Having covered the cable TV industry for almost three decades, I’ve known most of the industry’s heavy hitters, from John Malone, Michael Fuchs and Kay Koplovitz to Abby Raven, Italia Commisso Weinand and Glenn Britt. I’ve known some much better than others.
Over the years I’ve probably interviewed John Malone more than any other reporter, save Mark Robichaux, the talented editor in chief of Multichannel News, who also wrote an excellent book about Malone that has the wonderfully just-right title, “Cable Cowboy: John Malone and the Rise of the Modern Cable Business.”
Malone is the smartest person I’ve ever interviewed. I can — and have — spoken to him for hours at a time and have been mesmerized by his analytical abilities. One of the great pleasures of talking with John, who once ran TCI, then the biggest cable operator in the U.S., was listening to him expound about the future of cable TV.
For example, I recall one afternoon when he talked at length about why AMC — then strictly a service showing old movies, and co-owned by TCI — would always remain commercial-free. Several years later AMC was sold, and of course today its main claim to fame is its original programming, shown in an ad-supported framework.
Still, overall, John was about 50% right about what would happen in cable three or four years down the road, which I think is not bad for looking into a crystal-ball to predict the future.
But as smart and powerful as John is, I don’t think he’s particularly charismatic. I’ve seen him be charming, but that’s not charismatic.
For the last two-plus decades, the most charismatic , iconic person I’ve known in cable is set to retire at year’s end. That person is Char Beales, who has been the president and CEO of CTAM — cable’s primary marketing trade organization, since 1992. Before that, as I wrote in a column several months ago, Char was one of three people most responsible for original cable programming finally getting its initial recognition.
After a conversation with Malone, most likely you would be struck by the thought that you had just been talking to one of the most clever thinkers about the business of cable, ever.
But after a conversation with Char, she would have most likely made you feel that YOU had made the most astute observations about the cable TV business, ever.
That’s the power of Char’s intelligence and charisma. (By the way, I wish I were clever enough to have thought of this distinction myself. In fact, I read about a similar analogy years ago. It was originally said by a woman who, the story goes, once sat at a dinner between two famous rival English politicians, William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli. Gladstone was the clever one, the woman said, and Disraeli was the charismatic one who had made her feel so clever.)
Char has always been about encouraging and empowering others. She has been a singular force within the industry, a tireless booster for more than two decades at CTAM — and at NCTA before that. Char is one of the most insightful, quick-witted people I’ve ever met, and, with warmth and dignity she has had a diligent passion to help all of us succeed in ways we haven’t always believed that we could.
For many years the signature event of CTAM was its Summit, which has been discontinued. I’m on the record that the CTAM Summit was the best event in the TV industry. One of the reasons the Summit was such a refreshing event to attend was because of the relationship Char forged over the years with the Harvard Business School. That allowed her to connect with the Harvard faculty. A number of Harvard professors spoke at the CTAM Summit, bringing innovative thinking and unique perspectives to the conference.
Char and CTAM have been about cable TV’s relationship with the consumer. That’s been a tough proposition over the years, with many consumers complaining about their local cable operator. But the successes have been astounding as well, as cable experienced unprecedented growth over the past two decades. Cable’s triple play, for example, was wildly successful.
In a real sense Char and her fellow cable pioneers set out to change TV, and succeeded.
For all her success and accomplishments, Char is basically a genuinely modest person and shuns the spotlight. I know this personally because we’ve tried to honor her singular achievements. Twice.
The first time, in 2005, we wanted to name her our Cable TV Executive of the Year. Char objected. I tried to insist. She insisted that the only way she’d let us honor her at all was if we honored the entire CTAM Board. I tried to explain that the idea was to highlight the accomplishments of a single “Executive of the Year,” not a group of people. I lost the argument.
More recently, upon hearing that Char was retiring from CTAM at the end of this year, we wanted to give her a Lifetime Achievement Award to coincide with this week’s national Cable Show. We’ve only given out our Lifetime Achievement accolade a few times in our history — honoring Oprah, Roger King, Roger Ebert and a few others. The idea, as we’ve done in the past, was to do it typical trade pub style, with tribute ads.
Knowing that Char was not keen on these kind of acknowledgements, we tried to do it as a surprise — we had done that once before with Barbara York at NCTA, and that surprise had come off beautifully.
Unfortunately, quicker than ice cream melting in a microwave — to borrow a Dan Ratherism — Char caught wind of what we planned, and respectfully asked us not to move forward with our plans. So we didn’t.
But I don’t think Char will object too much to a fan singing her praises in his blog.
Over the years, I feel that Char is the best marketer I’ve ever met, because her most natural quality is empathy. She knows how to connect with people instinctively and in a heartfelt manner.
Years ago, one of my writer heroes, William Faulkner, said that what poets and writers should aspire to do is to write about the best of what people are about. To thus write about people’s spirit, Faulkner said, which is “capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”
One doesn’t have to be a writer or a poet to aim for this higher road.
By spending a career inspiring those in the cable industry to bring out the best in themselves, Char has served Faulkner’s calling well.
Marketing can easily descend into the trickery of a flim-flam man or woman. But the best of marketing, as people such as Steve Jobs or Saul Bass knew, is an honorable pursuit that can be smart and fresh and invigorating and uplifting.
That’s the kind of marketing Char has always asked the members of CTAM to aspire to.
And we’re all richer for it.
Thank you, Char.