Willner: "Doing Nothing Is Not An Option"


Insight Communications CEO Michael Willner has been at the forefront of practically every major cable industry issue in the past 37 years, whether it be in Washington - he has testified before Congress and the Senate on issues ranging from must-carry to retransmission consent and everything in between - or in the trenches building out networks and providing service to his nearly 700,000 cable customers. With the sale of Insight to Time Warner Cable slated for completion by the first half of next year, Wilner spoke with Multichannel News briefly on Friday about his legacy in the cable industry and his plans for the future. An edited transcript follows.

MCN: What's next in store for you?

Michael Willner: I haven't really decided. One thing, though, doing nothing is not an option. I'm not ready to do nothing. I really haven't thought about it yet.


MCN:You have been a driving force in the industry for so long in Washington and Insight was the first MSO to step up to the plate and provide more financial reporting transparency in the wake of the Adelphia scandal. A lot of people have said it would be a shame if you decided to take a step back.
MW: I haven't thought about it. This deal came together fairly quickly. In 2007 when we went out and tried to review our alternatives at the time and that deal didn't happen, I had given it more thought earlier in the process. This time around I think we were more open to going with the flow psychologically. Therefore it was process, we went through it and if it ended in a conclusion that we would do a deal we would, and if it didn't we would get on with running the company. That was our attitude. That was certainly my attitude.
MCN: So anything is on the table? There are a lot of former cable CEOs floating around out there and a lot of money looking for a place to go. Is there any chance that you could hook up with another private equity company and start this all over again?
I don't know. I kind of think after doing what I've been doing for one company for 26 years and for two companies my entire career that maybe something a little different might be more interesting, other than just going out and acquiring and operating cable networks.
MCN: What about the rest of your team?
I think we all had a similar view of this process, and it was our collective behavior that we would see what happens. We didn't give it much thought.
MCN: I know you don't want to talk too much about the deal, but were you pleased with the way it worked out?
Yes. We did a very good deal for our shareholders. I think with the synergies and the programming discounts that Time Warner gets, I think they did a very good deal for themselves. Those are the deals that work.
MCN: Insight had an incredible run. It was growing at double-digit rates when no one else was. In the last few quarters things have slowed down as they have with the rest of the industry. Did it come to the point where you said you've done as much as you could do and to get to the next level you would have to be part of a larger company?
I wouldn't say we came to that conclusion, per se. The company has been around for 26 years, it has been a terrific run. It has been an outperformer for a lot of years, not just the last couple of years. I think Carlyle has been in the transaction for six years now. It just seemed, close to a year ago, [that] it was time to do a strategic review of our alternative and if a transaction was out there to be done we should probably consider doing it.
MCN: This deal is scheduled to close in the first half of 2012. Any reason why so long?
That's kind of an outside view, typical of any cable transaction. Kentucky does not have a statewide franchise. We have to go to the local communities and that takes time.
MCN: So you haven't set a deadline for when you will make your final decision on your next step?
Maybe I'll become a reporter for a trade journal. Finally put my journalism education to use.
MCN: We could use you. You've spent almost 40 years in the cable industry - you started out in 1974, right?
1974 was when I started.
MCN: When you look back, what are you most proud of?
There are probably three or four things that I would mark my career [with]. One goes back to 1999, when we launched the first interactive digital service. I don't want to sound like I'm saying I told you so. We developed a digital technology platform in 1999 with a technology partner which actually turned out to be the way people are doing digital now, finally. We were probably 10 years early. It was a server-based technology so the set top box didn't have to have too much intelligence. We had a server-based program guide, we were the first to provide on demand on a commercial basis in Rockford, Ill. We had an interactive local news and information service, a restaurant guide, a movie guide, all stuff that is being delivered to digital cable subscribers today. Most importantly, the plumbing for that was this new technology that is being shifted over to. There is a sense of accomplishment that we had it right, we just weren't big enough on our own to push the industry in that direction. There were still a lot of people around for a lot of years who though the DCT-5000 Motorola box was going to be the set-top box of the future. And of course we know that never got developed and never got installed.
That's one. Another is the transparency in reporting standards when the industry had a serious public relations problem with Wall Street. Pulling everybody together was a little bit like herding cats. Not that people objected to doing it, they just had different points of view about how to do it. That was a very complicated process that we had to navigate through and I feel very good about that. I feel great about representing the industry in Washington and leading CablePAC for the last 10 or 12 years. And finally and perhaps most importantly just the performance of the company certainly over the past half dozen years or so has been exemplary and something I was very proud of. I give all the credit to a lot of other people who work at the company.
MCN: You've also done a lot of great deals over the years. When you split up your Comcast partnership in 2007, a lot of people thought it would be tough to continue without Comcast's programming discounts. Instead you went on a growth tear.
We had a great management team, a great set of assets. Having Comcast programming discounts was always a very nice thing, but there is room in the cable industry for smaller more entrepreneurial companies. They have serious challenges that the big guys don't have, but there is a place for people who are good operators and are close to their customers and know how to run the bus. Bresnan was another good example of that.
MCN: I know you're still deciding, but do you expect to continue to be active in industry organizations like the Cable Center?
I intend to serve on the board as long as they want me to. I would consider continuing to do that. Depending on what my next stop brings, I would expect to be able to continue to be involved in some of the activities in the industry that former cable operators are typically involved in. I am a member of the Entrepreneurs Club and there are plenty of guys who continue to show up for those meeting that haven't owned a cable system in 10 or 15 years.