Through some combination of dumb luck, good timing and employer generosity, I had the good fortune of spending six days at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., earlier this month with 10 world-class marketing professors and 46 of the brightest executives in the cable industry.
At the request of the Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing's Educational Foundation, Northwestern's Media Management Center developed the weeklong crash course affectionately known as "CTAM U" three years ago.
The foundation's board members met with course instructors to ensure that the program was tailored to the specific interests of the cable industry, rather than broadcast or other media. Through input of past attendees, the program is tweaked each year.
On day one of the program in mid-June, academic director Drew Davis polled each of the students to find the hot spots of concern among the rising stars of today's MSOs and programmers.
Their concerns were many. Operators wanted to learn how to keep focus on the core video business in the midst of adding new services, as well as how to combat rising competition from direct-broadcast satellite providers and overbuilders.
Top of mind among many classmates was managing transition in the days of industry consolidation. Indeed, the merger of AT & T Corp. and Media-One Group Inc. closed midway through the school week, obsoleting several name badges and sending many executives to their mobile phones and pagers during breaks.
Merger mania was not lost on the programmers, either. Viacom Inc. executives sought help in managing the CBS Corp. networks they're newly responsible for selling and marketing. And programmers not affiliated with major broadcast networks wondered how they could negotiate competitively for carriage.
There was an underlying tension between programmers and operators at times. Starz Encore Media Group LLC division vice president Miles McNamee baited nearby Comcast Corp. director of sales operations Philip McRae for better positioning within the operator's premium-channel lineup.
One-half of the students worked on proposals for new programming channels targeted to underserved markets, such as senior citizens and Spanish-speaking immigrants.
But a case study on the proposed BET Family channel made it clear that a good idea and compelling consumer positioning are not enough to guarantee a market launch for a new network if there's no support from the operators.
Students who studied the channel suggested that parent company BET Holdings II Inc. incubate some of the family-friendly programming on its existing network, Black Entertainment Television, to gain more support before attempting a launch in the future.
Students got the chance to see the business from both sides as operators and programmers switched roles to negotiate plans to take a premium regional sports network to basic. One lesson learned was that in many cases, both sides would do well to be more open with the other.
Home Box Office manager of business planning Lori Littlejohn called for closer cooperation between programmers and operators. It was harder for HBO to market directly to the consumer, she noted, because programmers don't own the relationship with the customer or the information in the customer database.
While operators more closely manage the relationship with their customers, they also get hit more directly with customer-service nightmares. It seemed as if every operator there had his or her own version of various horror stories, including accidentally killing customers' pets, signal outages during the Super Bowl, late fees imposed on customers due to misplaced bills or payments and criminal behavior on the part of installers and outside contractors.
While the view was not necessarily shared by the legal counsel represented among the students, a course instructor noted that it is often best-and ultimately less expensive-to admit problems early on and offer appropriate restitution.
AT & T Broadband regional vice president Steve White emerged as an unofficial class leader, pushing the various professors to address issues specific not just to cable, but to today's concerns.
He also scored points with his classmates by smoothly negotiating with Davis-who is also a general in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves-for a schedule adjustment so that the students could leave class one night in time to catch the National Basketball Association Finals game.
By the end of the week, programmers and operators, marketing executives and nonmarketers had begun to coalesce as a group, pushing each other to do things they wouldn't have tried one week earlier-if only for the good of the team.
If the class of 2000 was a true microcosm of the industry as a whole, cable would likely be better prepared to market to the ever-changing economy.
As CTAM president Char Beales said after a brief midweek visit, it was amazing to see how diverse the group was. "Minorities and women make up more than 50 percent of the class," Beales noted, even though the Educational Foundation does not specifically task companies with sending women and minorities to the course.
What I learned beyond marketing and business at CTAM U was the strong commitment by many of today's industry leaders to create an educational environment where their employees can have the best opportunities for success.
From what I could observe, there are a number of young managers ready, willing and able to reinvent the cable industry from the ground up. And that's just what it's going to take to keep cable healthy in the years ahead.