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Digital Leadership Awards: Microsoft's Blair Westlake

Microsoft has been angling for a position in the cable business ever since the company invested $1 billion in Comcast in 1997. After a few stumbles and failed attempts, it would appear the software giant has finally hit its stride and now stands poised to become a major player in the video delivery business, thanks in large part to the actions of Blair Westlake.

Westlake, who joined Microsoft in 2004 after more than 20 years in the entertainment business, including stints at Universal TV and Gemstar-TV, is being honored with a Digital Leadership Award at an opportune moment.

The software power made inroads into multichannel video via carriage deals with Comcast and Verizon that allow authenticated customers to receive programming through Microsoft’s Xbox360 gaming console. But the company’s biggest and most wide-reaching arrangement has resulted in the recent launch of service with Time Warner Cable, whose customers now have access to all of the MSO’s programming using the Xbox360.

“This was really the culmination of a track we have been on for the last three years,” Westlake said. “We long ago realized that there are 100 million TV households being served by multichannel service providers and that, at the end of the day, the vast majority of those people are going to get the vast majority of their video content through a device in their living room. So why reinvent the wheel? We have a significant number (78 million) of consoles in those same homes. The stage was set. We decided our Xbox was the best way for service providers to deliver TV Everywhere. Time Warner Cable was the first operator to offer the whole video package.”

The arrangement with Time Warner Cable demonstrates how multichannel distributors can eliminate the costs of multiple set-top boxes in the home and give customers more flexibility in their delivery mechanisms. Apps empower customers to self-install their programming lineup on the Xbox, which also reduces operator costs. And technological advancements of the XBox give customers more bells and whistles without costing an operator big bucks.

Westlake was originally trained to be a lawyer and was hired by Universal to oversee legal issues at the company's theme park in Orlando, Fla., in 1982. He later migrated to the home video business and worked his way up the corporate ladder to chairman of Universal Television and Networks Group in 1997. In 2001, he joined Gemstar-TV Guide as corporate vice president. Then, after a short stint consulting various media companies, he was lured to Microsoft to oversee the company's new media/entertainment/technology convergence group.

"I have always liked the idea of marrying technology with entertainment," he said. "It's been an interesting and winding road and I have enjoyed every minute of it."