Cable Mourns John Higgins

Broadcasting & Cable business editor John Higgins was remembered fondly by cable and financial executives last week as a tough but fair reporter with a gentle soul.

Higgins was “the finest business journalist to ever walk through the media industry” because he brought enormous value to an industry that needed tough questions asked financially, according to Leo Hindery Jr., former chairman of Yankees Entertainment & Sports Network and president of Tele-Communications Inc., when it was the nation's largest cable operator.

Higgins died last Monday of a heart attack at St. Mary Hospital in Hoboken, N.J. The veteran industry journalist served as finance editor for Multichannel News for eight years, then joined B&C in 1997. He was 45.

B&C editor in chief Max Robins called Higgins “the heart and soul” of the magazine. Higgins' stories and scoops often bested not only the trade competition but major papers such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, he noted.

Cable was entering a boom period when Higgins began covering the industry as the finance editor for MCN in 1989. At the time of his arrival, Tom Freston had just been named chairman and CEO of MTV Networks and Sen. Al Gore proposed legislation to regulate the cable industry.

“Even though he had no experience in cable, I knew he was perfect for the job within the first five minutes of the interview,” said Joe Boyle, who was editor of Multichannel News at the time. “He added a dimension to our news and finance coverage that had not existed beforehand and brought a level of intensity and curiosity that was unmatched by anyone who makes his living doing business reporting.”

His tenacity was noticed by the executives he covered. “He was a witty, insightful reporter who pulled no punches, but was always fair. John was one of a kind, and he will be greatly missed,” said Brian Roberts, chairman of today's largest cable system operator, Comcast.

Answering the phone with the distinct and demonstrative greeting “Higgins,” he quickly built a reputation for being hard-nosed and dogged in his pursuit of stories.

Among the stories Higgins was noted for: a critical analysis of MTV Networks' business operations this past July that preceded by two months the eventual ousting of Tom Freston as the CEO of MTVN parent Viacom. Earlier this month, Higgins was the first to mention NBC Universal Cable and Domestic TV and New Media Distribution president David Zaslav as a candidate for the Discovery Communications CEO position. A decade ago in MCN, he shined the spotlight on questionable telemarketing tactics of a cable network called KidzTime TV.

Higgins was a quintessential “shoe-leather” journalist, according to Zaslav, who was named to the Discovery slot two weeks ago. “I would often try to throw him off the scent, but he always knew too much and had a way of knowing when a story didn't add up,” he added.

Over time, Higgins became “the best financial analyst not on Wall Street,” said veteran media industry analyst Tom Wolzien. In the process, Higgins often became a source for analysts and executives to get financial dirt on other cable companies.

“He had a network that went everywhere — in a way he was the network and a focal point for ideas and swapping information and spying on the competition,” said Wolzien.

But while his professional exterior may have been rough, his colleagues and friends say he had a gentle soul, working regularly, for instance, in soup kitchens after the Sept. 11, 2001, tragedies.

He is survived by his wife, Deborah Marrone, in Hoboken.

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.