Bob Zitter’s career track to cable began after he helped launch Colgate University’s TV station during his pre-med school days. His early fascination with the medium led not only to his work with the college TV station, but to a grant to produce a film.
The rest is cable history, and Zitter is now executive vice president of technology operations and chief technology officer for HBO.
“I really enjoyed media. That’s what I really wanted to do,” Zitter said. “So, my first years in cable, with Schurz Communications [Inc.], were spent learning the small cable operations business. Though I was responsible for the broadcast side too, cable was really my passion.”
It was Franklin Schurz Sr. who inspired Zitter’s entry into cable and broadcast. Schurz, Zitter said, was a visionary and innovator who launched one of the nation’s first UHF stations, and was instrumental in guiding Zitter to a cable career.
“He believed in me and encouraged me to blaze new trails in a new business, cable. He was truly an inspiration,” he said.
Zitter’s time with Schurz as a cable operator and broadcaster in the Midwest was preceded by a stint with ABC-TV in New York, where he supervised network operations. But it was cable that continued to fascinate him.
Zitter understood that to be successful in cable, and to have the impact that he envisioned, he would require knowledge of the business, engineering and technical sides of the industry.
“I’m not an engineer, but a business person. If you’re going to manage businesses in cable and broadcast, technology is such an integral part and you must understand it,” he said. “So, I’ve been fortunate to have been surrounded by engineers and have become more involved in planning the technology and bringing it to our business.”
He also earned an MBA from Frostburg State College in Maryland, which has served him well, particularly with his move to HBO in 1981, when he became director of network operations.
“As a cable operator, I knew people at HBO and I knew their business. They really had a lot of very sharp people and I had great respect for them. Not only that, but I believed in the pay-TV concept,” he said. “I felt that I could bring an important piece to their business.”
He garnered attention for his efforts in digital TV transmission and transferring movies to HD format, which are two of his most significant contributions to the cable industry, and key reasons for his induction into the industry’s Hall of Fame.
“His pioneering work with digital TV and HD at HBO has been hugely significant to the cable industry,” said Dick Green, CEO of CableLabs Inc. “The best movie transfers to HD are from HBO. It’s a very complicated process, and I often wonder how they get such good pictures. But Bob does things right and that’s why HBO has been a technology pioneer.”
Green added: “He is the consummate technical guy with a deep understanding of many technical issues. But he also works very collegiately in solving problems, because he’s open, smart and responsive.”
Zitter’s career took off during the early days of HBO, leading to a string of key positions, along with a number of innovative ideas and pioneering efforts.
In 1983, he oversaw the rollout of HBO’s nationwide satellite scrambling program, as well as acquiring the company’s satellite capacity.
In 1992, he was responsible for HBO’s introduction of digital compression technology; and in 1999, Zitter developed and launched HBO HDTV, and the technology aspects of HBO On Demand.
He is also one of the founders of HBO’s businesses in Latin America, Asia and Europe.
Yet for Zitter, who is “still amazed to be included with so many Hall of Fame pioneers,” his passion for the cable industry remains alive and well. “There is a very creative group of people at HBO that have had great influence on me. Whoever led a specialty, they were the best there was. I’m still in awe of them and they’re making the future just as exciting,” he said.
He has brought that enthusiasm and passion to industry organizations as well.
He currently serves as a director of the North American Broadcasters Association and serves on the Television Committee of the Consumer Electronics Association and the Technology Advisory Council for Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing and the Cable Center.
He is also the recipient of the National Cable & Telecommunication’s Vanguard Award for outstanding leadership in science and technology.