Cable Positive's Power Awards will be given out at the Cable Positive booth at The Cable Show on April 2 in Washington, D.C., at an open event from 2-3 p.m. hosted by MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow. It marks a first for the honors, which recognize individuals who are passionate about fighting HIV/AIDS and have used the power of their positions to help educate the public about the risks and prevent the spread of the disease.
This year, the corporate leadership award will go to Charter Communications CEO Neil Smit, and the Joel A. Berger award will go to Rainbow Media Holdings CEO Joshua Sapan, who also will be honored at the convention's by-invitation chairman's reception event that evening. (This information was corrected from the earlier, print version of this story.) A third, humanitarian award had yet to be announced at press time.
Smit, Sapan and soon-to-retire Cable Positive CEO Steve Villano recently spoke with Multichannel News executive editor Kent Gibbons about their commitment to the Cable Positive cause, how their understanding of AIDS has evolved and how organizations such as Cable Positive that rely on donations will cope during the recession. An edited transcript follows:
MCN: Neil and Josh, can each of you talk about why you think it's important to support Cable Positive and how you chose it as a priority over the other opportunities available for corporate or personal giving?
NEIL SMIT: From my perspective, the fight against HIV/AIDS is critical on many levels and we've had employees across the country who have worked together to make the production of locally focused HIV/AIDS messages a priority.
I think the battle is far from over and that cable television in general is a powerful medium that provides an effective way of delivering the information to our communities. As you know, we're a community-based organization and we use [public-service advertisements] to bring attention about HIV/AIDS. We think we're making a difference. I think there are very few people who have not been touched by HIV/AIDS in some way.
As to the challenges of corporate giving, I think on the one hand there are many ways to contribute — money, time, people, inventory, studio resources. And I think the need for resiliency and collaboration will be very important in '09 for a lot of companies.
We look for partnerships like Cable Positive that really yield results. And I think looking at what the organization has done over the years and the creative ways they've used our medium is a real success story.
The new [Motorola-funded] Youth AIDS Media Institute University is a way to help fight AIDS. It's great to see teens and young adults involved in a communication media like ours and to see an institute that creates a way for them to exploit their talents and skills, to help educate their peers.
Another thing we've used fairly extensively is the Cable Positive Tony Cox Community Fund. We use it in all our local markets as a way to engage and contribute. That's been very successful on the local level.
JOSH SAPAN: We've been involved in Cable Positive since its inception, which goes back some time. And if I can just compliment Cable Positive first and say that they have done such a phenomenal job at advocating and facilitating that, at least our participation, frankly, has been made so much easier, because they have done so much of the heavy lifting. They make it pretty easy for at least us as a programmer to participate and to attempt to help.
As to the reason why we're involved, I think it is just because of the poignancy and the importance of people at risk. That's what motivated us at first and continues to motivate us. And it has I guess affected — and Steve can chime in because he knows much more about it than me — but it has affected certain demographics and certain people disproportionately. Our early involvement was because it affected the “creative community” so strongly initially and we had a connection to the creative community particularly, including the gay community. That's what triggered our initial involvement.
But what is also interesting is that as some progress has been made, one of the things that can happen is that HIV/AIDS can become less of a crisis in the minds of corporate entities. And that's bad, because they get consumed perhaps by other things that are on their minds.
And again, a credit to Cable Positive to have been so tireless and consistent in keeping the effort and the activities easy to engage with and easy to help.
MCN: Do your networks or your operations get much of a response to the Cable Positive public service messages and other HIV educational content that you air?
SMIT: We've had a great response to it. And what'd kind of interesting, that Josh alluded to, is it's a way for our employees to work together. It helps unite communities around a common purpose, both through our PSAs that we air that get the communities around it, around things like the AIDS Walk or food collections or other things that we do within the community. What's especially nice is it unites both our employees and the communities around a common purpose.
SAPAN: The answer is yes, it does have impact. Exact impact is slightly hard to calibrate in metrics, but you know that when you put something on TV — we know how many people will be exposed to it.
Then, on top of that, I think what Cable Positive does with their POP Awards — which we've had the good fortune to be the host of at a movie theater we own in New York — is it gives accolades and attention, which are very much appreciated by programmers and people who make promos, for having important themes in their content and for having promotional programs that raise awareness and stimulate help to HIV/AIDS.
The little eco system they've built at this POP Awards says: you do that and you're going to be a little bit of a hero. And we're going to monitor it and pay attention to it and we're going to connect celebrity to it. So it stimulates so much more use of it.
I was privileged to observe the work that was done when The Cable Show was in New Orleans with volunteer participants. They were volunteering to really build facilities that provided care. Frankly, I found it rather breathtaking, because talk about it being the real deal and talk about being executives in a corporate circumstance being directly involved and actually providing care where it was pointedly needed. Holy cow.
Cable Positive is doing it again in Washington, D.C., and we are going to be participating with people from our company which, to Neil's point, has a benefit that also goes back to the employees because they're actually able to engage in doing something that's socially productive through the company they work for.
MCN: Neil, you mentioned that hardly any of us, possibly nobody, can say that their lives haven't been touched by HIV or AIDS. I wondered if you have a story like that about how it's affected your life.
SMIT: I spent a number of years in the Navy in the SEAL teams and a number of us went to a hospital in Bethesda [Md.] where a former colleague was dying of AIDS. He was shot in Vietnam and he had continuous transfusions and he'd somehow [contracted the disease].
This was very early in the nation's awareness of what AIDS was and how it was transmitted. There was very little information. There was even the belief that it was transmitted via touch.
The immediate reaction of all of us in the team was to go over and give him a hug. And he and his family kind of cried over that because it was what you do with team members. What's important in any form of disease, and especially AIDS, is people need to have empathy and they need to reach out to people who are suffering.
