Cable TV Lifetime Achievement Award: Jim Robbins Tribute

Dec 19, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Publisher’s note: The following commentary about our 2005 TelevisionWeek Cable TV Lifetime Achievement honoree, Jim Robbins, marks the debut of Marianne Paskowski as a TelevisionWeek columnist. Marianne is, quite simply, the most well-known cable TV journalist in the country. She ran Multichannel News for close to 15 years.

As my friend Bill McGorry, the former top publishing executive at Multichannel, has said about Marianne, “Multichannel News was saved by the decision to hire her as editor, and a new era began.”

We think our next era here at TVWeek will be positively marked by our decision to rehire her. I say rehire, because right before Marianne went to Multichannel 15 year ago, she was our New York bureau chief when we were known as ELECTRONIC MEDIA. Let me quote something Bill Bresnan, a true legend in the cable business, once wrote about Marianne: “I’ve marveled at your uncanny knack for charming a story out of anybody and everybody as well as your superb ability to take on tough issues and give them the airing they so often deserve.”

I can’t improve on that accolade. And how about this recent assessment from Pam Euler Halling at Insight Communications: Marianne is “cable’s Maureen Dowd-sexy, smart, provocative. And you can quote me on that.” Wow.

So please join me in welcoming Marianne back to Crain Communications and TelevisionWeek. To paraphrase the famous line: Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a wonderfully insightful, and yes, sometimes bumpy, read.

-Chuck Ross

So Long to a Cable Business Legend

By Marianne Paskowski

Cox Communications’ Jim Robbins, who Forbes named as one of the Most Powerful People in Business in 2000 and 2001, is retiring from the company he has led for the past two decades. Under his leadership, Cox has quadrupled in size.

The cable industry, which is again under the regulatory microscope, will miss his steady hand and his knack for getting things done in his own strong-willed style.

Beneath that patrician and often brusque public persona is a man who really cares about people.

Before I could even get in my first question for this piece, he asked how my 4-year-old yellow lab Lucy was doing. He has his own Lucy-same age, gender and breed. Both are obedience school dropouts and remain intractable. Not surprisingly, Mr. Robbins is currently reading “Marley & Me,” a book subtitled, “Life and Love With the World’s Worst Dog.”

So what can be said about Jim Robbins that one can’t learn by searching Google? Well, let’s just sum up the official party line and jump to the juicy stuff.

After leading Cox Communications, the nation’s third-largest multiple sytem operator, as its president and CEO since 1985, Mr. Robbins is taking leave of Cox-and Atlanta, where the company is headquartered-and will split his time between Boston and Jupiter, Fla. He intends to do more reading, play more golf and serve on several corporate and charity boards. He also threatens to get our two Lucys together on Cape Cod, where I live, and he has a place nearby.

The 63-year-old Mr. Robbins says he doesn’t want to “smother the next generation” with his ongoing presence. The bench strength he leaves behind is considerable. Succeeding him are Patrick Esser, who steps up to president of Cox Communications, and Jimmy Hayes, who was promoted to executive VP of parent company Cox Enterprises. Mr. Esser, who has served in various roles at Cox for the past 26 years, will report to Mr. Hayes, a 25-year veteran with Cox.

But Mr. Robbins is not entirely severing the umbilical cord-he will continue to serve on the Cox Communications board and will join the board of Cox Enterprises come the first of the year.

Sour Taste?

When asked, “Why now?” he’ll tell you he doesn’t want a “sour finish.”

That’s hard to imagine, given his track record of success and numerous awards. But some sources who did not want to be identified for this article said that last March, after the parent company had taken Cox Communications private in a reported $8.5 billion deal, Cox asked Mr. Robbins to sell TCA Cable-a rather recent acquisition-to reduce debt.

Cox had just acquired TCA Cable in 1999 and had laid out some capital expenditures to upgrade those systems. They operate in less-profitable rural areas, as opposed to the metropolitan areas that Cox typically serves. Those sources said that Cox paid between $4,000 and $4,500 per sub for the 940,000 basic cable customers it bought from TCA Cable.

Cox is now wrapping up the sale of those systems to Cebridge Connections, an MSO headquartered in St. Louis, for an undisclosed sum. That deal is expected to close in the second quarter of 2006. Some sources suggest that Cox is getting only $2,000 to $2,500 a subscriber, or about half of what it originally paid for the TCA Cable systems.

Mr. Robbins would not discuss terms of the sale but admitted that he was sorry those systems had to be sold and that he felt bad about the many Cox people who worked so hard to upgrade them: “The parent company took on a lot of debt in going private, and this move [to sell TCA Cable] was the least painful.”

