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Q&A: Spencer Kaitz, cable TV executive of the year – Signing off, Moving on.

Dec 1, 2003  •  Post A Comment

It’s difficult to catch up with Spencer Kaitz.
In November, while visiting his daughter, a pre-med student at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Mr. Kaitz, president and general counsel of the California Cable & Telecommunications Association, was stricken with appendicitis. That slowed him down just long enough to speak with TelevisionWeek contributor Lee Hall about his life in the cable business and his future plans. An edited transcript of the interview follows.
TelevisionWeek: You recently underwent an emergency appendectomy. How are you doing?
Spencer Kaitz: I’ll be fine. I have never been operated on before, so I was a little surprised that it takes so long to recover. I’m from the Bay area, so I have been telling people that I left my heart in San Francisco, but I left my appendix in Baltimore.
TVWeek: How did that affect preparations for the Western Show?
Mr. Kaitz: It just means the show will reflect the work of others more than usual.
TVWeek: Let’s talk about the show. You have been to just about every one. What are you going to remember about them?
Mr. Kaitz: Actually, 1972 was my first. I was in law school up until then. I remember so many things, but one that comes to mind happened seven or eight years ago, when Rupert Murdoch spoke. He came in early, and I had the chance to spend an hour or so in conversation with him, and I found him quite fascinating. As opposed to [John] Malone, who can cite cash flows and is a visionary, but is always anchored in numbers, Murdoch didn’t do that. He had more of a global vision.
TVWeek: The Western Show had some pretty heavy hitters over the years.
Mr. Kaitz: The show has always been a combination of show business and information. There was no better illustration of that than the year we had a panel with Ted Turner, Barry Diller, Robert Redford and Brian Roberts. We didn’t know whether Redford would come, and we kept getting mixed signals from his people. We knew that he wanted to come and promote Sundance Channel and what cable could do for independent film, but we could not get a firm commitment. We finally found out that he was really nervous, because he had not been on a live program in years. He made movies, and if there was something he didn’t like, he just yelled `Cut!’
TVWeek: That was a legendary panel and memorable for other reasons.
Mr. Kaitz: Redford was thanking Diller for making some movie that he wanted, and at one point, Turner says something like, `I’m pretty happy. I have a billion dollars, and I have Jane [Fonda, Mr. Turner’s ex-wife].’ And Redford jumps in and says, `But I had her first.’ And the room, 5,000 people, goes stone silent. Turner looks stunned, but never a man at a loss for words, he says something like, `I guess I’m just going after you, Robert, picking up your leftovers.’ And that cracked everybody up.
TVWeek: Brian Roberts made some fairly prescient statements that day as well, didn’t he?
Mr. Kaitz: He made one of the most elegant presentations I have ever heard about the future of the industry. It was based on an article that had been written by the head of Coca-Cola at the time, in which he had said that the reason Coke was so successful was because of Pepsi. Brian made the analogy that cable was going to have to learn to deal with that kind of competition, and that it should adopt Coke’s attitude and learn from competition. It was brilliant, and nobody cared, because of what Turner and Redford and Diller got into.
TVWeek: You always tried to keep a focus on regulation at the show. What areas concern you most nowadays?
Mr. Kaitz: Programming, for one, and when the industry will regain the right to create its own proprietary programming. We ought to get our rights back to do that. Now, if programming is delivered by satellite, it has to be shared with DirecTV and DISH [Network], and that amounts to a subsidy to them. Regulation of the Internet is going to be a huge issue. Privacy rules will spill over into our business.
TVWeek: What made you decide to become a lawyer?
Mr. Kaitz: My father, of course, was a lawyer, and I have always been fascinated by business and political structure. I love to go back and forth with John Malone, because he is so negative toward much of what government does, and he’s very libertarian in his views. I point out that it would not be possible for him to be a billionaire without the legal structure around him. My life’s work has been to create a legal framework that works in this most important of countries for this combination of great technology and services that is cable. I could not have asked for a better focus for my life.
TVWeek: Does cable still excite you?
Mr. Kaitz: Oh, imagine how exciting it was in the 1990s, when all of a sudden, along came these new opportunities to provide telephone and Internet services. We are still in the early stages of developing a whole legal framework around the Internet, and this is going to continue for a long time.
TVWeek: You have recommended to the California Cable Television Association board that your position be eliminated as a way to save money. If that happens, what will you do?
Mr. Kaitz: Oh, I would ask somebody for a job somewhere. I don’t have a specific plan. My first goal is to do the best I can by the association. It’s not appropriate for me to go out there and peddle a resume at this point.
TVWeek: What are your thoughts going into what is to be the final Western Show?
Mr. Kaitz: I don’t want the show to be retrospective. This is an industry that should always be moving ahead, toward a greater future. The cable business never got dull, and it’s not dull today.