Cable Television Woman of the Year: Melinda Witmer

“Like radio, television hangs on the questionable theory that whatever happens anywhere should be sensed everywhere. If everyone is going to be able to see everything, in the long run all sights may lose whatever rarity value they once possessed, and it may well turn out that people, being able to see and hear practically everything, will be specially interested in almost nothing. Already you can detect the first faint signs of this apathy.”


So wrote the novelist, essayist and New Yorker magazine contributor E.B. White back in the early days of TV. Specifically, he wrote those words in the New Yorker’s “Notes and Comment” section in the issue of Dec. 4, 1948.


In fact, what’s actually happened 64 years later is that consumers want to see a lot of what TV is delivering, and they want to see it everywhere, and at the times they are available to see it.


This notion of TV everywhere has presented huge challenges to the legacy distributors in the TV business, including cable operators.


In this, our 30th year of continuous publication of TVWeek -- we started under the name Electronic Media in 1982 -- we are proud to present one of the smartest people in the TV industry who is tackling this challenge, Melinda Witmer, as our Cable Television Woman of the Year. 


Witmer is Time Warner Cable’s executive vice president and chief video and content officer. As it says in her official bio, “Witmer and her team manage the company’s relationships with programmers and content providers across the entertainment industry, including movie studios, broadcast and cable television networks and Internet and interactive providers.”


Prior to joining Time Warner Cable 11 years ago, she was vice president and senior counsel at HBO for 7 years.


Our interview with Witmer -- who has clearly thought a lot about the future of the TV business -- was conducted by TVWeek’s Chuck Ross. Besides covering the cable TV business for more than 30 years, right out of college Ross began his career by selling cable TV subscriptions door-to-door in Santa Monica, Calif., before he became a journalist. An edited transcript of the interview follows.


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TVWEEK: One of the first places you went at the beginning of your career was HBO. What was that like?


MELINDA WITMER: At the time that I joined, HBO had all kinds of entrepreneurial businesses that they had started like the visitor information network and their own c-band distribution business. So as a result I got a lot of experience negotiating with programmers while I was at HBO, which was pretty funny. So it was a fascinating introduction to that spirit of entrepreneurism that was underneath cable.


TVWEEK: At last year’s cable show you made news when you said you wondered when you were going to see Netflix or Hulu on a cable operator’s set-top box. How do you feel about that a year later?


WITMER: Still haven’t seen them on a set-top box, but I’m still hopeful I will.


TVWEEK: So you don’t see these kinds of services as competitors to cable and ones that might encourage cord cutting?


WITMER: In a funny way we are all very much in the same business, which is we are content aggregators, plain and simple. And when you think of us as content aggregators -- and truthfully that’s what every network is that we sell -- so to some extent it’s not seeing them as potential competition. Certainly [they are competition] but at the same time you see someone like HBO -- who syndicates their content to Turner downstream in another window -- and they co-exist. So I don’t know if I think so much that it’s a one or the other kind of experience as much as we’re both content aggregators and we would like to be able to aggregate the best and the most  compelling content offering we can for consumers. Netflix and Hulu are managing to aggregate great content so it’s entirely within our historical business model to try and have the opportunity to offer that in our store to consumers as well.


So that’s kind of how I see them. It’s certainly possible that with a compelling content offering the consumer might decide what they have to offer scratches their itch. Otherwise I see them not unlike any other network aggregator that we offer and that they would make an interesting addition to our stable of products.


TVWEEK: Another comment you made within the past year that got a lot of attention is when you said you’re no longer sure what qualifies as a TV set anymore. Could you  talk about that for a moment?


