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Field training pays off

George Bell lives in the volatile world of the broadband Internet business, but he's not easily rattled. That's because the president and CEO of Excite@Home had plenty of field training producing TV documentaries in some of the most remote areas of the real world.

After graduating from Harvard with an English degree in 1980, he aspired primarily to write. And from 1980 to 1985, he worked as head writer and producer of ABC's American Sportsman series and as head writer for ABC's Olympics coverage.

Over the next five years, his creative palette expanded considerably. Bell became an independent documentary producer for ABC, CBS, National Geographic and the Discovery Channel, scaling Mt. Everest and winning four Emmy Awards in the process.

He survived the crash of a Cessna in Africa's Ituri rain forest and was very nearly stranded in Borneo after shooting a piece about the descendants of the Dayak headhunters there. Lost in the Borneo jungle, Bell torched his production crew's jeep to burn a hole through the jungle canopy when they heard their rendezvous plane circling overhead.

It wasn't always life-threatening work, but it always required the ability to adapt quickly to circumstances. "I feel those years were the most relevant years, the most helpful years, to what I'm doing now," he says. "The circumstances that we were handed were very much like where we are now."

After pitching an idea for a documentary, getting a budget approved, flying a crew to a third-world country, Bell explains, he would find that the subject had disappeared. "Given how esoteric and remote some of the subject matters we were dealing with were, we often got to a place and found out the show we'd planned to shoot wasn't there anymore. The people had left, or the animal wasn't around, or the season had changed too quickly," he recalls. "We were always dealing with external elements beyond our control."

The dangers of the new-media environment aren't as dire, but he finds a similarity in the feelings they evoke. "Psychologically and emotionally, they do elicit the same sort of responses in me," he says. "It's that same sense of being off-balance and taking big risks, and feeling like you really don't have any idea what the outcome is going to be."

George Bell seems to thrive on that feeling of living on the edge. His most memorable experiences were the most remote ones, including two weeks tracking game with the pygmies of the Ituri.

He eventually opted for a more sedate setting with Times Mirror Magazines, in 1991 becoming editor-at-large to direct its multimedia efforts. By 1995, Bell was overseeing publication of six magazines, had helped launch a Field & Stream show on ESPN and had a hand in the creation of Web sites for Popular Science, Ski and Golf.

"I liked the idea of combining traditional brands in media and seeing what kind of weight they would carry in new media, and I enjoyed thinking of new combinations," he recalls. "But I didn't have any particular sense that the Internet was going to be huge."

Then the call came from Excite, and the charged atmosphere of the company drew him to take the job as chief executive. "I liked the passion and the enthusiasm and the nimbleness of a 20-person organization."

After four years of building Excite into one of the premier Internet portals, Bell helped negotiate the sale of the company to @Home, assuming his current role in the process. Now he's acutely aware of being in an even faster lane with a cable modem service passing 72 million households: "The stakes have gone up. We're in the middle of a distribution war."

Excite@Home's latest move in that war was a deal with DSL provider Rhythms to supplement its cable modem business. That came on the heels of a restructuring of its agreements with its MSO partners, extending its distribution deals with AT & T, Cox Communications and Comcast Corp. but including an option for Cox and Comcast to opt out of exclusivity with @Home in two years.

Bell seems unconcerned, confident that Excite@Home will triumph: "There's every reason to believe that, right now, we have and will have the largest broadband network."

And like a man familiar with the unknown, he sounds equally unfazed by the mid-April downturn in the stock market: "The market crashing sort of creates new freedoms. It allows you to get everyone in the company to focus on what the real value of the business is. In our case, it's the recurring revenue from all these subs."