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CTAM: At the Forefront of Invention

Twenty-five years ago, Jimmy Carter was President and the last American troops had left Vietnam, fax machines were becoming more commonplace and Microsoft was just a little start-up in Seattle. A couple of guys in a garage named their venture "Apple Computer" and Ted Turner established WTBS in Atlanta. Cable was in its infancy, sewing the seeds of customer choice that would change our concept of television and the consumer forever.

History has a funny way of repeating itself. Back then, cable entrepreneurs were viewed with skepticism. The broadcast networks were so invested in the mindset of commanding large audiences that they were slow to respond to this new opportunity, and did not see the value of a niche. Nor were they looking to the future to anticipate what consumers would want.

In the burgeoning cable business, a few hearty souls were willing to take enormous personal and professional risks and ride the wave of innovation that has become the hallmark of this industry. Then, as now, new technologies were not just transferring consumers to a new platform, but the platform itself was transforming their behavior. All of the assumptions about customer relationships and loyalty went out the window. Twenty-five years ago, the cable industry envisioned a future that many said would never come to pass. Today, the cable television industry has become a shining example of innovation.

Cable executives are continually looking beyond the horizon, around the corner — creating the "next big thing" to offer the consumer. With every new service that cable makes available to its customers, the learning curve begins again, creating new marketing and education challenges.

At every juncture, the Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing has been there, with its clear and compelling commitment to the development of consumer marketing excellence. This year, CTAM is celebrating its 25th anniversary. As chair of the CTAM Educational Foundation and a long-time CTAM member and supporter, I am proud of the role that CTAM has played in our industry during those many years.

Char Beales, CTAM president and CEO, and the visionary behind the CTAM Educational Foundation, has worked with almost missionary zeal to put the consumer at the center of our technology-driven industry. CTAM's belief in the centrality of marketing education has changed the orientation of our entire business. We are all smarter marketers, managers and entrepreneurs because of CTAM's varied efforts and we can be very proud of what's been accomplished under their auspices.

A key element of success is education. Thanks to the hard work of the CTAM Educational Foundation, a record number of cable executives gathered at the Harvard Business School in Cambridge, Mass., a couple of weeks ago to undertake a rigorous, five-day marketing curriculum. Now in its fourth year, CTAM's Executive Management Program gave participants time out from the "day-to-day," and a rare opportunity to think deeply about the nuances of competitive marketing, new product introduction and corporate management.

Like the cable industry it serves, CTAM is focused on staying ahead of the curve. It is precisely the opportunities provided by CTAM — such as the Harvard program, progressive research, insightful publications and forward-thinking conferences — that will prepare us for the challenges of the next 25 years.

Today, we're in a new place. Cable operators and network programmers are in the driver's seat — delivering superior technology and the content of choice for consumers. We're no longer the underdogs, and if we play our cards right, we'll still be in the lead five or 25 years from now. Consumers will choose to spend their time with us, in ever-narrowing channels of interest — on-demand and personalized.

By continuing to put the consumer first, understanding their changing attitudes, providing smaller and smaller units of choice and recognizing the power of cable's digital gateway, we are on the brink of rewriting the rules in entertainment and media once again. As I see it, this is the next wave of cable innovation.

In this new era, context is the key and the digital gateway is the device of choice. It's easy to get lost in this world of infinite options, of 500 channels and 50 million Web sites. The way information and entertainment is organized — the ability to easily find, navigate and connect with cross-platform content and communities of like-minded media adventurers — will be just as vital as the quality of the content itself.

Who will help the consumer connect with this new world? If I am sure of one thing, it is that the future will be relationship-driven and that our companies — with CTAM's support — will play a leadership role in making consumers feel at home in a cross-platform world.

Cable has always had a thirst for invention. The industry itself was an initiative that seemed unlikely until people like Ralph Roberts, Charles Dolan and John Rigas saw virtue in the unproven. As the era of consumer choice dawned, these cable entrepreneurs knew that in order to succeed they had to consistently lead with products and services that benefited the customer. A dependable, clear picture; a variety of programming choices; brand options and community-driven content have proven to be vital consumer experiences.

Taking consumer choice to a higher level will be our next challenge — delving ever deeper into consumer interest with hundreds of cable channels, high-speed Internet access, telephone service, video-on-demand, interactive TV and the unlimited content and services that accompany them. The path won't always be smooth, but the final destination is not in doubt — at least, not to me. Successful companies and individuals will be those armed with the belief that great marketing and marketing education is intrinsic to the bottom line, that technology and society deeply affect each other, and that ultimately the consumer makes the final choice in everything.

I hope that when people look back 25 years from now they'll describe risk-taking as routine and consumer-centric business models as the norm. We'll all go into that future effectively by remembering the lessons of our shared history — that the rules are continually changing and that successful industries are the ones who seek out and embrace education and innovation as the only way to grow.