THURSDAY, MAY 13
The Vanguard Awards
are the most prestigious
honors presented by
the National Cable &
in 1965, they are
presented each year to
individuals who display
exceptional leadership in
the cable industry and a
strong commitment to
their colleagues. Award
winners are nominated
by NCTA members and
selected by an awards
of members of the
NCTA Board of Directors
and former Vanguards
winners. This year’s
winners will be feted at
a special reception on
Thursday, May 13, at The
Cable Show 2010.
PRESIDENT & CEO
CABLEVISION SYSTEMS CEO JAMES DOLAN HAS WEATHERED HIS
fair share of criticism over the years, mainly for decisions that turned
out not only to be right, but downright visionary. Decisions that earned
the 54-year-old executive this year’s Distinguished Vanguard Award
for Leadership (Man).
Dolan isn’t looking to gloat, though. “To be honest, I’m just happy it
worked out,” he said in a recent interview.
“Worked out” is a bit of an understatement.
Cablevision is now considered to be the gold standard for cable operators,
a moniker many would not have applied to the company 10
years ago. But the sometimes-controversial decisions made back then
laid the foundation for success today.
Decisions like buying electronics retailer The Wiz in 1998 for about
$80 million (The Wiz was shut down in 2003, but not before Cablevision
had used it as an outlet to sell cable modems, and more importantly, to
promote the service); Dolan’s decision to spend $4 billion to upgrade
Cablevision’s network architecture to fiber, laying the groundwork for
high-speed data and phone; selling off large systems in Boston, Cleveland
and Michigan in 1999 and 2000 to focus solely on the New York
Metropolitan area; and offering a triple-play bundle for the then-unheard
of price of about $90 for a full year, to name a few key moves.
“We are following the strategy my dad started back in the ’70s, which
was to really push the value equation with the customer base and packing
as much value as you can,” Dolan said. “Don’t worry necessarily
about the margins, but go for the volume. Tat’s really been the mantra
for Cablevision since I was selling door-to-door back in the 1970s.
What those moves managed to do was help create a tightly clustered
MSO that leads the industry in practically every key category: digital-cable
penetration (94.4%); high-speed Internet penetration (53.2%); phone penetration
(42.5%) and average monthly revenue per subscriber ($144.03).
Cablevision has reported six consecutive years of double-digit consolidated
operating cash-flow growth. It’s also been a maverick on the
technology front — it is expected to commercially launch its Remote
Server Digital Video Recorder (RS-DVR) in select areas soon; it has already
made free Wi-Fi available to existing Optimum Online subscribers;
and recently, it paired up with Comcast and Time Warner Cable
to offer data customers seamless access when traveling through each
“Jim has been a true believer in the innovation, technology and limitless
possibilities of the cable industry,” Comcast chairman and CEO
Brian Roberts said in a statement to Multichannel News. “He has driven
Cablevision to always be an innovator in the sports, entertainment
and advance services they provide. We are lucky to count Jim as a significant member of our wonderful industry.”
The moves of the past decade have put Cablevision at the forefront of
the industry, and other cable operators have followed their lead.
“We look at Cablevision as the example of who we want to be in terms
of performance,” Insight Communications CEO Michael Willner said.
“We are unabashedly not ashamed to steal from their playbook.”
That playbook has also included taking a stance on some controversial
issues, like programming cost increases. Earlier this year, Cablevision
was involved in two high-profile programming disputes — with
ABC and Scripps Networks — that resulted in those services briefly being
pulled by their owners from Cablevision’s systems. While Dolan
regrets any disruption in service, he said that it is important for programmers
and distributors both to work out a solution to the problem
of rising costs.
Dolan speaks from experience. Cablevision’s programming arm
— Rainbow Media Holdings — includes AMC, the home of multiple
Emmy winners Mad Men and Breaking Bad, as well as WE and music
Time Warner Inc. chairman and CEO Jeff Bewkes also is an admirer of
Dolan’s and heaped praise on the cable executive’s business savvy.
“Over the past decade, Jim has built one of the most innovative and
technologically advanced companies around,” Bewkes said. “He understands
the value of creating and delivering quality content that
consumers crave. By combining his understanding of the customer
with his fearless vision of how to use technology, Jim keeps growing
Cablevision while also helping to move the entire industry forward.”
Any fearlessness Dolan has, he admits, comes at least in part from
his father, Cablevision founder and chairman Charles Dolan.
“He was much more fearless than I was,” Dolan said of his father.
“More than once Dad put the entire company on the line to pursue
what he thought was the right strategic direction. Fortunately, I haven’t
had to make those kinds of decisions.”
Dolan also credits a series of mentors that have helped him along the
way, including senior adviser, engineering & technology Wilt Hildenbrand,
who convinced him that spending $4 billion to reconstruct
Cablevision’s infrastructure would pay off handsomely; and the late
Madison Square Garden chairman Marc Lustgarten.
Dolan’s commitment to his former friend and mentor is shown by
his work with the Lustgarten Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research,
which Cablevision formed shortly after Lustgarten’s death
in 1999. Since then, the foundation has raised about $30.6 million.
Dolan’s annual Holiday Rock ‘n’ Roll Bash each December (where his
band JD & The Straight Shot provides entertainment) has raised nearly
$10 million on its own for the foundation over the past nine years. And
because Cablevision underwrites the foundation, every dollar raised
goes directly to research to find a cure for the disease.
“He was a great fighter and a mentor of mine,” Dolan said of Lustgarten.
“As soon as Marc learned that he had pancreatic cancer, he began
formulating his plan to beat it. He left us with that legacy.”