Cable’s Fallen Idol

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Like most people who’ve been around cable for any number of years, I’ve had pleasant encounters with John Rigas. Mine weren’t any more interesting — possibly less — than most other people’s, or revealing. But a couple came to mind Thursday afternoon when the ancient Greek cable mogul was convicted of fraud and conspiracy charges.

One was in Newport, R.I., at a New England Cable convention. He was standing by himself in the middle of a hall outside the general-session area, ever so approachable, so I approached him and we chatted, and then others came up and joined in. I can’t remember what was said, only that he had the manner of a humble hero who was used to people coming up and wanting to talk, and he was gracious about it.

The other was in the Rigases’ capital, Coudersport, Pa. Mike Farrell — who has covered the family’s fall for us — and I went up for an extended chat, which even extended to a stroll down the main street to a restaurant for lunch. It was like Shakespeare’s Henry V walking among the troops before Agincourt, only Rigas wasn’t concealing his identity. He was reveling in his celebrity and the comfort of being a legend in his own village.

Nothing particularly groundbreaking came out of that 1999 interview, though it ran for several pages, with lots of photos, in one of our big National show issues. That was a time when people thought the Rigases might cash in like lots of other family built cable companies had. I remember Rigas stressing he’d never sell and he figured his sons never would either. That turned out to be true, although if they had sold — well, who knows.

My other strong memory from that visit came at the end, when John drove us up to and around his house, which seemed like a really nice suburban home on a huge piece of land.

Before sending us on our way, he gave us each a big plastic jug of the maple syrup made on his farm.

Basically, he was always nice, the very picture of generosity. We all know a lot more about how he afforded some of that largesse after the indictments and the trial and last week’s convictions.

It’s facile (and a cliché) to call it a Greek tragedy but some elements are there. The king, full of pride, loses it all.

In a telling sign of the times, the convictions of John and Tim Rigas weren’t even the top story on the business-news networks. Instead, Enron’s Ken Lay, a far bigger class of alleged crook and corporate despoiler, was indicted, and held a press conference, which got top billing. Martha Stewart not getting a new trial was a bigger headline than the Rigases on AOL’s welcome screen.

Justice no doubt was done last week. I didn’t own any Adelphia stock, and didn’t lose anything in this debacle. So I could afford to feel a little sad for the ancient Greek who kept insisting he did nothing wrong.

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