Cable History Makers

When Bob Gerrard joined Home Box Office in 1982, he was surprised to find that three of his most prominent colleagues were, like him, African-American. “Coming out of a white-shoe law firm, it was a bit like heaven for me,” Gerrard recalls.

Cable was a young industry and in some ways, was more diverse than much of corporate America. Gerrard, who today is executive vice president and general counsel at Scripps Networks, worked in HBO’s legal department, drafting contracts between the network and its affiliates. He had been recruited by another black attorney, Neil Brown, and his two most important in-house clients were Stanley Thomas, vice president of national accounts, and Don Anderson, who ran HBO’s West Coast affiliate relations effort. At the time, Anderson and Thomas were the two highest-ranking African-Americans in the cable industry.

Outside HBO, other African-Americans were helping to shape the burgeoning cable industry.

Don Barden had won the franchise to wire the city of Detroit in 1979 and was building his system, while Percy Sutton, owner of New York’s hottest radio station, had won the franchise for Brooklyn. Clarence Washington was wiring Newark, N.J.; Bill Williams owned KBLE in Columbus, Ohio; and John Wade won the franchise for West Philadelphia, Pa.

In many other cities, African-Americans joined cable companies to help win urban franchises. Gayle Greer, a social worker who had begun her career at the National Urban League, joined the Denver operation of Time Inc.’s American Television & Communications, while L. Patrick Mellon worked for the systems company TeleCable.

“There have been a host of black entrepreneurs and executives who played significant roles in the development of this industry,” says Doug Holloway, president of cable investments at NBC Universal Cable. Holloway joined CBS Cable’s affiliate sales operation in 1980 and before long, he was heading USA Network’s distribution effort.

It was a heady time for African-Americans in cable, but only a decade before, it hadn’t been so.

In 1972, when he took a job as a lobbyist at the then National Cable Television Association, Anderson was one of the first African-Americans to enter the industry.

An entrepreneur who owned audio/video studios, Anderson was intrigued by cable’s potential, and particularly its prospects for wiring big cities, where it would create business opportunities for minorities. He was also an activist who wanted to see more African-American images in the media, and particularly on television. For that reason, he joined Blacks for Soul in Television, an advocacy group that had convinced Congress to name an African-American, Ben Hooks, to the Federal Communications Commission. Later, when the NCTA began looking for an African-American lobbyist to improve its chances with Hooks and the other FCC commissioners, Anderson got the job.

“My coming into the industry was a big deal at that time,” Anderson recalls in an oral history he recorded for the Cable Center. “There were no African-Americans here. Cable was still rural. There were no minorities being elected to city government at that time, and they had a very minor presence in Washington.”

Anderson rarely felt isolated. He was too intrigued with the developing cable industry. When Gerald Levin, Time Inc. vice president at the time, offered him a job helping to launch HBO, he moved to New York and began lining up cable operators to carry the network’s microwave signal.

Later, Anderson established and ran HBO’s western region affiliate relations effort, and became the first African-American to be named a vice president at HBO parent Time Inc.

By 1980, African-Americans outside the industry had begun to have an impact. Black officials occupied key positions on the city councils that controlled franchise negotiations in big cities across the U.S., and they asked cable companies what kind of programming they’d be providing for minority audiences.

An NCTA lobbyist named Robert Johnson gave cable operators an answer to that question when he launched Black Entertainment Television, the country’s first network targeted to African-Americans.

Johnson had gotten most of his financing from Tele-Communications Inc. president John Malone, but a critically important boost came from Anderson, who convinced HBO to invest in the new network.

To hedge its bet, HBO put Anderson in charge of managing the BET investment, and essentially loaned him to BET’s top management staff. There, he built and ran the network’s marketing and affiliate relations operations.

As Johnson was getting BET off the ground, black executives like Greer, Mellon, Holloway, Thomas and Anderson had begun meeting periodically to network. Their group, which would evolve into the National Association for Multi-Ethnicity in Cable, wanted to make it easier for minorities to take advantage of the industry’s opportunities. Key early members also included Joe Lawson, a marketer for Manhattan Cable, and Nate Garner, who ran the uptown Manhattan franchise for ATC.

The group thrived, and in 1985, Curtis Symonds, an affiliate relations rep for ESPN, and Ty Christian, who worked for Group W Cable, launched a Chicago chapter.

Even then, NAMIC served as a haven for black executives, some of whom were the sole minorities working for white companies. Others were finding it hard to advance, despite their MBAs and experience.

