In Depth

There From the Start: Matt Blank

CEO of Showtime Watched Pay Cable Mature

Matt Blank, the chairman and CEO of Showtime, got in on the ground floor of the premium cable network business in 1976 with a job in affiliate marketing at then-fledgling Home Box Office.

He took the job thinking it eventually would lead to a career at one of the Big Three “real” networks, but before long realized he was in on the birth of an industry-changing phenomenon.
In the first couple of years, he traveled to some 40 states, launching HBO into small, mostly classic cable systems that up to that point had functioned mainly as broadcast signal-delivery utilities.

Mr. Blank recently reflected on those early days with TelevisionWeek correspondent Elizabeth Jensen.

TelevisionWeek: [HBO] was a start-up at the time, with about 200,000 subscribers?
Matt Blank: Maybe 300,000; it was about four or five months after they’d gone up on the satellite. It was largely distributed throughout the Northeast via the Eastern Microwave network. I did spend a good time in the Pennsylvania-Ohio part of the world, a lot of the old Pennsylvania systems that were on the microwave network. But then as the satellite technology became more prevalent, it was Ohio and west and south where you could really only be served by satellite.

TVWeek: You once told an interviewer that you saw [the job] as a brief stepping stone to a real network.
Mr. Blank: When I got out of college, I tried to get a job in the film business, the television business, without any luck. I actually thought HBO was a sort of cool thing. I had heard about it and I got this job offer, and I got there and I thought OK, you know, this wouldn’t be a bad thing to do for a year or so, and maybe CBS will offer me a job. Of course, it took another 30 years to get a job at CBS. I’m a late bloomer.

TVWeek: You stayed 12 years. What did you find to change your mind?
Mr. Blank: Relatively quickly I realized that this satellite technology was going to transform not just the cable business but the television business, and HBO had the shot of becoming one of those overnight successes, in terms of the brand. It actually afforded me terrific career opportunities, and it wasn’t too long before people were generally thinking this might not be such a bad place to be versus a television network or a film studio. It certainly turned out to be that way for me.

TVWeek: Describe the mood; was it exciting, nerve-wracking?
Mr. Blank: Oh, it was very exciting. This was a period of time you never had time to stop and think. The years 1976-77 were just gigantic ramp-up years for HBO in terms of the number of cable systems that they took on to the network. All around the country, all over the United States. I launched dozens of systems in the Pacific Northwest. I made it to parts of the South I thought I’d never see, parts of the state of Texas I never thought I’d see. It really was one of those rare career opportunities when you catch the wave.

TVWeek: What was it like to usher these small communities into the new-media era?
Mr. Blank: On the one hand, you go from a corporate world in New York City to really out-there small towns, small markets all over the country. And I got to deal with some of the great entrepreneurs of our time, the Alan Gearys, the Glenn Jones types of people, the people who really built the business, the Bill Bresnans. On the other hand, you were in very marketing-slash-entertainment-deprived environments. The cable industry had been built at that point in time on selling signal, so it was largely a utility, and we were bringing an entertainment product that was marketing-intense into that environment. So it was both challenging and exhilarating when it worked, and sometimes it worked very, very well and sometimes it didn’t work so well. But you certainly got the feeling that you were there first and you helped to create something that was very, very different and really changed the business of television forever. Much in the way that people look at the Internet today.

TVWeek: What were some of the techniques that you used to get these small operators to take the plunge?
Mr. Blank: I think the key thing we learned very early on was to think local. That when you got to a small town, whether it was in western Pennsylvania or eastern Washington, the most important thing was getting their media, their franchise, in lock-step. So we went to the local radio stations, the local newspapers for our media promotional assistance. We spent time usually talking to the chamber of commerce or the city council that granted these franchises. We wanted to make sure everybody understood what HBO was and what was coming to that town. And we really did put the emphasis on satellite programming and how a lot of these smaller markets now would, through the good graces of a $100,000 satellite dish, have access to a lot more things in the years to come than they had before from a television experience standpoint.

TVWeek: Did you enjoy your on-air sell-a-thons?
Mr. Blank: I remember in 1977, I think, we launched New Kensington, Pa., the first Comcast launch, and Ralph Roberts was my co-host. Ralph and I did a live telethon for that cable system.

TVWeek: There was an incredible management team running HBO at the time: Michael Fuchs, Tony Cox, Nick Nicholas, Gerry Levin. Did HBO attract the good people or was it the experience that made them?
Mr. Blank: I do think that this industry has attracted some great people over the years. In the early days of HBO we had a terrific team on all levels. Everybody there was a true believer. And it was hard not to be a true believer, based on the weekly results that came in and just the momentum that HBO built over all those years.

TVWeek: Pay cable started, you said it yourself, as a technology-driven business, as a utility. Today, to survive the Internet onslaught, it’s programming that has to transcend the technology. As an executive who has adapted, how did you change your own brain over those 30 years?
Mr. Blank: We always viewed ourselves as marketing and programming entities. Because unlike other cable channels, premium channels had to be sold to people. Whether anybody watches them or not, there’s a couple hundred digital channels out there that just have distribution by the nature of their deals with distributors, and once you’re in, you’re in. Now you may have to get viewers to sell advertising. But our view is always different. We got distribution and then we had to get people willing to pay for Showtime every single month, month in month out, year in year out. We’re much more dependent on creating a constant demand for our channel in more of a classic marketing sense, rather than just program promotion. I think that has characterized premium cable marketing for decades now. We’ve got to get people to come back to our network every month, who want to pay a significant amount of money to have these services in their homes.