It was a very memorable event for me and I think that was my takeaway. I think all of us need to have empathy for those who are suffering.
SAPAN: Very early on, my next-door neighbors where I live in Manhattan were a gay couple. You know, next door in a New York apartment building, you tend to get to know your neighbors.
They were both HIV positive and had AIDS and died really rather rapidly. And I don't know how to describe it except to say that it was just breathtaking and disorienting. It was the very early days of the disease, I don't know how long after it was even identified, not too long. It was of course heartbreaking because they died and they were young men. And it was completely frightening because there was only mystery and no information around what the disease was. It was spooky.
No one knew anything and so it felt like they disappeared.
I think that the work that all the HIV/AIDS organizations have done, and anyone who has contributed to it, have obviously changed that landscape pretty damn enormously from that period of time. It is a different circumstance.
SMIT: Just to add onto that, Josh, I mean I think this organization has been around since — what, '92? Steve?
STEVE VILLANO: Yes.
SMIT: And I think in forming the organization early, it was probably a tough sell. And I think that what's remarkable about the industry is that they embraced it and were at the forefront of the battle.
MCN: With the state of the economy now and all the jobs lost and all the cutbacks everywhere, how do you think that's going to affect groups like Cable Positive and other non-profits that have relied on corporate donations?
SMIT: I think that organizations that are focused in purpose and that yield results and get things done and unite organizations will continue to be successful. I think Cable Positive is a great example of that.
SAPAN: I think that humanity hasn't changed, the economy has changed. And that obviously presents challenges across a spectrum of things in life, including anything that's not for profit. But I also think that perhaps it does create opportunities, not to sound like a platitude, and the opportunities will have to be different than cash. But there also could be some that are more available than cash.
So I think that will evolve and there'll be different means of contribution.
It does strike me that there'll be increasingly — if I can use this word — more leverage or more opportunity in “creativity,” or in different approaches to how you get stuff done. I think it will really create opportunities if people can organize efforts a little differently than they might have in the past.
MCN: Steve, Cable Positive was really the first group to get on board with this new paradigm of shifting from big fundraising dinners …
VILLANO: We're the only group to have done away with our dinner, by the way.
MCN: And now I understand you've been going around, making presentations to operators and programmers. What's the prognosis? Does it look like you'll be able to make up the difference in your funding?
VILLANO: Well, we're moving in that direction. Frankly, it's a tougher sell because one of the attractions of having a dinner is that people make the contribution, they purchase a table and they're in the room with a lot of folks.
We responded directly to what a lot of the CEOs said — you know, enough with the T&E expenses going to all these dinners, let's focus on the programs that the organizations are putting forward. And that's what we're doing.
And so when you're talking programs, you're talking turkey. You're talking really nuts and bolts stuff that's affecting people in the field. And it's a tougher sell on the one hand. On the other hand, it's direct, you're speaking directly to what affects people. I could've let Josh and Neil talk all day, what they were saying was spot on.
Bill Gates, last month, wrote a letter, his first annual letter now that he's gone over to the Gates Foundation full time. He said, yes, the economy is in bad shape, but now is the time for us to step up even more in all sorts of ways. And he referenced leveraging different capabilities that companies have. Now is not the time for people to cut back on their social responsibility to people who are HIV positive, but it's to step it up in an even great way.
I think two terrific illustrations are what Charter and Rainbow have done over the years. And one of the things Neil didn't mention is that about five years ago we did this joint effort with the Elton John Foundation and the Smash Hits [Advanta World Team Tennis] event in Southern California. It was being held at the University of California at Irvine. The tennis folks came to us and they said we could use some airtime to air some promos for this because the more people we get to come to this, the more money we raise and the more money goes back to AIDS service organizations.
Without a moment's hesitation, Charter led the way. Charter organized all of the different MSOs in the Southern California area and donated about a quarter of a million dollars of airtime to air spots that were promoting the tennis tournament. Elton John appeared in it, so did Andre Agassi, so did Billie Jean King, Andy Roddick. It was a sellout and we raised $1.6 million for AIDS service organizations. That's one way of leveraging your resources and your power.
Josh has done it in several other ways as well. Josh mentioned the POP Awards. What better place to have the POP Awards than the IFC Center, which is like the home of independent film. It talks about the impact that film can have on peoples' lives just by its very existence.
What Rainbow did was to, on a pro bono basis, give us the use of the IFC Center, put their whole team to work with us on making the POP Awards enormously successful.
Josh mentioned New Orleans and mentioned not only the work that was done for benefitting AIDS service organizations in New Orleans, but what he didn't mention was that he's donated about 200 pieces of his art that he's collected over the years for HIV and AIDS related purposes. And he has donated them to put up on eBay — we have an eBay auction site that's operated by Jeff Bernstein, the founder of Cable Positive. Forty pieces of Josh's art alone sold on that site. And they sold to people in the Netherlands and Northern Europe.
So he has donated this and he has brought people from all around the world to not only share his artwork with him but also to share information about Cable Positive and the fight against HIV and AIDS.
And then, down in New Orleans, one of the places that we assisted was Lazarus House. It's a facility for residents, many of whom are HIV positive. Josh donated about 36 pieces of art to the residents of Lazarus House. And each one of those residents was permitted to select one that they liked. And I'm telling you, it changed people's lives.
These are the kind of things where you're leveraging not only your access to power — the power of communicating information, the power of having airtime, the power of being able to produce programming. But you're accessing how you can help better get things done for people.
That's never going to go away. In fact, I think that increases when economic times get harder.
I think that one of the things that being at Cable Positive for nine years has taught me is that the tougher the times, the more people reach down within their souls and pull things out that are continually just amazing.