Forum: Staffing Up for the Broadband Future: Cable Rules

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Looking into a crystal ball, as we hurtle toward the newmillennium, one does not have to sport several Ph.D.s to fully grasp the concept that thecable industry is perfectly positioned for the high-speed, broadband, mega-channeldistribution future that the world is demanding.

Whether it is up to the challenge of embracing victory willbe at least one dramatic question worth waiting to see answered come the much-heraldedadvent of the year-2000 problem.

Why shouldn't cable surge ahead? Cable has the leadingedge in critical areas: resolving key technology issues (like return path), establishingprogramming alliances and commanding unfettered access to the home.

Cable has an immense number of existing connections. It canmine the data derived from them and specifically target market multiple viablerevenue-producing products to existing and potential customers.

Operators are integrating horizontally with each other andvertically with Internet-content providers, telephone companies, e-commerce providers andmagazine, newspaper and book publishers to further expand their number ofincome-generating outlets.

Mergers (AT&T Corp.-Tele-Communications Inc.),consolidations, restructuring for geographical/technological efficiencies (TCI-FalconCable TV Corp.) and joint ventures (MediaOne Group Inc.'s and Time WarnerCable's Road Runner) have become the order of the day.

Operators have committed themselves to meeting customerneeds and maintaining their loyalty in the electronic-information revolution that has thempitted against other enormous competing forces, like the new America Online Inc./NetscapeCommunications Corp. alliance.

Everybody is cueing up for "Convergence Day,"when you turn on your wall-wide TV screen as your best friend calls you with a video ofhis hole-in-one, you hit your remote for that movie that your spouse has been nagging youto see and your bills are paid on-screen, just in time, before your oldest son e-mails youfrom his college dorm for more money.

That's the promise of convergence. The actual workingdelivery of it is the dream of cable (and everyone else in the race), and here are somereasons why cable is getting all dressed up and ready to deliver its acceptance speech:

• Cable has the content and, to paraphrase FoodNetwork's Emeril Legasse, "Content rules."

• Cable has the ability to provide world-classbandwidth and scorchingly high-speed Internet access that will banish forever thatsnail-paced roll-down Internet picture of the New York Yankees' Orlando "ElDuque" Hernandez perpetually winding up on the mound, replacing it with moving imagesof a flawless delivery shockingly similar to something called digital television.

• Cable fathered the multichannel universe at a timewhen broadcast networks were still trying to outsail each other to Gilligan'sIsland and when the telcos rented you a phone with no sense of shame.

• Cable, arm-twisted by competition, has been forcedto embrace and drive new technological delivery systems, and it has a history ofsuccessfully and efficiently marketing them to a huge national subscriber base. Check TimeWarner Cable's bottom-line effect on corporate mother ship Time Warner Inc. if youneed a reminder of just how good a business that is.

• Cable understands how to attract valued-addedbusiness. Even when the technology was admittedly Jurassic, cable managed to piecetogether enough of a pay-per-view marketing effort to create a consumer appetite that hasbeen exploited by the satellite services with their more frequent offerings. Cable dreamsof revenge -- when its technology allows the consumer to do nothing more complicated thanwhisper "yes" in order to splash a program on the screen.

• Cable speaks convergence. From data to phone linesto entertainment, it is easier to imagine one connection to your local cable company thanlaboriously calling a host of other providers to accomplish the same thing.

While cable is clearly positioned for triumph, it is nowimperative that the team not snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. It is crucial forMSOs, local system operators and cable-network service providers to pick the rightexecutive team to steer the ship toward the horizon.

Since content, distribution, technology and marketing aresailing in the right direction, the important question is: What sort of executive teamshould you field?

Before answering that question, we need to take a look atand begin to understand the talent market that currently exists. Today's executivesuites are filled by a variety of personality types. Significant among them are certaincategories that can be characterized in the following manner:

• Hyper-futurists (far-future-oriented);

• Futurists (foreseeable-future-oriented);

• Realists (present-oriented);

• Future-resistants (recent-past-oriented); and

• Reactionaries (distant-past-oriented).

The best way to describe these personalities is to imagineall of them visiting the Grand Canyon. Gold has just been discovered on the far side, andthere is no viable way to reach it other than to cross the canyon. If you ask them forideas on how to cross it, here's what you might find:

• The reactionaries would deny that the canyon couldbe crossed.

• The future-resistants would mutter that mulesscrambling down one side and up the other are the best and the only way to go.

• The realists would set about designing a bridge andordering material to build it.

• The futurists would see what the realists weredoing, buy up all of the real estate on both sides of the bridge and cut deals with shopsand developers to service and house the traffic.

• The hyper-futurists would devise previouslyunheard-of uses for the gold, as well as musing about other treasures that thismineral-rich area might yield.

To win the battle for customers in today'smarketplace, it is not enough to have only one kind of thinking in your senior-executivesuite: It is crucial to have a well-balanced team that can ably structure your business tomeet competition in its multiple aspects.

Since the rate of change has vastly accelerated over thepast few years, you must have futurists who keep your company just ahead of the curve, andwho start building today for what they know tomorrow will demand.

You also need a significant group of realists to maintainthe business and to develop what you currently have. You probably still need afuture-resistant sprinkled in here and there to make sure that the whole team maximizesits asset values and doesn't go sailing into a painted horizon, a la The TrumanShow.

Since it is highly unlikely that any cable company orprogramming service is in the market for an entire new team, you need to evaluate theskill sets of your present operation and see where development is necessary in order toachieve balance.

One disarmingly practical suggestion: Make sure that thenext senior executive carries with him/her a blend of some of the more importantcharacteristics needed to balance your futurists and realists.

Search for someone with a consumer-products-marketingbackground who believes enough in the new technology to incorporate it strategically intowhat works today and what will work tomorrow. Is he/she thirsting for additional knowledgeto stay on the cutting edge of the evolving global marketplace?

This executive would combine both vision and a commercialsensibility from the viewer/consumer/subscriber perspective, and put himself/herself intoa position to develop and guide the direction of your operation to tomorrow'svictories. If he/she is a programmer, can they steer the new offerings into a solidacceptance as viewing habits change?

Additionally, he/she should demonstrate a bottom-lineorientation and excellent leadership skills to persuade the rest of the team to make thechanges that are needed to meet the challenges.

The ideal candidate will listen to, but never blindlyfollow, the hyper-futurist, and he/she will be strong enough to disregard the reactionary,while blending the best from the others. A consummate dealmaker, your next hire shouldhave strong people skills and an ability to manage by example.

In that simple way, you can bring balance to the ship as itplows ahead, without fear of either sailing off the end of the earth or breaking apartinto so many digital fragments.

Brad Marks is chairman and CEO of Brad Marks International.