WITMER: Here at Time Warner Cable we fondly refer to all screens as glowing rectangles. And as I’ve said before -- using a phrase I’ve heard them use at ESPN -- it’s about trying to provide their fans an experience on the best screen available. And that’s pretty much the way we view it. If a consumer has the opportunity to view the content they buy from us on whatever screen they’ve chosen to use, we see that as the business we are in. It is hard to exactly say what a television is anymore, given how many glowing rectangles have changed their capability. There are so many now that have the capability to present to consumers a high-quality and secure product for them to view. So the idea that we would carve the world up into the more historical consumer electronic definitions for things doesn’t seem to have much to do with how consumers are viewing their world. They would be artificial distinctions.


TVWEEK: Given your thinking that TV can be delivered by devices that in the past have not been thought to be traditional TV sets, when you negotiate with programmers do you make sure you have the rights to distribute their content on all these other devices?


WITMER: To answer that let me take a step back and relate to my early days at HBO. I was licensing some film product and one of the first licensing agreements that I read said something like HBO was licensing all rights now known or hereafter devised anywhere in the universe. I laughed at that and went down the hall and said to my boss, ‘Anywhere in the universe? I know we’re HBO, and that we’re not TV, but gee whiz, "Anywhere in the universe?" Do we serve aliens? What are we doing?’ He said it really originated because our signal bounced off satellites in space, and we wanted to be very clear that our rights were broad enough to never be questioned when we were bouncing signals around that were nowhere near the terrestrial Earth.


So it could not have been a better place for me to have laid the groundwork for what I’ve had to deal with over the past several years. I was the beneficiary of the exposure to some very big thinkers at HBO. There was a lot of learning at HBO through every evolution of technology, from the introduction of the VCR to changing signal types, to the early days of trying to figure out what an electronic download might look like someday, before most people really knew what the Internet was. So when I came to Time Warner Cable, from the first deal I ever worked on here, I took the view that we were not a quote, unquote cable company with coaxial cable and franchises, but that we were a telecommunications company, and we should have the right, just like our programmers have the right, to distribute using any form of technology now known or hereafter devised. And even though I’ve been fairly certain that we aren’t going to be operating on Mars, we haven’t talked about terrestrial delivery. It’s been very much in my experience that we’ve needed to deliver programming in the same way that it has sounded -- in my experience -- our programmers have been getting the rights to deliver it.


So we’ve laid a lot of foundation in the last decade. My predecessor, Fred Dressler, was very progressive and aggressive in his thinking that we wanted to make sure that the company has had flexibility to evolve its technology because he used to say to me that whatever we say we’re not going to do, 24 months later we will do. Or if we think we’re not going to build something for five to ten years, give us 24 months and we will have built it. So we have always had, at Time Warner Cable, as part of our DNA, a very aggressive view -- or, I should say, a very optimistic view -- of how rapidly technology would evolve, and how rapidly our consumers’ preferences would evolve. So we have a very broad set of rights, and that’s what we have always pursued as a primary strategy around the acquisition of programming.


TVWEEK: It’s interesting that you mention HBO and how it’s influenced how you think about future delivery of content. While it’s no secret in the cable industry that for years HBO has been one of the most technically innovative companies around, I think it’s only been recently, with HBO Go, that consumers are beginning to learn this as well. Technology and innovation always have been hallmarks of HBO’s DNA.


WITMER: What HBO did and does amazingly well is know what their product is and what place it holds in the world -- both what they’ve needed to do to secure that place in the world and what they’ve needed to do to protect that place in the world. They have been very smart and forward thinking in doing that. Also, when I look back at my time there, they had some brilliant technologists who were also brilliant communicators. They would explain things so well to a newbie to the company like me who they had to talk to in non-technical language. When I came here to Time Warner Cable that was something that was a great heritage in my learning. So my team here has made a point to work very close with our Time Warner Cable technologists. The result is that we have been able to understand the changes we’ve seen in technology -- what’s always been coming in the future, what our technologists thought it’s going to look like, and what protections do we need and what are the rights we think we’ll need to do what we want to do, even if it’s not coming for five or ten years.


TVWEEK: Part of the reason I asked the question is that I think some networks at first disputed whether you could use their content on your Time Warner Cable iPad app.


