Cable Operators: What’s In a Name?


When the issue of our upcoming Operator of the Year came up at last week’s staff meeting, a fierce debate broke out within the ranks.

Someone raised the issue of whether or not a satellite provider, namely DirecTV, should be in the running since it had grown subscribers, delivered HD channels and performed for investors — all merits upon which the staff judges the challenge.

Suddenly others responded that Multichannel News is a cable publication with roots that go deep with the early generation of pole climbers, and cable operators are the true heirs to the prize. Cable operators say the satellite and telco competitors are merely interlopers in a business built from their sweat. Indeed, operators have pointedly reminded us of this from time to time. Both sides argued valiantly until someone announced that cookies were in the adjoining room.

The question is legitimate: what exactly constitutes a cable operator?

Cable operators are mildly offended at even sharing convention panels with competitors, in part because cablers built one of the largest social clubs in business, and it’s fraternal, and that’s been a good thing. In few other industries has a more collegial atmosphere been constantly cultivated. Here, CEOs are known industry-wide by their first names: John (Malone) Rupert (Murdoch), Chuck (Dolan), Sumner (Redstone).

The collegiality was especially present at the recent Independent Show, an annual gathering of small cable operators oddly reminiscent of the days when the cable industry was much smaller and less complicated.

So it’s understandable if cable loyalists scorn and sneer the overbuilders.

And they have history. Cable operators are quick to point out that they pioneered the technology that allowed a few niche channels in the early days to grow into such a diverse panoply of programming. And it was they who harnessed the versatility of the single cable wire to deliver three different services: voice, video and data. You think some stinkin’ twisted pair can do that?

And they say that satellite providers aren’t truly providing the same services because they typically partner with phone companies just to match offerings. It was only after they did the heavy lifting that telephone companies, satellite-TV companies and even utility companies begin reaping the benefits of monthly subscriptions.

But consumers, free of the history and legacy, see none of this. And it’s worth pointing this out: The top 10 multichannel providers in the U.S. include two satellite companies, DirecTV and Dish Network, and at least one telephone company, Verizon Communications.

Why not look at telephone companies as brothers from another mother? These businesses are commingled no matter what happens going forward. To make distinctions that some companies offering the same service are not your kind reflects a balkanized view what we consider “cable-TV operators.”

Who will be our Operator of the Year? That debate continues for a few more days. Who should be considered a cable operator? That debate won’t end soon enough. We’d love to hear your thoughts on this in our Talkback section on the Web.