffers, but Froke said that like other
museums, the center is relying heavily on volunteers and will instead eventually have a
full-time staff of 27.)
By 1997, the library and museum materials had been
transferred to Denver, and in the fall of 1997, the group was ready to begin raising
While the initial total seemed daunting, Froke said the
response was immediate and overwhelming. Nearly half of the original sum came from a
handful of people who had become fabulously wealthy thanks to the cable's astonishing
growth in the past decade. Former Cablevision Industries Inc. chairman Alan Gerry gave $10
million; Tele-Communications Inc. chairman John Malone donated $5 million; the Barco
family kicked in $2.5 million; and several deep-pocketed folks, including Ted Turner and
Encore Media Group CEO John Sie, gave $1 million apiece.
Museum Is Flush
In less than a year, the amount of money raised soared past
the initial goal to $51 million, encouraging the center to raise its final bar to $54.7
million, Froke said. This sum will enable the museum to add some things back into the
plans that it had deleted for budgetary reasons. In particular, he cited a storage area
that will be converted to exhibits on technology, and expanded library space for
photographs, film, video and graphics. (There was already space for publications and
documents and technology information.)
Meanwhile, the plans for exhibits have been moving forward;
the cable center's board chose "Freedom & Choice" as the main theme for the
center's opening. Ralph Appelbaum is now developing specific exhibits working with that
theme, such as the role U.S. cable networks played in helping dismantle the Iron Curtain.
Industry consultant Paul Kagan also donated $1 million for
a display on cable and the American economy.
Still, for all the planning, Sermersheim said the most
valuable aspect of the center would harken back to Conroy's original goals -- the oral
history "which will keep alive the spirit" of the entrepreneur that made cable
flourish. Down the road the center will build a video archive accessible by major
universities around the country where students can study cable's original programming and
the impact it has had on the nation's culture.
That's not to say that the museum is going to simply dwell
on the past. Froke stressed that the museum will be forward-looking, and is even using the
word "telecommunications," as opposed to "cable," in printed
literature to reflect the growth of direct-broadcast satellite and other technologies.
And Froke said plans for the center are still being defined
as he strives to find the proper balance for its various roles. While he's organizing a
magazine for academics and opinion makers, he's also planning a weekly TV show from and
about the center that will be geared toward the public (if he can find a cable network to
pick it up).
And while there's going to be everything from single-day
symposia to undergraduate and even postgraduate degree programs, as well as collaborations
with organizations like cable-marketing group CTAM, Froke has also begun to get feedback
from the community in Denver. "They want a greater emphasis on public
programming," from tours to educational opportunities to social events.
The center is planning on 60,000 to 100,000 visitors
annually, but Froke said the initial goal "was primarily to be of service to the
cable industry." While he's "not sure how far we're going to go" in gearing
the center more toward the public, changes are being made. "We are responding to the
pressure," he said.
Sermersheim said focusing on the public is a worthy
endeavor. "The industry is always in need of better public relations and activities
that will enhance its image in the eyes of a general public," she said.
Bresnan believes the industry-oriented educational aspects
of the center are perhaps the most important components, but he acknowledged that the
center's various constituencies, including the public, must be served.
"We're going to have to learn how we fit in," he