Flourishing in Philly

As the president of the largest system division of an endlessly acquisitive cable operator, Comcast Corp.'s Mike Doyle should be accustomed to rapid change. In his 18 years at the Philadelphia-based MSO, he has helped iron out the many wrinkles that surfaced in the process of growing from a few hundred thousand subscribers to almost 8 million.

But the business to still tricky enough to amaze him. For years, Comcast pumped video down to people's homes. Now things come back up the pipe—first Web traffic and soon requests for video-on-demand. "All of a sudden, I'm in the computer business," he says.

"Sometimes my lack of understanding bothers me," he adds. "But then I realize that, if somebody looks at me and says, 'I get it,' then they probably don't understand anything at all."

The president of Comcast's Eastern Division understands plenty. With steadily increasing turf, he now has responsibility for a 3 million-subscriber portfolio covering Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey and Connecticut.

Doyle started out on the opposite side of the fence: a regulatory agency. Fresh out of college in 1976, he was hired by the New Jersey Department of Board of Public Utilities as a field investigator to respond to consumer complaints. In New Jersey, the BPU has almost as much power as city franchise officials in other states, so he saw the industry up close. Cable did not yet have a reputation for avaricious rate hikes and poor service, so regulators and operators were not as antagonistic as they are today. The BPU was intent on encouraging operators to wire New Jersey's suburbs and cities.

Doyle soon rose to a planning-coordinator slot.

"I was totally overwhelmed," he says. "I found myself in rooms with people who owned companies," such as TelePrompter founder Irving Kahn and Cablevision Systems Corp. Chairman Charles Dolan. "I was this 23-year-old kid trying to figure things out."

He figured out enough to go work for Times Mirror Cable, which had wired a sliver of Philadelphia. But given the difficulties of operating urban systems, the company didn't bid for other parts of the city when franchises became available.

In 1983, at a cable convention in Atlantic City, Doyle bumped into Comcast Chairman Ralph Roberts and the young general manager of Comcast's Trenton, N.J., system, Brian Roberts, Ralph's son and now president of the MSO. They needed a general manager for their 23,000-subscriber system in Philly suburb Willow Grove. The bad news: Ralph lived on the system and would see any problems. "We were in the fish bowl," Doyle says. Outages must have been rare, because Comcast has steadily promoted him ever since.

In recent months, Doyle's biggest task has been digesting acquisitions. Comcast executives have realized a long-held dream of dominating their home market. The company has acquired Lenfest Communications, the region's other major operator, and local systems owned by Adelphia Communications and AT&T Corp.

The MSO now controls 95% of the cable homes in Greater Philadelphia, a concentration that would have been unthinkable five years ago.

Those and other deals have doubled Doyle's portfolio to 3 million subscribers in 18 months. "Mike Doyle on his own would be the seventh-largest MSO," notes Comcast Cable President Steve Burke.

What of the future? Doyle is one of four peers reporting to Burke, all well-regarded. So he will have competition on any path higher in cable unit. But industry executives say Brian Roberts has his eye on AT&T's systems, assuming that company will leave the business before long. That would mean more systems to be reorganized.

Though declining to talk about AT&T or about anyone's promotion, Burke says Comcast expects to expand: "If we grow to 15 million or 20 million subscribers, there will be plenty more for Mike to do."