'The Coolest Job in Cable'

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Tom Rutledge, Cablevision Systems Corp.'s new hired gun, says he has "the coolest job in cable." He joins the Bethpage, N.Y.-based MSO this week as its president, New York metropolitan area.

Rutledge — a 24-year veteran of Time Warner Cable and its president until last summer — is going to a decidedly different gig in running the 3-million-subscriber Cablevision, a much smaller operation.

But to Rutledge, that's part of the beauty of the job. Cablevision, with its single headend in one DMA, has already accomplished what many other MSOs are still struggling to do: It's created the mother of all clusters.

Rutledge doesn't think you need to be an MSO on steroids, like the soon-to-merge AT&T Comcast Corp., to thrive in this brave new world of giants. He says he has no plans for any further reorganization and demurred from answering whether Cablevision would be acquiring any more systems to further beef up its greater New York City stronghold.

Last Thursday, when we spoke, there were published reports that Cablevision — and other MSOs, like Charter Communications Inc. and Cox Communications Inc. — are now takeover targets, because of their size. Acquiring Cablevision would be a coup for at least two larger MSOs.

Time Warner Cable, which has all of Manhattan, is the hole in the middle of Cablevision's donut. And the new AT&T Comcast, which will be headquartered in Philadelphia, looms, some might say, menacingly close just to the south and north with its combined systems.

But Rutledge, a true operations guy, isn't thinking about any of that right now. His task is to execute Cablevision's digital rollout. And he's well-poised to do that.

For one thing, much of the foundation is already set. A good portion of Cablevision's plant has been upgraded to accommodate new digital services.

Now, Rutledge's challenge is to make the most of those investments and roll out Cablevision's iO: Interactive Optimum digital service, something the MSO just started to do last October after missing several deadlines.

But Cablevision "had the luxury" of waiting for the souped-up Sony set-top box, which boasts more processing power and a built-in modem for Internet-protocol telephony, Rutledge said. Cablevision had the advantage of offering advanced analog services and could afford to tap its toes, waiting for Sony to get its act together.

Rutledge replaces Joe Azznara, who moved to Cablevision's wired and wireless telephony unit and retired this past fall. According to some sources, the two executives had vastly differing views on how Cablevision should roll out digital.

Soon we will see what they might have been, as Rutledge juggles the rollout and marketing of the digital offering while overseeing the upgrade of the rest of Cablevision's plant. He comes aboard at a crucial stage in the execution of the MSO's digital-video, cable-modem and IP-telephony offerings.

He's got to get the most bang out of that Sony box, serving up video-on-demand, subscription VOD and repurposed content to lure additional subscribers to these new advanced services during an economic recession.

And Cablevision is late — actually last — to the game. But last might be best. There's nothing like learning from others' mistakes. And there were plenty, including the Full Service Network in Orlando, Fla., the pipe dream of Rutledge's alma mater.

At least Rutledge doesn't have the baggage of replacing legacy and inferior digital set-top boxes, a dilemma that the first MSOs to roll out digital must now cope with.

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