Hall of Fame Caliber Quips, Quotes From Big Night at Waldorf-Astoria

NEW YORK — Broadcasting and cable bigwigs filled the ballroom at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York last Monday night (Oct. 28), pressing the flesh between bites of lamb chops and coconut-encrusted lobster.

The event was the Hall of Fame of sister publication Broadcasting & Cable, where cable executives figured notably among those honored.

Tied for arguably the most entertaining acceptance speech were Steve Bornstein, CEO at NFL Network and former head of ESPN, and Tom Rogers, president and CEO of TiVo and formerly with NBC, where he got that company into the cable business while also being instrumental in securing passage of the deregulatory Cable Act in his spare time.

Bornstein told the story of hiring John Walsh to be managing editor of ESPN, a move that required firing his predecessor on the same day Walsh was coming to Bristol, Conn., to take over. An employee was dispatched to pick Walsh up at the Farmington, Conn., Marriott with the instructions that he should look for a man with white hair and a white beard; in fact, an albino.

Only problem was that the Marriott happened to be hosting the convention of the National Association for Albinism and Hypopigmentation, so the Marriott lobby was “crawling with albinos,” Bornstein said. Walsh was identified nonetheless, but the employee had to circle Bristol with Walsh in tow because his predecessor was nowhere to be found to be fired first.

It ultimately all worked out, Bornstein said. The punchline, or more like object lesson, was to do whatever it takes to hire the smartest, most motivated people, and then get out of the way.

At NFL Network, Bornstein said, the same applied. The common thread between the two, he said was that all the success was a direct reflection of total team effort.

The awards are given out in alphabetical order, so by the time it was Rogers’s turn he opened with the old saw about feeling like Zsa Zsa Gabor’s 10th husband. He knew what to do, he just wasn’t sure how to make it interesting. Nonetheless, Rogers managed to make it entertaining.

Rogers pointed out that when he was helping launch CNBC, NBC didn’t want the iconic Peacock associated with the cable brand. The response of the broadcast-centric company — now, ironically, the province of Comcast — was, “Are you frigging crazy?” Rogers said, adding that they hadn’t said “frigging.”

He said he went from helping cable undermine broadcast at NBC to TiVo, where he joked that it was kind of fun trying to destroy broadcasting and cable at the same time, then saying that, in fact, he was building partnerships with both, with the tagline, “The Hopper can suck it.”

New Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler was interviewed for the video that rolled before Rogers’s award; he praised the inductee for his work on the Cable Act and “establishing a new paradigm” for the industry.

Rogers said he was honored to have Wheeler say nice things about him. But he drew a groan from the Washington types in the audience when he added that being called smart in Washington was like being called the smartest guy on the Jerry Springer show.

Bill Goodwyn of Discovery Communications gets an honorable mention for his observation that, in the cable business, you can be dropping F bombs in negotiations one minute, and having dinner and a beer the next. He thanked the F-bomb-dropping, beer-drinking executives in the room who were there to support him.

Teamwork was one of the themes of the evening. It was cited by Comcast Cable president Neil Smit, a former lieutenant commander with a Navy Seal team, though one who had also once been a Dough Boy (as in the Pillsbury version; he dressed up as one when he worked for that company).

Smit said his Navy Seal training taught him it was all about the team, and that carried over to the people at Comcast, who he said were the core of his success.

HBO CEO Richard Plepler had had his eye on another individual honor. Plepler, an aspiring tennis pro in his youth who decided to pursue other interests after getting shellacked by one John McEnroe, said he had been hoping to make the Tennis Hall of Fame before the Mac attack, and was grateful he could qualify for at least one Hall. “Johnny Mac, wherever you are,” Plepler said, “eat your heart out.”

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.