WITMER: We are distributing 255 networks on our iPad app, and we will be distributing on other IP-enabled devices. We’re on PCs and Macs and Android phones today. We’re moving firmly ahead. We have the rights to do what we are doing. I think what’s really happened is that in many respects people are still confused by what is the Internet versus what is an IP format. That’s something we find ourselves continually having to educate and explain to people.


Initially a lot of programmers were concerned that Time Warner Cable had put their signals on the Internet. IP is just a set of protocols that are certainly used in Internet delivery, but the fact you are using, quote, IP, does not mean that you are ‘on the Internet.’ That’s a concept that remains confusing to many people. But as we educated programmers that we are delivering over our systems and in a secure way -- much as we have always done -- and that while we were using IP protocols -- which the world is rapidly moving to -- we were not, quote, on the Internet. Most of the objections to what we are doing have evaporated when people get an understanding of what we are really doing.


TVWEEK: One of the latest companies we read about that appears to be trying to develop a video subscription service is Apple. It reportedly would be much more vigorous than what one might find on iTunes today. Would you feel about that the same way you feel about Netflix or Hulu?


WITMER: The last couple of years have been full of stories and speculation and probably real efforts, here and there, in both the consumer electronics world, such as Apple, and the Internet world, such as Google, about how to leverage the advances in all of our technologies to create better and better consumer experiences. Ultimately that’s what everybody is trying to do. How do we make sure that consumers have the best possible experiences? How do you capture the consumer and therefore their buying power?


We feel here at Time Warner Cable that this is what we’ve always done. We’ve always been an innovator in technology. We’ve always delivered great content experience to consumers. They still watch over 8 hours a day of linear television. I don’t think overall media consumption has grown that much. So there’s a lot of discussion circling around how media consumption will be carved up. Right now we’re embracing the technology and working with a lot of partners looking at ways to continue to evolve the consumer experience to better satisfy our consumers.


TVWEEK: Speaking of satisfying your customer, I’m struck by how aggressive the MSOs are with products such as Comcast’s Infinity or your TV Everywhere. Do you think eventually that the MSOs will sell those services to non-subscribers?


WITMER: There are numerous challenges of building what I think you are referring to, which is an over-the-top video service. We think that, generally, the economics of that are not very attractive. Ultimately the economics of widespread over-the-top video is not terribly attractive to content providers either. Beyond that, we have an enormous investment in infrastructure. That infrastructure is used to support our video business, and how that infrastructure is used to support our telephone business, and our high-speed data business, that IS the business that we are most focused and invested in. I don’t see anything in our near horizon where Time Warner Cable will be looking to build an over-the-top video service, simply because we don’t see the economics of that business as being very favorable.


TVWEEK: You were quoted as making the following email statement to The Wall Street Journal: ‘Our video customers have an expectation that we will deliver a flawless experience in the home. Right now we cannot guarantee that experience with HBO’s Roku app.’ Could you elaborate on that?


WITMER: The context of the statement was that the delivery we make of HBO in the home, because we are not delivering through the Internet, but are delivering through our secure pipe into the home, delivers a high-quality viewing experience that is not easily replicated by Internet delivery. In fact, we embrace working with IP and manufacturers and consumer electronics manufacturers -- like Roku -- in looking how we might be able to make products available over multiple IP devices in the home, similar to what we’ve done with our iPad app. Whether it’s a game console or a Roku, we’re looking at all of those opportunities. So really the comment I made was in reference to the fact we want to make sure that our consumers, if they are going to use an IP device like that in the home, that they have the opportunity to get our product in a manner that will ensure them an experience that is commensurate with the experience they believe they have bought from us and are accustomed to getting over a set-top box.


TVWEEK: I want to turn the discussion to sports. We’re talking to you on the phone today. I’m here in Los Angeles and you’re in New York. You’ve made a big business deal here in Southern California with the Lakers. You actually have a personal connection to this area, don’t you?


