Cable Industry Vet Wilt Hildenbrand Dead at 70

Wilt Hildenbrand, a long-time exec of Cablevision Systems Corp. and cable engineering pioneer and industry legend, has died of a heart attack at the age of 70, multiple people in the industry have confirmed.

During his cable career, Hildenbrand spent about three decades with Cablevision, starting there as chief engineer of the company's Long Island system in 1976, and rose to become its top technology and engineering executive, including many years as Cablevision's executive vice president of technology and engineering. He also served as director of engineering for Rainbow Media Holdings from 1979 to 1986, where he designed and built a microwave network that cablecast baseball games and later became the SportsChannel.

Hildenbrand, who was retired and a mentor to many, also served as a senior advisor at Cablevision, focused on customer care, technology and networks, prior to Cablevision’s acquisition by Altice in 2016.

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Hildenbrand, known as a straight-shooter and for his penchant for salty language, led Cablevision’s technology and engineering strategy over the decades, enabling the operator to go in ambitious directions that did not always match the path being taken by many of Cablevision’s U.S. peers.

Under his leadership, for example, Cablevision made the move to digital video services without being forced into what was then a video conditional access/security duopoly that was dominated by General Instrument/Motorola and Scientific Atlanta. Cablevision, instead, carved out a path with NDS, using Simulcrypt, that provided Cablevision with more flexibility that many of its U.S. MSO peers. Cablevision eventually did a big deal that included S-A set-tops and headends, but was able to keep the NDS conditional access element (initially by using a Smartcard), a decision that later paved the way toward Cablevision’s rollout of a downloadable security platform.

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Cablevision also went against the grain in 2002 via an eye-opening, $1 billion set-top deal with Sony and, in another controversial move, even left CableLabs for a brief period. It was also an early adopter of a cloud-based system from ActiveVideo (now a joint venture of Charter Communications and Arris) that delivered interactive applications to older, non-IP-speaking set-top boxes.

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Hildenbrand was also at the technology helm at Cablevision as it faced off against Verizon Fios and developed new, faster broadband offerings to stave off the new fiber-fueled threat. Cablevision, for example, was a first mover among U.S. MSOs to tee up a 100 Mbps residential broadband offering.

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Among his industry accolades, Hildenbrand in 2005 was recognized with a Vanguard Award in the area of Science & Technology. He was also honored as CED’s “Man of the Year” in its January 1996 issue, which detailed some of Cablevision's early work in new areas such as "enhanced" pay-per-view and video-on-demand. 

"We're small, we don't have that much staff, and we're busy," he told CED then, unapologetic that Cablevision’s technology decisions tended to zig when the rest of the MSOs were zagging. "This is a high-task company, so we don't spend a lot of time pontificating, we just go do."

He didn't think of himself as a contrarian, but didn't mind that he (and Cablevision) sometimes thought out of the box. "I cherish that. I really do," he said. "I think differently about a lot of things. I'm just weird. I accept that."

Long before the days OTT video, Hildenbrand knew that the only constant for the cable industry was change and that operators would need to continually evolve.

“There’s no one piece to this constantly changing puzzle,” he told Multichannel News in this Q&A from 2005. “For me, the key to surviving this is you have to pull back away from it a little bit and look at the whole mosaic and see what direction it points to. If you look at any one of the things too closely, they look like ends to themselves.”

Even then, he realized that the future of the set-top box would include the integration of broadband connectivity – for content and interactive apps -- as cable modem services were still in their nascent stages.

“What if the set-top box also could leverage the high-bandwidth platform? What could I do to enhance the set-top applications?” he asked.

He also understood the importance of intuitive, next-gen set-top box navigation as VOD started to become a key part of cable’s video arsenal.

“I could put 10,000 video-on-demand movies on the system,” he said. “The challenge is how do I get you to know they are there? And how do I get you to navigate through them? Without figuring out the answer to navigation, all the other things we’re working on are trite.”

In addition to being an important, influential figure in his own industry, Cablevision customers also appreciated Hildenbrand’s candor and the direct attention he provided, often engaging with them on an individual basis. Several customers, including those who recall personal interactions with Hildenbrand, have been expressing their gratitude and sharing stories on the DSL Reports message board following word of his passing.

Multichannel News will share more details, including information about memorial services for Hildenbrand, as they become available.