By Adam Sandler
Special to TelevisionWeek
John Sie may have stepped down from the day-to-day running of Starz, but he is not far from the action.
Since leaving his post earlier this year as CEO of the Starz Encore Group, the company he founded and led for 13 years, Mr. Sie has been able to spend more time with family and friends while contributing to local and international quality-of-life issues through the Anna and John J. Sie Foundation.
But for a guy who is supposed to be enjoying the rewards of a successful career, he still sounds like a man on a mission. He is quick to chastise the press and “cable gurus” for confusing pay-per-view with subscription video-on-demand, and he still peppers his conversation with talk of future initiatives.
Mr. Sie offered some predictions about what the coming years hold for television, the film business and the Internet that if articulated by anyone else might be considered mere pie in the sky. But Mr. Sie’s prognostications have a way of coming true. He is recognized as a rare visionary who helped pioneer every sector of the cable industry, from technology to public policy and from system operations to programming. Along the way he led the charge for development of two-way cable television, the creation of the Showtime premium television channel, the development of urban cable systems and the funding of numerous programming networks, such as the Discovery Channel and BET.
Mr. Sie also helped the industry dismiss the fiber-optic push by the telecommunications companies and led the effort to establish a digital television standard in the United States against a competing analog version being advanced by powerful foreign electronics firms. In the process, he paved the way for the SVOD concept that has become widely adopted as the industry’s business platform.
“John is a brutally hard worker,” said Que Spaulding, a former president of distribution at Starz! who worked for Mr. Sie for 13 years, at both Starz! and Showtime. “But he never asked his people to do anything he would not do. His drive was intense. But he’s also extremely bright and really knows the business.”
Mr. Sie is not resting on his laurels. “There are still many things I want to accomplish,” he said. “Some will be in business, others involving geopolitics and the foundation. I will also remain available to the people at Starz.”
He said he would also be available to Liberty Media Corp.’s John Malone, who, when he was president of Jerrold Electronics, gave Mr. Sie his first cable business job in 1972. When Mr. Malone established Tele-Communications Inc., Mr. Sie served as a senior VP. Mr. Malone eventually sold TCI to AT&T but kept control of Liberty, Starz’s parent company.
“John has been my best mentor,” Mr. Sie said.
Before working for Mr. Malone, Mr. Sie began his career in 1958 as a senior member of RCA’s defense electronics division, which he left to establish Micro State Electronics, an aerospace subsidiary of defense contractor Raytheon.
Mr. Sie founded the Encore Media Group in 1991 as a way of offering thematic packaging of both library and first-run movies.
The move was a bold one. The subscription television business was faltering as more cable channels became available under one pricing structure. Many in the industry were questioning its viability. Some even considered it dead.
“We weren’t even first in the market; we were third. So we had to create value for the consumer that didn’t exist at the others,” said Mark Bauman, the recently retired interim CEO whom Mr. Sie recruited as an executive at the birth of Starz. “John was so convinced of what this could become that we all were. But the industry thought the whole business was over.”
The industry was wrong. Starz’s premium television business generated almost $1 billion in revenues in 2003, Mr. Sie said.
Mr. Sie is now looking toward what he sees as the industry’s next milestone: an all-Internet-protocol platform for television, which he believes will be a reality as broadband becomes more commonplace. The suggestion is another Sie-ism that has raised eyebrows.
“It is my belief that within the next 10 years all television will be distributed through Internet-protocol TV,” Mr. Sie said. “The technology is there, and once it becomes widely available, things will move forward very quickly.”
Those who have followed Mr. Sie’s 40-year run of setting industry standards know not to bet against him. He is largely credited with convincing the industry decades ago to adopt a digital standard rather than the advanced analog one that was being promoted.
Colleagues recalled that at the time, Mr. Sie would call the new analog platform a “`Flintstones’ technology,” even though powerful Japanese electronics firms and even the U.S. Congress were supporting its widespread adoption as the industry moved into high-definition television.
Mr. Bauman said that in the early days of Starz, keeping up with Mr. Sie was tough. “If you were shy, you wouldn’t have done well with John. He wants you to be as engaged as he is-even if you have a dissenting opinion. He wants to hear you defend it.”
Mr. Bauman described Mr. Sie’s management style as that of “an onion peeler. He will keep asking questions, peeling away each layer until the core is reached and the answer is revealed. The process can be painful, but it yields results.”
Mr. Sie brings that same tenacity to his foundation’s efforts, which so far have helped fund the Denver Film Center, Denver’s School of Science and Technology high school, the Denver Art Museum and numerous other civic, social and educational institutions.
One of Mr. Sie’s many goals is to help Denver become known for both an annual film festival and the film school, which serves as a resource for the creative community in the Denver area and in Hollywood.
He also wants to tackle geopolitical issues, such as “bridging a meaningful understanding between the two peoples” of the United States and China.
Mr. Sie owes much to both cultures. In 1949, at the age of 13, he left his Chinese homeland during the Communist revolution and came to the United States, where he learned English by copying phrases from the classroom blackboard and spending hours at home each night with an English dictionary.
“He would say he was more on track in China to becoming a hoodlum than a businessman,” Mr. Spaulding said. “So when he came here, he was driven not to embarrass his family. And that set him on a course to succeed.”
When he’s not trying to develop the next big thing, Mr. Sie spends time at home with his wife, Anna. The couple, married for 30 years, has built a home in Cherry Hills, Colo., a suburb of Denver. Colleagues who have taken the tour noted that the house is filled with ultra-high-tech equipment.
Just as he has authored new rules for the cable business, Mr. Sie has a prediction for the film industry: Within several years, the major studios will premiere their films not in movie theaters but in homes on-demand, mainly on giant flat-screen TV sets equipped with digital high-definition signals. He suggested that large numbers of consumers would watch such premieres.
“Hollywood follows the money,” he said. “If they see an economic benefit, they will become involved.”