What's in a Cable System?

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In the old days—say, five years ago—cable systems were fairly localized. A system might be one franchise area—Chicago, for example—or might cover several adjacent suburban towns. It would have its own customer-service operation, its own technicians. Key decisions were made by the local general manager.

Today, clustering has changed the nature of cable systems. With the wide deployment of fiber optics, a single cable headend might serve a large region. AT&T has fibered together 90% of metro Chicago into two headends, down from more than 30; Adelphia has done the same with virtually every system in the state of Vermont.

Therefore, in identifying the top 100 cable systems, ranked according to number of subscribers reported by each operator, we looked at management: Who is making the key decisions in an operation? Even in supposedly decentralized companies, a lot of operating power that once lay with local general managers now resides with regional and super-regional managers. At Cablevision Systems, for instance, operations are divided by product line, with one senior vice president running basic and pay video services and another in charge of digital and interactive services. They dictate operations across areas in three states that comprise metro New York.

So we asked companies as much about their management structure as we did about their physical operations. Most companies were cooperative and interested in outlining how their companies were run. The notable exception was Adelphia Communications, which declined to disclose some of the most basic information about its properties.

The listing was compiled by free-lance writer Alan Waldman (818-708-7707, awaldman@pacbell.net).

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