Then came the 1990s. The waves of consolidation that began early in the decade convinced black cable operators to sell their systems. At the same time, the shrinking number of power positions in the industry frustrated upwardly mobile minority executives, who found it increasingly difficult to advance their careers.

Some who departed have done remarkably well in other fields, causing those who stayed to wonder what would have had they left cable. Barden sold his system to Comcast in 1994, and used his profits to build an empire that now includes four casinos and a real-estate development firm. In 2003, Barden Cos. ranked as the sixth largest minority owned business in the U.S., ahead of Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions.

Even Johnson sold out, turning BET over to Viacom Inc., which could bring more clout to distributing the network and its digital offspring, such as BET Jazz and BET Gospel.

Clayton Banks, a bright young affiliate relations executive at HBO, moved to Sega Channel and Comedy Central before leaving the industry to start his own company, Ember Media, which markets interactive communications.

Banks is currently one of several prominent candidates, along with Time Warner chairman Richard Parsons, to be recognized with a 2005 Ten Award, presented by the Executive Council of New York. The council encourages business development, and its annual Ten Awards recognize the metro region’s most prominent innovators.

Some of the African-Americans who left the industry clearly did so to pursue entrepreneurial goals, but others sought higher positions at cable companies before setting out on their own. Scores of others, many of them drawn to the industry through fellowships offered by the Walter Kaitz Foundation, have also departed cable.

“Most of the past presidents of NAMIC have left the industry,” says Lawson, who today is president of marketing for Grace Consulting. “What happened to them is the same thing that’s happened to executives who get fairly senior in their companies. They ran into the glass ceiling.”

Ann Carlsen, founder of executive search firm Carlsen Resources and a former NAMIC board member, says that while companies are more interested in hiring minorities, the chances of some moving into executive positions hasn’t changed much over the years. “People are more interested in hiring minorities than they were five years ago,” she says. “But is it easier for minorities to get promoted? Maybe a little bit, but nothing I’ve noticed says it is.”

This doesn’t mean the situation is dire. The overall number of minority executives in cable may be small, Lawson says, but that hides the fact that some companies do a far better job of nurturing minority managers than others. “There has been tremendous progress in some companies and not so much in others,” he says.

And further industry consolidation may not squeeze out as many minority executives. There is the hope that enlightened companies will consider them vital to piloting their course in an increasingly diverse American marketplace.

That said, “you run the risk, when you consolidate, of picking people who think the way you do, and that’s not a good thing downstream,” says Albert Cheng, executive vice president of digital media at Disney-ABC Television Group. “You need people to challenge institutional thinking and understand the market.”

Clearly, the growing number of channels targeting viewers with ethnic programming suggest strong needs to keep a diverse work force. Three channels now serve the black community, and close to 90 services target Hispanics. And there is a trio of Asian channels up and running.

In the end, the pioneering African-Americans who helped shape cable’s development in the 1970s and 1980s continue to influence the business today through NAMIC, which keeps the conversation about diversity alive. Many currently involved in that conversation believe the industry has put in place the structures, like diversity councils and training programs, to groom minorities for top company posts. What needs to happen now, they say, is understanding.

Minority managers working in largely white environments say they often experience slights, like being left out of meetings, not copied on memos or not included in a piece of information. The impact of those actions, over time, can convince a minority manager that he or she doesn’t have a future in the organization.

How does a white manager prevent such behavior, if he or she doesn’t know it is occurring?

“Ask,” replies Eric Brown, senior vice president of Charter Communications Inc.’s western division. “Look to folks in your organization. Draw them in to be candid with you. Talk about both the reality and the perception. Sometimes, it’s not real, but it’s perceived. Sometimes, the boss and people don’t want to talk for fear of retaliation or being the squeaky wheel, but you have to find a way to tap into it. If you don’t, how do you know that all folks feel they have an equal opportunity to be hired and promoted?”

He adds, “Not knowing, is as bad as being intentional about it.”

Banks, who was president of NAMIC in 1997 and 1998, would seem to agree. “Definitely companies are using diversity programs more than when I was president.”

What needs to happen now, he adds, is a change of heart. “One of the profound things about injustice is the division between the mind and the heart. We can do things in the mind, like set up diversity programs, but if someone is racist, things won’t really change. The bottom line is, you have to get into someone’s heart. This is a real issue. Our industry definitely does the right thing by the head, but it’s difficult to change hearts. It will take some time.”