How Cable Systems Touch Their Customers

Paul Sly, vice president of advertising sales at Charter Communications' Midwest division, can't remember the exact day last year when he got hooked on health. Maybe it was the day he read the Self
magazine article that called St. Louis one of America's unhealthiest cities.

Or maybe it was the Men's Fitness
magazine article that claimed St. Louis was America's fifth-fattest city. Or maybe it was the Men's Health
issue that ranked St. Louis No. 99 on a list of 100 cities in its annual health and fitness list—a decline from the city's dismal showing of 2002, when it was 90th.

The wave of bad publicity convinced him that it was time for St. Louis to shape up. He began a campaign to persuade the mayor of St. Louis and politicians in the surrounding suburbs to back a Charter-sponsored Hooked on Health initiative that would publicize and promote programs for fitness and better health. Sly says, "The mayor said this is great but wanted to know what it would cost him. I said nothing, and he said, 'Count me in.'"

Charter's local cable system promoted fitness programs on its channels with a 30-minute show. In January, it will launch a free health and fitness expo in partnership with a number of cable programmers and local businesses. Sly hopes to soon announce a partnership with a sponsor that will give out free devices to measure how much people walk. "We have a goal of getting people to walk 1 million miles," he says.

"Public service is part of the cost of doing business," says Dave Andersen, senior vice president of communications for Charter. Besides the fact that these efforts can curry favor with local officials who regulate cable franchises, "the organizations and individuals we help are also potential customers. The fact that we are in the local communities, employing people, paying local taxes and helping those communities gives us a real leg up on satellite providers that don't have that presence."

Many public-affairs programs revolve around local charities and volunteer efforts. In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, for example, Mediacom employees mow laws and paint houses for senior citizens, says John Koenberick, senior director of government relations, North Central Division. His company's extensive public-service programs include showing Little League games on local channels, providing free video and Internet services to almost 1,000 schools in Iowa, and promoting the Lighten Up Iowa wellness campaign and the Shoes That Fit donation program.

Cable One's Columbus, Miss., system is in the heart of Tornado Alley, notes Marketing Manager Sharon Burton. After the last twister, the system operator decided to provide free connections to enable police stations and firehouses to quickly get information about approaching storms.

Many systems also have found innovative ways to use their limited financial resources. Adelphia's local systems, for example, have been prohibited from making cash donations to charities since the system operator filed for bankruptcy protection. "It's been very challenging," admits Ida Tagliente, regional sales manager for sponsorships and events at Adelphia Southern California.

In her region, the company has worked hard to reach out to the Hispanic, Asian and gay communities. It helps promote community events and has employees and their families volunteer for such events as Orange County Paint Your Heart Out, in which volunteers paint and repair homes in poorer neighborhoods.

Many of cable's most successful public-service initiatives also leverage the industry's products and services. Early initiatives, such as C-SPAN, community-access channels and Cable in the Classroom, used cable systems to deliver educational and public-service video to homes, schools and libraries. In the 1990s, when the cable industry committed to wiring every school with Internet service, high-speed data joined the mix, and, in the past few years, operators have put increased emphasis on media literacy, helping parents and children better understand the potential benefits and problems of the broadband world.

In the New York City area, Cablevision works closely with the company's other divisions, particularly its professional basketball and hockey sports teams and the Madison Square Garden sports arena.

The cable operator's award-winning Power to Learn initiative was set up to wire public schools and libraries. It also provides extensive programs to teach parents and children how to take full advantage of broadband Internet access and educational programming, says Trent Anderson, vice president of the initiative.

Employees from the staff of 18 are assigned specific schools, and the program, which includes an online learning portal at, now serves about a half-million children in kindergarten through 12th grade.

Besides forming alliances with schools, libraries and programmers, Anderson and his team also take athletes from the N.Y. Knicks and Rangers to schools and sometimes reward schools that have done particularly well by providing free tickets to games at Madison Square Garden. In a good year for the teams, that's a real treat.