When pressed again about the price tag Cox was fetching for TCA, and whether the company had left money on the table at a time when cable MSOs’ valuations are hitting a new low, Mr. Robbins would only comment that Cox bought TCA as a stock purchase and that it was actually a good deal. He would say no more-the beauty of working for a company that is privately held.

The Art of His Deals

Frankly, I would be surprised if Cox didn’t get a decent dime for the TCA systems, in a deal that I believe, but cannot prove, involves cash. We’ll probably never know. But Mr. Robbins is not known for leaving a nickel, yet alone a dime, on the table.

For example, programmers say he is a shrewd but extremely fair negotiator, which is rather refreshing to hear given that network chieftains are more often than not at loggerheads with cable MSOs during contract renewal time. Those negotiations can get pretty ugly, and the contracts being written up these days are the size of a Manhattan telephone book, replete with terms on retransmission consent, VOD and other new stipulations.

These deals can be all about tough love. Consider the nasty surprise Court TV received from Mr. Robbins back in 1998, when he notified the cable network that it would be dropped from Cox’s cable systems. That was at a time when Henry Schleiff first came on board as Court TV’s chief and was shocked to hear this news from “the one cable guy I knew then,” Mr. Schleiff recalled.

Their relationship dates to 1978. The two first met while working at Viacom. Mr. Schleiff was an attorney in the legal department and Mr. Robbins was heading what was then Viacom Cable of Long Island, N.Y. They still play golf together at Mr. Schleiff’s summer retreat in the Hamptons.

But back to 1998, when Court TV got its drop notice from Cox. “Jim comes from the ‘show me’ school: ‘Show me that you are delivering on your promises,'” Mr. Schleiff said. Back then, he concedes, Court TV deserved to be dropped, as it was getting a 0.1 rating “on a good day.”

Mr. Schleiff did much to rehabilitate the ailing Court TV. One of his first bold programming moves was to buy syndicated reruns of “Homicide.” Within a year, Cox had restored Court TV to all of its systems and it remains one of the network’s largest distributors today.

If those sound like hardball tactics, that negotiation was small potatoes compared with what later ensued between Cox and ESPN. It was 2003 and ESPN was negotiating its renewal rates with cable MSOs and demanding 20 percent increases or more, depending on the size of the MSO. That came out to about $2.50 a sub.

Mr. Robbins, who eschews government regulation-and now says it’s ironic that this Republican administration has given more heartburn to the cable industry despite its p
ro-business lip service-testified before Congress back then that the ESPN rate hike in particular was one of the reasons that cable operators had to pass these costs on to their customers. He further suggested that cable operators offer sports programming to customers on a separate tier for an additional charge.

That remark infuriated the House of the Mouse. Michael Eisner, then chairman of The Walt Disney Co.-which owns 80 percent of ESPN-called Mr. Robbins a “whiner,” according to published reports. The Cox chieftain fired back, accusing Disney of “goofy” math.

Some industry observers were appalled that the situation escalated to the point that it did and thought Cox made a public relations mistake by taking the matter to lawmakers. They didn’t want to become entangled in the imbroglio and made their own deals with ESPN. And shortly thereafter, so did Cox.

Mr. Robbins is well aware of the criticism, but today maintains that “we did it the right way,” his point being that it was necessary to air the problem and strike a balance between programmers and operators. The ESPN episode is a further example of Mr. Robbins’ brusque but effective way of getting the job done.

As for George Bodenheimer, the president of ESPN and ABC Sports who was the point man during the negotiations, Mr. Robbins told me, “George is a friend, but he had a tough boss-Michael Eisner.” Though Mr. Robbins has no kind words to say about the recently retired Disney chief, he does note that, oddly enough, he and Mr. Eisner were born in the same hospital in a New York suburb only months apart in 1942.

Mr. Bodenheimer now sums up what was then-and still remains-one of the most heated debates over programming rate increases: “We had some interesting times along the way. But I loved Jim’s passion for this industry and sports.”

Who Doesn’t Love Jim?

A woman who should have a grudge to bear about her former boss is Cox Communications former Chief Operating Officer Maggie Bellville, who abruptly left the MSO in early 2002 after a seven-year stint-only four months after Women in Cable & Telecommunications feted her in the fall of 2001

Mr. Robbins wasn’t present at the WICT gala, needing to attend a golf tournament in Florida. His absence from that black-tie event got tongues wagging. Ms. Bellville’s subsequent departure from Cox was apparently one of those “we agree to disagree” moves, but many whispered at the time that Cox was the party more in disagreement.

Today Ms. Bellville is a partner at Carter Baldwin, an executive search firm in Atlanta. She specializes in placing cable and telecommunications executives and bringing new blood to mature industries.

In a sad turn of events, Ms. Bellville’s husband Lew was recently diagnosed with cancer. She said that Mr. Robbins was one of the first people to call her upon hearing the bad news and immediately referred her to a top oncologist at Emory University. Mr. Bellville is now on the mend and responding well to treatment, she said.

