A tribute to Spencer Kaitz, TVWeek’s Cable TV Executive of the Year: Born to Be Wired

Dec 1, 2003  •  Post A Comment

People who know Spencer Kaitz might think “Go” is his middle name. He’s a man who likes to travel, ride a bicycle and race down snow-covered hills with two narrow boards strapped to his feet. In his spare time, he’s done a little work for the cable industry.
TelevisionWeek has named Mr. Kaitz its Cable TV Executive of the Year in recognition of his “outstanding achievement as a pioneer, philanthropist, innovator and inventor in the field of cable television.”
Spencer Robert (his real middle name) Kaitz truly grew up in the cable business. His father, the legendary Walter Kaitz, worked for many years to lobby local, state and federal agencies on behalf of California’s cable operators. Long before Spencer Kaitz formally followed in his father’s footsteps, he, too, was doing cable’s business.
“I met Spencer when he was a kid,” said Bill Bresnan, chairman and CEO, Bresnan Communications. “He and his sisters would run around like pages at cable meetings, taking notes to people. It was a whole family effort.”
Mr. Kaitz’s friends and acquaintances often describe him as cerebral, thoughtful, and sometimes impatient-all traits to which he readily admits.
“I am fascinated by the study of business, political structure, economics and the interplay of government and the economy. I spend a lot of time studying that,” he said.
It must be paying off. As manager of the California Cable & Telecommunications Association’s reserve funds, Mr. Kaitz produced a gain of $800,000 last year. That’s a 10 percent positive pop in a year in which most markets were declining.
If economics is his interest, politics provides his passion. A law school graduate of the University of California at Berkeley, Mr. Kaitz began working with his father in the formative years of California’s cable industry.
The state offered a fertile ground. Several emerging multiple system operators were headquartered there, and California’s cable barons were trying to wend their way through an amorphous regulatory structure.
“My father and I worked together on building a framework that allowed us to gain access to poles, deregulated our rates and set up laws against piracy. In those days, there was nothing to prevent people from stealing cable, so you had to build laws around that,” Mr. Kaitz said.
Writing the Book
Though admittedly not a tax expert, Mr. Kaitz also helped develop the state’s handbook for assessing cable television properties. It became the blue book for tax assessment around the country.
Following the untimely death of his father in 1979, Spencer Kaitz stepped into the void.
“The acorn did not fall far from the tree,” said veteran industry watcher Paul Kagan. “California has often exported innovative ideas and trends around the nation, and Spencer was instrumental in supplying cable TV’s share. He and his band of dedicated troops sometimes had to make it up as they went along, and more often than not they got their adversaries to go along, too.”
Cable’s adversaries back then were legion. Among them was Lionel Van Deerlin, a San Diego congressman who became chairman of the powerful House subcommittee on communications. Mr. Van Deerlin was a broadcaster by trade, and was suspicious of the emergence of cable.
“Walter [Kaitz], and later Spencer, really never gave up keeping him informed and lobbying him about what was going on,” Mr. Bresnan said.
As it grew, the Western Show provided the seed money put to use by Mr. Kaitz and CCTA to push cable’s agenda in Sacramento and Washington.
The Walter Kaitz Foundation
While much of Spencer Kaitz’s work on behalf of the industry has taken place behind the scenes, his best-known efforts have come through the Walter Kaitz Foundation, which he created after his father’s death.
“Spencer has made the Kaitz Foundation into one of the leading supporters and advocates of diversity in all of American business,” said Robert Sachs, president and CEO of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association.
Mr. Kaitz started the foundation with little idea as to its purpose. He asked his cable industry cohorts to send money rather than flowers in his father’s honor. Before long, individuals and corporations were offering checks in denominations from $100 to $25,000.
Shortly after the foundation began, the California Assembly began debating laws that would have forced the cable industry to develop employment opportunities for minorities. Still searching for a role for the new foundation, Mr. Kaitz proposed using the donations to develop and promote a minority management recruitment campaign that the industry itself would sustain.
Since the first class in 1984, the foundation has supported more than 500 minority candidates who wanted to make a career in cable management.
“Spencer has made a lifelong, crucial commitment to promoting greater diversity in our industry, and we are all extremely fortunate to benefit from his vision and leadership,” said Carole Black, president and CEO, Lifetime Entertainment Services.
Focus on the Family
Family remains important to Mr. Kaitz. He and Roberta, his wife of 32 years, spend as much time as they can with their three children. Mr. Kaitz calls meeting Roberta the best thing that ever happened to him. But their union almost didn’t take place.
“I met her in law school and kept asking her out. She turned me down about 20 times before she agreed to go out with me on a Friday. On Sunday, we decided to get married,” he said.
Even now, with two grown children and a third about to graduate from high school, the Kaitz family vacations together whenever possible. “Travel is a great family activity. We have been to about 35 countries on six continents,” Mr. Kaitz said.
Last month, while visiting one of his daughters, a pre-med student at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Mr. Kaitz was stricken with appendicitis. The downtime following emergency surgery gave him a few days to ponder his future.
Although he has devoted his life to the industry he loves, Mr. Kaitz clearly does not plan to remain tethered to it. The closing of the Western Show this month will drain CCTA of its biggest revenue source. Mr. Kaitz has recommended that the CCTA board eliminate his position as a cost-cutting measure.
“I have a contract through the end of next year, but I anticipate that [the board] will act before then,” he said.
“I have enjoyed being a part of something where I was not just a widget, doing what somebody else wanted,” he added. “People who did not grow up in this industry don’t have the sense of just how exciting it really is.”