WITMER: Yes, I was born in downtown L.A. and raised in Rolling Hills [in the Palos Verdes area of Los Angeles]. I went to high school there. 


TVWEEK: So you have a connection to Los Angeles sports teams.


WITMER: Absolutely. I grew up in a household of Los Angeles sports fans. When you look at what Time Warner Cable is building in Southern California, there was a recognition that there was an opportunity to acquire these rights, and we believed in acquiring the rights for a long time to come. Not only was it a way to acquire content for our customers, but do it in a way that we could manage and understand the cost for a very long time to come. We had this opportunity with the Lakers and ultimately with the Galaxy [L.A.’s pro soccer team] as well. We believe it makes sense for our business. In the long run it’s a good strategy for helping to manage the rights and costs for sports for our consumers.


TVWEEK: The Lakers had been on Fox, and Fox has the Dodgers now. The Dodgers themselves have new ownership. What interest does Time Warner have in adding the Dodgers to your Lakers deal?


WITMER: We’ve said that we’d certainly be interested when the Dodgers are free to talk. We have a long-term investment in the Southern California consumer. So we’d be delighted to forge a relationship with the Dodgers if the opportunity presents itself.


TVWEEK: You’ve also made a deal with the Pac 12.


WITMER: Our main driver in doing the Pac 12 deal was very much about the fact that two of the Pac 12 universities are sitting right there in our home town. The idea was to make sure that our consumers could see as much of USC and UCLA [games] as they could. It also made sense to work with our partners through In Demand because between Cox, Comcast and Time Warner Cable and Bright House we cover all the footprints of the 12 universities involved in the Pac 12.


TVWEEK: Is this sports model you’re building here in Southern California something you’d like to replicate in other Time Warner Cable markets?


WITMER: We certainly would look at other opportunities. But we think in the near horizon very few opportunities will present themselves. Sports rights have been locked up for some time to come in most of our markets and in general with pretty aggressive backend protections. So it’s not that easy for us to get an opportunity to talk to a team about possible opportunities. But if an opportunity did present itself we would absolutely explore it.


TVWEEK: You once commented positively about some advice that your predecessor, Fred Dressler, once gave you, that it’s a good idea to both trust your instincts and not be afraid to make things up.


WITMER: The most important result of that advice was the shot in the arm of confidence that it gave me. It’s been my general observation that people perform better when they feel confident. And it doesn’t mean that you know all the answers, and it certainly doesn’t mean you always know what to do, and it most certainly doesn’t mean you won’t make mistakes. I’ve made lots of mistakes. But in a business that’s rapidly changing, like ours is, to navigate these rapidly changing waters takes a lot of confidence. There is no question that we’re often cutting new paths. And when you’re cutting new paths you are to some degree making it up. But rest assured that I am never making it up without a whole lot of information and discussion with a whole bunch of smart people that I work with. So I try and make it look easy, but it’s not.


The thing that I am proudest of in my whole career is that I’ve assembled a pretty amazing team. Hiring really good people has probably been my most successful trait in my career. Instilling them with confidence and giving them the right stuff to do their jobs every day is, I think, the most important thing I do as a leader.


TVWEEK: Melinda, thank you for a terrific interview. Is there anything else you’d like to add?


WITMER: If you look at the trajectory of innovation, in our business at least, that has brought about new and better and great consumer experiences, they have been driven most often not only by a desire to innovate, but by healthy doses, at each step along the way, of new and different challenges, including competition. We are where we are today [because we have] an amazing organization for building and innovating technology. We were the first ones to put linear television on another glowing device in the home -- the iPad -- and a year later with 255 channels on it, it remains something that has not been replicated.


But what I’m most excited about is how the sheer madness of competition that we’re experiencing right now will certainly result in some pretty amazing things coming out of this company in the next few years. It’s who Time Warner Cable is -- someone throws down the gauntlet, we like to pick it up and run with it. So I’m really excited to see what we’re going to do in the next three years, because I think it will be something you haven’t seen before.