Strangely enough, oldtime cable veterans such as Landmark Communications President and CEO Decker Anstrom view Mr. Robbins as a mentor, even though they’ve all been kicking up the same turf for about the same amount of time. Mr. Anstrom, before joining Landmark, had been the long-revered president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association. Mr. Robbins served as NCTA chairman for two terms and was a champion of cable’s on-time guarantee and a zealot about not raising rates in the face of re-regulation, Mr. Anstrom said.

Cox is one of the few cable MSOs that is not raising rates to customers this January, at a time when home heating and energy-related bills are soaring. That’s good business, given the intensifying competitive wars at hand with satellite, telcos and various Internet players such as Google.

Char Beales, who has been heading up CTAM for more than a decade, also reveres Mr. Robbins as a mentor. She says he taught her the ropes. She recalls heading her first CTAM summit in 1992 in San Francisco. To add to her new job jitters, one of the speakers, who was supposed to appear on a panel that Mr. Robbins was moderating, dropped dead while jogging the morning the panel was to be held.

“I didn’t know what to do, but I called Jim before he went on stage and he took care of it with grace and appropriateness in his opening remarks at that 9 a.m. session. He’s a clear guiding rudder for the industry and a guy to turn to,” Ms. Beales said. He’s clearly a guy you want in your foxhole, agreed all the people I spoke with about Mr. Robbins.

The cable industry is, after all, still tight-knit, even after all of the industry consolidation. One reason is that it sometimes seems that everyone who is a veteran in the industry has a son or a daughter or a niece who also happens to be employed in the sector.

Case in point: A story told by Chris Moseley, Hallmark Channel’s chief marketing officer, about her early days at Discovery Networks and meetings she’d have with Mr. Robbins. Then, as now, Cox owned a chunk of Discovery.

“When I would mention his niece Cassie Robbins, who worked on my marketing team, he would light up just talking about her,” Ms. Moseley recalled. Nepotism aside, she said that, like former President Bill Clinton, “Jim has this knack for making you feel like you are the most important person in the room.”

But heaven help you if you’ve seen the less-than-charming side of Jim Robbins. I’ve seen him push aside persistent reporters like gnats if he wasn’t in the mood to talk and bite off some heads if his travel plans were not running smoothly.

A Fond Farewell

Looking back at his career with Cox, Mr. Robbins is proud of three things: He built a great team; believed in and executed great customer service; and was the creator of the bundle of video, high-speed data and telephony. His advice to the industry that he is leaving: Execute well.

As Landmark’s Mr. Anstrom pointed out, Cox is the MSO that has lost the fewest subscribers to direct broadcast satellite. How that track record will evolve is anyone’s guess, with the telcos-Verizon and SBC in particular-coming on strong. But Mr. Robbins thinks cable is well positioned in future competitive wars if it remains nimble. The only competitive edge the telcos have right now is staging pricing wars, and that is not a sustainable business model in the end, Mr. Robbins said.

Mr. Robbins, the winner of many industry awards-including NCTA’s Distinguished Leadership award in 1996 and this 2005 TelevisionWeek Cable TV Lifetime Achievement honor-is about to have another honor bestowed on him.

Come March 7, 2006, Cable Positive, the nonprofit organization that fights AIDS in the workplace, is honoring him in New York at its annual fund-raising dinner.

As you read this piece, Mr. Robbins is probably attending another farewell dinner or roast-something he’s been trying to discourage. But his many pals won’t let him off the hook. Court TV’s Mr. Schleiff has a little roast in mind.

As it turns out, Mr. Robbins is a little smitten with actress Candice Bergen, with whom he attended school at the University of Pennsylvania. He once bragged to Mr. Schleiff that Ms. Bergen recognized him at a Hollywood restaurant and in her unmistakable Murphy Brown voice said, “Hiya, Big Jim.”

So Court TV, as part of its roast, is preparing a tape for “Big Jim,” with Bob Rose, the network’s executive VP of affiliate relations, wearing a yellow mop on his head, doing a takeoff of the actress flirting with Mr. Robbins.

A fun sendoff for a cable pioneer who not only did his duty to the cable industry by upholding high standards, but served his country with two tours in the U.S. Navy in Vietnam. His first tour of duty was as a line officer on a destroyer, much like the post he held for 20 years at Cox: fighting off the enemies at hand.

His second Vietnam tour was in the role of deputy public affairs officer. And many in this industry hope
that he will continue, as he has in the past, to help elevate cable’s image and continue the battle with lawmakers who once again are trying to rewrite the rules.

Marianne Paskowski can be reached at mpcable@aol.com or by phone at 508-255-3990.