Give the Cable Monopoly a Human Face


We meet in Los Angeles this week to celebrate the accomplishments of our industry in this first year of the new century.

The year 2000 was especially notable in that it will be remembered as the year digital cable turned the corner on direct-broadcast satellite, cable modems got off to a fast start against digital subscriber lines, and video-on-demand finally helped us arrive at the vaunted 500-channel universe. In short, you can't talk about broadband today without also talking about the cable industry.

Putting the wired world aside for a second, this year also will be remembered as the time that our industry began to feel the full force of competition. Fearing the cable industry's ability to provide a myriad of new digital services, our competitors scrambled for ways to slow us down.

With DSL serving only three of every 10 homes, and dial-up now being compared to the Model T, open access suddenly became a consumer issue- organized not by consumers, but by our competitors. Our friends in the direct-broadcast satellite business are spending a considerable amount of time and money trying to weasel out of must-carry requirements. And overbuilders are trying to seduce City Hall into awarding franchises on sweeter terms than those negotiated by the incumbent cable operator.

So while we have a right to be happy about our accomplishments and the promise our industry holds for our customers, there are big battles raging on a variety of fronts. We often forget that this is an industry that exists solely because of the public easement. No matter what your title, that fact makes politics-and public and government relations-your business.

Given all that is at stake, it's time for each of us to ask, "What can I do for the cable industry?" Here are a few ideas:

Get out of the office.

Service clubs like Rotary and Kiwanis are always looking for guest speakers. Your face humanizes what many of our detractors call the cable monopoly. Everyone should be able to speak for 30 minutes on our business. The more civilians you can speak with about cable the better chance we will have of building support and competing on even terms.

Become a key contact.

Keep your own member of

congress up to date on cable. Write a letter, support or oppose a bill, visit the district office. The National Cable Television Association can set you up.

Ask your employees to
become local key contacts.

Every employee also is a constituent. Elected officials at all levels respond to the concerns of their constituents, or they don't stay elected. Don't let forced access be positioned as a battle between a few giant businesses. Your employees can humanize this issue and others.

Develop community allies.

With our competitors lobbing grenades all around us, we need as many friends as we can find. Review the good work you have done across your community and invite those civic and charitable leaders in for an overview of your business. By speaking honestly about what is at stake for your customers, you'll find that many of the charities and civic organizations you support will in turn be willing to lend their impartial voice to your cause.

Ad sales also can be a tremendous resource. Keep your sales staff up to date on issues like forced access, local regulation and taxation. For example, we know our ad-sales staff fans out across our communities every day to speak with dozens of business and community leaders. As a result, in less than a week we were able to collect more than 300 cards signed by our advertisers, opposing forced access. I can't underplay the importance of ad sales potential role in shaping community opinion.

Attend a city council meeting.

I understand that people would rather go to the dentist, but it's valuable to monitor the mood and issues in the communities you serve. The more you know about the

people who can and do affect your business the better you will be able to cope with whatever issues find their way to the council chambers.

Organize your vendors.

My company spent more money on upgrades this year than the gross national product of some small nations. Our vendors did very, very well. If these folks are not willing to support your community agenda, perhaps you need new vendors.

Write an op-ed.

Don't let your competitors define your business. Confusion abounds over issues like cable modems vs. DSL, digital cable vs. DBS, and what overbuilders can really do for or to your community. Most newspapers are quite willing to accept your local perspective on confusing and conflicting technology issues.

Encourage your employees
to volunteer.

The more employees you can involve in community events and projects, the better chance you will have of getting unfiltered information about your company to community opinion leaders. At Charter, we encourage volunteers to participate in the political campaigns of their choice, march in AIDS and breast cancer walk-a-thons, and generally involve themselves in the communities we serve. It builds camaraderie and it's fun.

Promote PEG access.

I realize PEG (public, educational and government) channels eat into the bottom line, but local programming is our best tool to differentiate ourselves from DBS. Ask your local elected officials to produce and star in a regular program on community issues. If you're gonna pay for PEG, make sure to maximize its value.

Give VIPs a tour of the headend.

For too long, our industry has suffered from a negative perception that revolves around service outages, missed appointments and busy signals. With high-speed Internet access, digital cable, interactive television and video-on-demand, our headend looks like a control room at NASA. A headend tour can be an easy way to visually demonstrate just how high-tech the cable industry has become.

Endorse candidates.

As a former city council member, I can tell you first-hand that the only thing more important to me than campaign contributions was free television time. Be a full participant in the issues that affect your community. You have a right, if not a responsibility, to participate in the political process. At election time, bring candidates into your office and ask them about key issues that affect your customers-forced access, local taxation, and local regulation. The best candidate(s) should earn your support-and perhaps donated commercials that support their candidacy.

Provide PSAs.

You can earn the respect of civic and charitable organizations and support your community by promoting the good work they do for your customers. A simple public-service announcement can go a long way toward building goodwill between respected community organizations and your company.

Drive a wedge between broadcasters and DBS.

If your market is like mine, most local broadcasters cannot get DBS carriage. By and large, those broadcasters are not happy about being shut out. Reach out to them and develop mutual promotion and marketing plans. The battle between broadcasters and DBS is a good opportunity for us to develop powerful allies from those that have traditionally been opponents.

You can make a difference by implementing one or more of the grassroots ideas listed above. But remember, battles are won and lost on the ground. Despite the fact that we're on the cutting edge of technology, the best way to gain support for our cause and our customers is hand-to-hand and face-to-face.

With industry consolidation, we no longer have the luxury of general managers in every community, so it is important that all of us build public, political and media support.

Go get 'em!

Joe Camicia is vice president, government and public relations
for Charter Communications 'Los Angeles region.